Friday, June 02, 2006

Rabbit and carrot: US turns the tables on Iran

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
jun 3,2006
nuclear iran-The United States has pulled a rabbit out of its nearly empty diplomatic hat by offering direct talks with Iran - a superb maneuver that almost instantly turns the tables on Tehran by putting it on the defensive.

The pitch is nearly perfect, that is, that the White House is "bowing to pressure" by offering direct talks with the defiant Iranians, to quote the Financial Times, which, like most of the mainstream Western media, spun the development as a sign of "patient US diplomacy".

Thus two cheers for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for reportedly winning over the anti-talk forces in the Defense Department and within the White House. Soft power over hard power, persuasive diplomacy over the art of war. Or is it?

The Iranian reaction, as expected, was to welcome the offer but

reject the precondition set by Rice and President George W Bush, that Iran suspend all uranium-enrichment-related activities.

If the US was serious about its sudden new desire to engage Iran directly over the nuclear row, then the requested precondition should have been viewed as a potential outcome of the talks, and not their precondition. Consequently, unless the White House relents on this particular demand, there is little prospect of any direct US-Iran dialogue any time soon.

Perhaps coincidentally, the US offer to talk came on the eve of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany saying they had agreed on a package of incentives intended to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran.

Few details of the agreement were released, with the countries saying that the negotiators wanted to present the package to Iran before making it public. It is known, though, that the package shelved any punitive action by the United Nations Security Council until Iran had time to respond to the proposals, within a time frame of a few weeks.

On the positive side, the Americans' stated willingness to join the so-called European Three (EU-3 - Germany, Britain and France) and shun any unilateral initiative with regard to Iran is a good omen for multilateralism, particularly if the real intention is genuine and not pseudo-multilateralism.

In a sense, the US has in the past few years been a quasi-participant in the EU-3 talks over Iran's nuclear program, given that the European foreign ministers frequently visited Iran in 2004 and consulted with then-secretary of state Colin Powell between sessions.

Indeed, the stage has been set for some time for direct US involvement in the nuclear talks. This is just as much by the persistent manner in which US diplomats have weighed on their European counterparts in terms of formulating the mixed "carrot and stick" approach, as well as in switching "good cop, bad cop" roles.

But with mounting pressure on the Bush administration to push the envelope of diplomacy and refrain from premature military action, in light of the unforeseeable dire consequences for global peace and stability, the White House's announcement of offering direct talks with Iran, several weeks after receiving President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's letter offering to talk, was hardly surprising.

Yet what is surprising is the deep well of negatives that soaks this announcement, bound to aggravate the anti-American mood in some Iranian corners, as well as the naive assumption that the mere offer of talks would somehow persuade Iran to shelve its nuclear program.

Hardly anyone familiar with the world of diplomacy expects that, and if the US insists on this rather unreasonable demand, the net result will be further escalation of the nuclear standoff, given Bush's blunt threat of UN sanctions if Iran refused the offer.

The talk offer is, therefore, best interpreted as a tactical move intended to pave the road to Security Council action, the likely US assumption being that in response to Iran's rejection of conditional talks, its next move in the Security Council will have a better chance of converting the Russians and Chinese into allies.

Said otherwise, the United States' calculation that Iran will not suspend its nuclear activities, as demanded, will deny Russian and Chinese diplomats their hitherto sound justification not to follow the road to sanctions. Thus the US offer for talks is geared less to solicit a positive answer from Iran than toward the expected positive reaction from Moscow and Beijing in the aftermath of a failed attempt at direct diplomacy.

The real litmus test of US multilateralism toward Iran will be over the Iranian response to the latest package of incentives to be offered to Tehran.

What this package may or may not contain is, of course, of highest importance, which is why European diplomats have exercised extreme caution not to have it leaked to the press.

A clue, though, was given by Rice, who cited "beneficial" rewards, such as "trade and investment", hinting at the United States' willingness to drop some of its sanctions against Iran in return for Iran's willingness to stop its nuclear drive.

Iran's options
Iran appears set on its present course of gradually mastering an independent nuclear-fuel cycle no matter what the threats or incentives. But this does not by definition preclude the option of a mini-return to the past, that is, the Paris Agreement, which stipulated that the Iranian suspension of enrichment activities would continue as long as talks with the EU-3 were ongoing.

Another option would be to put Iran's centrifuges on "cold standby", and then engage in direct talks. This would have the distinct advantage of not appearing as a concession to the US. The fact that there are reportedly technical problems with the centrifuge operations, per a recent article in the New York Times, adds weight to this option to give diplomacy a real chance in the face of a crisis that has been spiraling down a very dangerous path.

On the other hand, if Iran rejects the US offer for talks and the European package altogether, it will almost certainly lose the battle for world public opinion, and that is a hefty price it can ill afford.

After all, the non-aligned countries have thrown their weight behind Iran's nuclear rights, this after much diplomatic energy and expenditure by Iran - praised even by Iran's critics in the Western media. Yet the new US move has the ability to knock down this diplomacy if Tehran takes rash missteps instead of prudent counter-moves.

With the ball thrown back in Iran's court, the burden is on its diplomats to devise a concerted effort that acts in anticipation of the next two or three moves by the US and its allies, within a coherent strategic whole.

Iran has a tendency to trade diplomacy with rhetoric, and there are political limits to its nuclear flexibility. The latter is, however, a double-edged sword, given that any future sanctions would hit many Iranians in the pocket and thus add to political turmoil at home.

All in all, the United States' shrewd maneuver has opened a new window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution of the crisis, irrespective of the tactical nature of the move, due to its implications for global multilateralism. And the fact that only half a window is open does not by itself mean it is a dead end.

Rather, the fear of unwanted consequences by both sides is a primary motive for seizing on the opportunity of this crisis to create a real way of finding a way for the Islamic Republic and the US to get along together. The only trouble is that there are other, conflicting motivations that impede this force.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk

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, and Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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