Friday, June 09, 2006

A leap of faith for Iran and the US

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Jun 10, 2006
nuclear iran-This week has been widely described as one of the "best weeks" in US diplomacy under the current administration, in light of the latest package of "carrots and sticks" thrown at Iran by the big powers, eliciting a mildly positive first reaction by Tehran.

The big question is whether the mood of optimism will spill over to the following weeks or dry up like a meteor in the dark sky of global diplomacy on Iran's nuclear issue.

The package, details of which were disclosed by the American Broadcasting Co and confirmed by the Washington Post, is indeed the most general proposal yet put on the table. It is a comprehensive, multi-faceted package that nicely fits the description of a "grand bargain", in essence asking Iran to trade its current enrichment-related programs in exchange for nuclear

assistance, trade, economic and security incentives. It warns, on the other hand, that Iran's failure to accept the deal would implicate it in tough United Nations actions, such as a travel ban for Iranian officials, blockage of Iran's World Trade Organization entry, curbs on arms sales to Iran, etc.

According to Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, both sides in the nuclear row are now on the verge of an important crossroads. This is certainly true for Iran, which must weigh carefully the advantages and disadvantages for its national interests by its positive or negative response to the proposed carrot-and-stick approach. This includes the US offer of nuclear assistance, as reported in the Washington Post, which quoted US officials going even further and stating the United States' willingness to consider allowing enrichment of uranium by Iran on its own territory should it satisfy all the lingering concerns and assure the world of its benign nuclear intentions.

This is, without doubt, a major concession on the part of the administration of US President George W Bush, which had previously opposed even a single centrifuge spinning inside Iran. This news coincides with a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding Iran's relentless pursuit of the nuclear-fuel cycle. The IAEA's latest finding is yet another indication that Iran is unlikely to meet the outside demands to suspend fully its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities.

Javier Solana, the European Union's external-affairs chief, who delivered the package, has described his visit to Tehran as "very constructive" and has hinted that he may need to return to Iran for another round of consultations.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that the possibility for revising the Iran package is open, and British and French officials have similarly expressed guarded optimism.

A golden opportunity
The stalemated US-Iran relations now has been potentially given a new opportunity to awaken from more than a quarter of a century of slumber. The US has offered to lift its ban on the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts for Iran's aging fleet, among other things, and one could well witness the unblocking of Iran-US trade should the nuclear row be resolved.

All this depends, of course, on the trustworthiness of the US-led package, which in turn raises the question of how to assure Iranians that past episodes of broken promises will not happen again. What if the next US administration reneges on the commitments made to Iran by this administration?

After all, per the US-Iran Algiers Agreement of 1980, the United States has pledged not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, and yet today we are witnessing a most blatant piece of legislation pending in the US Congress, backed by the pro-Israel lobbyists. The Iran Freedom Support Act, a bill aimed at tightening US sanctions on Iran, has overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives, but must still be voted on in the Senate.

In other words, Iran cannot afford to be indifferent to the anti-Iran developments in the US Congress, which may culminate in a bifurcated US policy toward Iran, one by the White House and one by Congress.

Henceforth, it is vitally important that the US government speaks in one voice on Iran, thus putting to rest Iran's continued, history-fed misgivings about the package mentioned above.

The question of geopolitics
One of the complicating factors of the Iran nuclear crisis may be identified by future historians in terms of its timing in relation to the changing tectonics of geopolitics in the great landmass of Eurasia and beyond, in light of the upcoming summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Group of Eight (G8) countries in June and July respectively.

Chinese officials have made it official: Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been invited to the SCO summit next Thursday, roughly three weeks ahead of the G8 summit in St Petersburg, presided over by Russia.

Intent on strengthening the SCO as a viable political-military bloc, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now faced with one of the most complex challenges of his presidency, that is, how to take advantage of the West economically while looking eastward geostrategically.

According to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization understands the problems of its regions very well and is capable of solving them by itself." In other words, US power out, just as the SCO demanded the closing of US military bases in Central Asia at its summit last year. (The SCO comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

Consequently, Iran's inclusion (as well as that of other potential new members such as Ukraine, Belarus, Pakistan and India) would serve to bolster the Russia-China common cause to barricade geopolitically against US military intervention.

But not all is well within the SCO, and the current rift between Uzbekistan and (US-friendly) Kyrgyzstan is just one example of how things can go sour with respect to the SCO's rather grand security designs, above all its long-term vision for collective security. Even Kazakhstan, which participates in North Atlantic Treaty Organization programs, is not particularly inclined to emulate China and Russia with regard to US power or NATO, at least not under the present leadership.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the SCO's likely expansion and adoption of important decisions at its summit, including on new members such as Iran, will move the geopolitical tectonics a couple of tremors, and one wonders whether the new "soft power" approach by the US toward Iran has anything to do with this prospect, that is, as a preemptive counter-move, or has it been designed completely in isolation from these developments?

Iran's internal debates
The sheer depth and comprehensiveness of the nuclear package has clearly surprised Iran and will likely fuel the argument of political moderates who counsel a compromised solution to the dangerous crisis. With sufficient guarantees in a true multilateral framework, the incentives can make a meaningful and long-lasting effect on the Iranian economy, security calculations, and so on, warranting serious consideration by the political leaders.

As of this writing, Tehran's dailies and the official and semi-official blogs have provided little commentary on the package, to which Iran has been given "a few weeks" to respond. Most comment is self-limited to carefully calibrated responses by a few key officials. Given Russia's and China's endorsement of this package, and Lavrov's warning that Russia may back sanctions if Iran is found in violation of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran may lose the support of Moscow and Beijing if it flatly rejects the package.

What may happen, alternatively, is Iran's willingness to re-suspend centrifuge operations for the duration of coming talks featuring the US alongside the EU-3 (France, Britain and Germany). This alternative has been vigorously pushed by Solana, and there are rudimentary signs of an Iranian willingness to accept it. Of course, it is perfectly possible that such signs will get buried by an avalanche of negative second thoughts that would place the singular emphasis on Iran's right to produce nuclear fuel independently.

A good many Iranians are, on the other hand, beginning to question the wisdom of risking "practically everything" for the sake of nuclear technology, and the tide of public opinion may be shifting in favor of a compromised formula as well. All in all, the underlying ground for the new optimism is hardening.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review. He is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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