Friday, June 09, 2006

Approach reversed

While Washington has scored its first points on Tehran in the diplomatic war of tactics, Iran remains well positioned, at least for now, writes Mustafa El-Labbad


nuclear iran-In a sudden about face on the Iranian nuclear issue, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that her government would hold talks with Iran if Iran called a complete halt to its uranium enrichment operations before talks began. Washington, in other words, has deftly turned the tables on Tehran. Now the former appears flexible and keen to reach a peaceful solution whereas the latter appears headstrong and bent on confrontation. Within minutes of Rice's announcement, Manouchehr Mottaki, her Iranian counterpart, turned down the American offer on the grounds that it contained conditions that touched upon Iran's non-negotiable national rights.

Over the past five months the neoconservative administration in the US has been hinting strongly at the possibility of a military strike against Iran. The unsubstantiated charges made it all the easier for Iran to rack up propaganda and diplomatic points against Washington, whose repeated sabre rattling against Iran confirmed the opinion of many that this administration only understands the language of intimidation and warfare. Indeed, world capitals and research centres began to think that a strike against Iran was no longer a question of "if", but "when". The US, however, has been unable to act on its threats, so bogged down is it in the Iraq quagmire and in domestic crises, so eventually the world grew bored of its pantomime.

The latest initiative, therefore, helped revive some of the shattered credibility of this administration, which had routinely turned its nose up at various appeals issued by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chief Mohamed Al-Baradei, along with Washington's European allies, to hold direct talks with Iran. Europe, which took few pains to conceal its distaste for Washington's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue, had long been pressing for a less acrimonious way to resolve the problem. Rather than threats, Europe envisioned a package of economic and technological enticements to lure Iran into halting its uranium enrichment programme. The European package, however, fell short of the political and regional assurances that Iran sought, and for the simple reason that these were not Europe's to offer but rather Washington's, if it wanted to end the crisis.

Unfortunately, at that stage Washington did not, as a result of which the Europeans remained stuck uncomfortably in the middle, unable to agree with Iran because they were suspicious of its aims and unable to agree with Washington because they were suspicious of its methods. Simultaneously, the Europeans were growing increasingly frustrated with Washington's tactic of undermining every European effort to help reach an accommodation with Iran. Perhaps, therefore, it was fortunate that there were not just two or three parties to the Iranian crisis, but the other permanent members of the Security Council as well. Moscow and Beijing's stances on the Iranian nuclear issue were at an even greater remove from Washington's than Europe's. The Iranians adroitly manoeuvred between these parties, modulating its reactions towards each of them.

The Bush administration's "initiative" is an admission of failure of its earlier aggressive approach. However, the announcement also has broader ramifications. It implies that the Bush administration has finally recognised that there are more subtle ways of handling international crises than talking tough, and that one of these is to use diplomatic initiatives to pull the rug out from under the tactics of the opponent. State Department strategists knew that officials in Tehran, who have long been expressing their desire to talk directly with Washington, would turn down the American agreement to talk on the condition that Tehran halt its enrichment of uranium in advance. Although Iran has been manoeuvring to get the US to agree to talks in order to obtain political recognition as a regional power from the US and economic and technological advantages from Europe, it was holding any agreement to halt uranium enrichment as the "reward" it would offer in exchange for all of this. Iranians were not about to jettison their major bargaining chip before entering into talks.

In making an offer that it knew Iranian officials would refuse, the Bush administration scored its first diplomatic points against Iran since the Iranian nuclear crisis erupted in the middle of last year. However, Washington's tactic was not just aimed at Iran. In fact, it might more properly be regarded as aimed at Moscow and Beijing against the backdrop of Security Council talks over economic sanctions against Iran and the wording of a resolution that would invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter. While at this juncture Moscow needs less persuading than Beijing, it still only takes one permanent Security Council member to put paid to a resolution. And Washington wants a resolution. If it can succeed in getting one -- even one worded more mildly than it would like -- this would reduce the status of Iran to a state facing international penalties and would enhance Washington's prospects of obtaining tougher resolutions in the future. At that point, whatever legal arguments Iran has in its favour -- such as the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes as stipulated by the IAEA Charter and even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- will count for nothing. The ground will have shifted and the focus will not be Iran's rights but the extent to which it responds to the provisions of Security Council resolutions. This is precisely the corner into which the US has been trying to drive Iran.

While the US administration appears to be following a somewhat more realistic and pragmatic tack, the game is far from over yet. As important and significant as the American "initiative" is, it is unlikely that this single stroke will enable the US to recover all the ground that it has lost over recent months. In addition, if the two sides ever do sit down and talk, they are far from an even match as far as their negotiating skills are concerned. After all, the arts of bartering and haggling over prices has never been a strength of George "Dubya" and his administration, whereas anyone who has ever visited a carpet bazaar in Iran knows that these are arts in which Iranians excel. On the whole, therefore, the score is still in Tehran's favour.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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