Friday, June 23, 2006

Iran plays by its own rules

junne 24,2006

By M K Bhadrakumar

--For Iran, with its millennia of history as a civilization behind it, eight weeks mean nothing as a period of reflection. For the United States, with its compressed, intense history, one-sixth of a year is an awful long time.

This "clash of civilizations" over time and space colored the Iran-US discord this week. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, while addressing a small town audience in the western province of Hamedan on Wednesday, made a reference to the European Union package of "carrots" regarding Iran's nuclear program (specifically to get it to stop uranium-enrichment activities) awaiting consideration in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad said, "We will study the offer and, inshah Allah [God willing], will give our opinion at the end of the Mordad," the Iranian

month that ends on August 22. It was otherwise a speech that was heavily loaded with the topics of the day for a provincial audience - social justice, good governance, unemployment, fair distribution of resources among the provinces, and so on.

But it goes to the growing stature of Ahmadinejad on the world stage that within minutes or hours, what he said reached the ears of US President George W Bush, who was holding summit with EU leaders in Vienna's Hofburg Castle. Bush was not amused.

To quote media reports, Bush "made clear his patience was running short". Bush said, "It seems an awful long time for a reasonable proposal ... It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal ... I said weeks, not months."

As for the US offer to engage Iran in talks, Bush said, "We'll come to the table when they verifiably suspend. Period." (He was referring to the US demand that Iran must suspend all uranium-enrichment activities as a precondition for the commencement of talks.)

Ahmadinejad came to know of Bush's anger. On Thursday morning, while still in Hamedan, he took an early opportunity at an audience with war veterans and war widows to shrug off Bush's irritation. Ahmadinejad said, "Today certain bullying powers in the international arena seek to impose their wishes on our nation through force or threats of the use of force to deprive us of the benefits of modern technologies. It is our duty to thwart the goals of these bullying powers by maintaining our unity." The audience reportedly cheered the Iranian leader.

Evidently, word quickly spread about this sharp "exchange" between Ahmadinejad and Bush. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to soothe nerves. Coming out of a meeting in the Kremlin with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi (Italy, incidentally, is similarly placed as Russia in having extensive economic ties with Iran), Putin gently suggested that things were not after all that bad.

He said, "Our job is to use the negotiating process of the six nations and Iran to return the question [of Iran's nuclear program] to the framework of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. Judging from what we heard from our Iranian partners in Shanghai [on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on June 15], I think that is entirely possible."

Equally, at the end of the day, the joint EU-US summit declaration in Vienna seemed to visualize the prospects of a negotiated settlement of the Iran nuclear issue. It took note that EU-US cooperation over the past year on the matter had reached a "new level"; that the two sides had worked "closely together at every stage of the ongoing attempts to address the question"; and that the EU package offered a "basis for discussions with Iran" (emphasis added) and Iran had a genuine chance to reach a negotiated agreement.

Curiously, the statement made a distinction that the US (not the EU) is insisting on Iran resuming "full and verifiable suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities as required by the IAEA" before talks commenced. It went on to say, "If Iran decides not to engage in negotiations, further steps [will] be taken in the Security Council. We urge Iran to take the positive path."

The EU-US declaration was an exercise in brevity and masterly ambiguity. There was no word of any "sticks" such as sanctions or ultimatums; there was no time frame for Iran's response; it was unclear what form of response should be expected from Iran - should it be a "yes" or "no" reply or, if not, what else?

This comes amid reports that there is a new flexibility on the part of the US and EU regarding the so-called precondition that Iran should cease all uranium-enrichment activities. The New York Times reported last Saturday, quoting "diplomats involved in the talks", that the precondition need not be taken as "surgically precise" and had in fact become itself the "subject of anxious diplomacy ... a sort of pre-negotiation negotiation".

The report mentioned "signs of optimism and flexibility, suggesting that players on both sides are struggling to create momentum for talks by finding common ground ...The question is whether some low level of enrichment activity, couched as 'research', will be deemed permissible and whether the objections to such a move will yield to compromise."

Iran on its part is indeed in a conciliatory mood. Even after the latest Ahmadinejad-Bush exchange, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki seized the heights quickly by telling the media on Thursday in Baku, where he was attending the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) foreign ministers' meet, that "the important thing is the creation of a positive atmosphere".
He repeated that the EU package constituted a "step forward as compared to the ones proposed in previous years". He held out the assurance that Iran was studying the EU proposals "seriously and carefully" and indeed with a "positive viewpoint". He gently chided Bush for his petulance in demanding a time-bound response from Tehran - "we hope the disputes over the time factor would not further politicize the issue".

Mottaki made two important points. He stressed that "relying on strong political will, and the goodwill of all sides, the negotiations might be resumed without any preconditions, but in any such talks, Iran's right must be recognized on the one hand, and efforts aimed at strengthening the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] can be pursued on the other" (emphasis added).

Second, Mottaki pointed out that reaching a "consensus" with the West regarding the above parameters would have a salutary effect on peace and stability in the entire region, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iran is willing to "offer valuable assistance".

Thus what emerges is that Iran is likely to signal its readiness for negotiations provided Washington is prepared to obfuscate its "precondition"; Iran will respond only by the end of August at the earliest; Iran's response may well be in the nature of "counter-proposals"; pre-negotiations over negotiations are in effect under way; Iran is willing to widen the scope of discussions to go beyond the nuclear issue.

August for Iran
Washington is finding it extremely frustrating to come to terms with what is going on in the multipolar world. Ahmadinejad at one stroke has ensured that Bush will not carry the Iran file to the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg on July 15. So Bush must give up his original intention to sew up the next move on the Iran nuclear issue at the G8 summit - a prospect that, interestingly, also suits Moscow's priorities.

Iran seems to have concluded that it should not hurry with a response after carefully weighing its options. Interestingly, the Chinese spokesman at the SCO summit last week had forewarned, "I think they [Iran] might need more time. So we need to remain patient." Chinese President Hu Jintao had told Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of SCO that China hoped Iran would "earnestly study and respond positively" to the EU offer and that the critical point was to build mutual trust with the EU.

Hu assured Ahmadinejad that China understood Iran's concern over its right to the peaceful use of nuclear power, and that "China is ready to maintain close communications with Iran" and to play a "constructive role".

Again, Putin assessed his meeting with Ahmadinejad at Shanghai as "very positive". He said, "First, the Iranians have reacted positively to the proposals put forward by the six countries for ending the current crisis. Second, our Iranian partners are ready to begin negotiations. Third, I hope the Iranians will formulate their position regarding the time frame for the start of these negotiations in the nearest future."

As regards the time frame for the commencement of negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented on June 16, "Iran will soon announce the dates it'll propose for the talks. I think this is a very constructive response. It is, of course, tentative ... Iran is still only preparing its concrete reaction, including that on the time frame. We'll expect this encouraging news to be couched in concrete terms very soon."

The Bush administration is reconciling to Ahmadinejad's time frame. But what lies ahead is a lot tougher. Iran may also have to be allowed to enrich uranium for research purposes during IAEA inspections, provided Iran guarantees to the absence of military components in the program. Washington senses that there are very few takers in the international community for its insistence that Iran has no right to a nuclear cycle.

But the problem is that there is a deep divide within US opinion itself regarding Iran. Clearly, a military option is to be ruled out. Also, neither the US$75 million propaganda apparatus (approved by Congress) within the US State Department nor the Voice of America's Farsi-language broadcasts can be expected to provide a solution to the "Iran problem". The Bush administration is believed to be highly skeptical about the prospects of "regime change" through the activities of Iranian dissident groups, as they have no common agenda or political ideologies.

The only other option of attempting a "regime change" would be through US, British or Israeli intelligence fomenting subversive activities within Iran. Such covert operations are indeed going on, and may have even been intensified in the recent months. But it is a double-edged sword - and it can be used only sparingly and very judiciously.

The plain truth is that British soldiers deployed in Basra region have also begun taking retaliatory hits with greater frequency. Indeed, Iran can always teach the Israeli elements based in Iraqi Kurdistan a hard lesson or two. Besides, there is almost unlimited scope for Iran to turn the tables on the American or British troops inside Afghanistan, if it chooses to abandon its self-restraint, especially at a time when the Afghan resistance is steadily expanding into northern and western regions.

But at the same time, the option of eschewing these hostile policies and adopting a genuine course of normalization with Iran is also not going to be easy for the Bush administration. For one thing, there is a policy rift within the US administration.

Israeli leaders, according to reports, have asked US Jewish organizations to lower their profile on the Iran issue at the present juncture so as not to embarrass Bush. Israel has a lot to lose if it emerges that the Bush administration's policy toward Iran is motivated by a desire to protect Israel - an impression that inevitably leads the world attention all the way to Israel's own nuclear program.

It doesn't suit Israel and the Jewish organizations to be perceived as "the lobby for war with Iran". But this pragmatism does not mean that in actuality they have the stomach for the Bush administration's shift on direct talks with Iran.

But the pro-Israel neo-conservative analysts in the US, who have no such compulsions as Israel and the Jewish lobby, are loudly condemning the Bush administration's "softening" approach toward Iran. In the words of Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a former Pentagon official and a leading neo-con analyst, "The administration can't have it both ways. They can't embrace the regime and still talk about liberty for the Iranian people."

Rubin lambasted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying she "can spout whatever platitudes she wants to spout, but at this point, when it comes to liberty and freedom, she has no credibility".

At the same time, it is evident from the EU-US summit in Vienna on Wednesday that while trans-Atlantic relations have transformed in the past year or so, part of the reason for this is that Washington has moved closer to the EU on issues such as Iran - and not the other way around.

In fact, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel drew attention to this by describing the US move to drop its opposition to direct involvement in negotiations with Iran as a "historic signal" that helped foster EU-US cooperation. (Curiously, in European public opinion, according to a Financial Times/Harris poll conducted in five leading European countries last week, 36% of people considered the US the biggest threat to world stability - even ahead of Iran.)

Tehran's diplomatic campaign has been extremely successful in frustrating the US attempt to isolate Iran. Consider last week's score. The visitors to Tehran included Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi; the secretary general of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim; the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal; Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa; Syrian Defense Minister General Hassan Turkmani; Speaker of the Kazakh parliament Nurtai Abykayev; and a delegation from the British House of Commons.

This was also a week, incidentally, during which the OIC foreign ministers' meeting in Baku adopted a joint statement strongly supportive of Iran on the nuclear issue, and endorsed an Iranian proposal for hosting a conference of foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors in Tehran on July 17-18.

Without doubt, there was also enormous political symbolism in the offer made by visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Hu Jintao in Beijing on Tuesday that Afghanistan could act as a "bridge" connecting China and Iran.

And Iran has just begun playing its "energy card". Ahmadinejad significantly added to speculation regarding the likely formation of an alliance of gas-producing countries when he said in his speech at the SCO summit in Shanghai that energy coordination by the SCO countries could help "prevent the threats of domineering powers and their aggressive interference in global affairs".

He further told Putin that Russian-Iranian energy cooperation "could be even more productive if we cooperated in pricing gas and forming the main gas routes".

Putin said he supported the idea of a SCO "energy club" and joint Russian-Iranian projects. "Our companies are holding talks about pooling efforts in the oil and gas spheres," Putin said. Lavrov later stressed that such cooperation will increase. No one is talking about a "gas version of OPEC" (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) here - unless, of course, the US presses ahead with a common energy strategy with the EU, which seems unlikely.

But in principle, the creation of a gas cartel is within the realms of possibility, although what is in the pipeline as of now may be in the nature of development and supply coordination between Russia and Iran rather than a formal cartel.

Besides, according to a report from the Beijing Morning Post this week, China is embarking on the development of a pipeline system in Central Asia for transporting 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from Turkmenistan starting from 2009.

The pipeline will go through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The Chinese report says, "Fortunately, these two countries [Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan] also intend to export natural gas to China. Therefore, once the pipeline is built, the three countries can export natural gas to China simultaneously." What the report doesn't elaborate is that an extension of such a pipeline beyond Turkmenistan to Iran is completely feasible.

Energy politics involving Russia-Iran cooperation and the construction of a pipeline grid in Central Asia by China hold the potential to shift the global balance of power from West to East. How Tehran views these prospects finds its echo in the speech made by the hugely influential head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian majlis (parliament), Alaeddin Broujerdi, in Tehran on Wednesday.

Broujerdi undoubtedly spoke for the highest levels of Iran's religious leadership when he said, "We believe in understanding and a logical interaction with the world based on mutual interests ... [But] continuation of suspension [of uranium enrichment] will not be acceptable. Iran welcomes negotiations with no preconditions ... [But] we still have no confidence in the United States because, besides its historical hostility towards the Iranian people, it spares no efforts even now to put Iran under pressure. The US Congress has just presented a resolution banning gasoline export to Iran, which is a new step that reinforces our lack of confidence in the US ...

"As a great sovereign independent and influential country, Iran is now determined to play a historical role."

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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