Thursday, June 22, 2006

A third option on Tehran

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
jun 22,2006
--As the world awaits the Iranian response to the package of incentives by the so-called "5+1" nations consisting of the United Nations Permanent Five plus Germany, the air is filled with positive rhetoric that masks the underlying possibility of another historic missed opportunity - not only to end the nuclear row but also to renew the stalemated US-Iran diplomacy.

Thus Tehran and Washington have mirror-imaged each other by sending positive signals about real steps forward, improving climate and so on, with the Iranian foreign minister and US secretary of state setting the tone for meaningful negotiation down the road.

Iran has been given a tentative deadline of June 29 to respond to

the package of incentives put forward by the US, Russia, China, Britain and France, plus Germany, over Tehran's nuclear program.
President George W Bush himself, on the verge of his European tour, expressed guarded optimism about the chances for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, reiterating the US demand for a "full and verifiable" suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities as a precondition for the United States' willingness to join the direct talks with Iran.

Later, though, Bush said Iran faced the prospect of UN Security Council action and progressively stronger sanctions if it rejected the offer aimed at containing its nuclear program.

So after the soft words, Bush's ultimatum - of accepting the package or facing UN sanctions - was ill-timed and premature, potentially torpedoing the gradual buildup of favorable sentiments in Tehran. Call it a self-sabotage.

Thus Iran, while reportedly lowering its guard and showing some signs of a new willingness to curb its nuclear program, has flatly rejected the precondition on enrichment and has launched a vigorous diplomatic effort to cause a US change of mind.

The latter includes efforts with respect to the Non-Aligned Movement, which has expressed support for Iran's nuclear rights, as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is holding a summit of its foreign ministers in Baku, Azerbaijan, this week.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has been capitalizing on Islamist solidarity at this conference to enhance Iran's international alliance that would, Iran hopes, lean on the US to back down from its perceived unreasonable precondition for direct, multilateral dialogue with Tehran.

The support by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two strong US allies, is important, which is why Mottaki has met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, on the sidelines of the Baku conference, in light of Turkey's rather spirited engagement as an effective intermediary between the US and Iran.

As for Saudi Arabia, the recent visit to Tehran by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Feisal was also a minor turning point that benefits Iran's current diplomatic drive to pressure the US regarding its set preconditions.

Similarly, Iran has already expended considerable energy with other Arab nations by dispatching high-level officials to Egypt, Algeria and Kuwait, among other countries. Simultaneously, Iran has much benefited from President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's participation at the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), thus bolstering Iran's regional clout.

While the SCO did not induct Iran as full member, as expected by certain observers, nonetheless both Ahmadinejad's attendance and his "constructive" talks with Chinese and Russian leaders before and during the summit were positive developments that removed some of the lingering barriers to Iran's eventual inclusion.
This would be of some relief for the US, given Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's pre-summit campaign against Iran's inclusion, while admitting that the SCO was "excluding" the US from its vast territory.

All eyes are now set on next month's Group of Eight summit in Russia, which is hosted by President Vladimir Putin, who has made strong pro-Iran statements recently, together with his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Thus while Putin has expressed confidence about Iran's articulation of a viable response to the nuclear offer, Lavrov has flatly rejected the military option against Iran and, simultaneously, made clear that the Russian offer to produce nuclear fuel for Iran on Russian territory is "still on the table".

Meanwhile, Iran has announced a new date for the completion of the Russian-made Bushehr power plant: 2007. We shall see if the much-delayed power plant will meet the new dateline, or whether there will be more costly delays, as there have been over the past seven years.

Grand bargain or micro-strategies?
A "grand bargain" with Iran has now fully become the fairy-tale favorite of some leading Iran experts in the US. Harvard's Graham Allison initially articulated it in his book How to Stop Nuclear Terror a couple of years ago and has now been adopted by, among others, Flynt Leverett, a former White House aid. He penned in the New York Times that if only the US struck a grand bargain with Iran, everything would be cozy and that would ensure America's hegemony in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
Such happy prognostications fall by the wayside, however, the moment one delves into the specifics of the "grand bargain" theory and notice the shell of meaning beneath the fancy facade. A main problem with this theory is that it is thick on vague promises of future harmony between the intrusive superpower and the assertive, and still revolutionary, regional power, betraying a bit of naive theoretical atrophy by its bundle of empiricism.

Forget grand bargain and all that naive idealism. What is required on the United States' part is prudent micro-strategies that selectively target specific problems with Iran for timely improvement, incrementally and step by step, while adopting relevant lessons from Cold War history, within limits of course, given the uniqueness of Islamist Iran's position and its structural conflict with the US.

The third option
Between such flights of fancy as the grand bargain and the two opposing options of full suspension and no suspension, there is a third, and hitherto unexplored, option based on the United States' own experiment with the standby option at its large Portsmouth enrichment facility.

Although the Iranian and US contexts are different - for example, the Portsmouth plant is a gaseous diffusion enrichment plant, whereas the Natanz facility in Iran operates older-model centrifuges - there are sufficient similarities that can be applied.

The US Department of Energy shut down the Portsmouth plant in 2000, while keeping portions of the enrichment cascades operating in a "recycle mode", buffering all of the cells with dry air and conducting surveillance and maintenance. The cold standby mode ended after five years, costing the government a hefty bill of $370 million.

As with the US plant, the Natanz facility could be put in cold standby, at least for the duration of the proposed multilateral talks, whereby a monitored program would be put in place that would include the replacement of any components that degraded during shutdown. It would also include regular maintenance and surveillance of the facility.

The advantage of the standby option is that it addresses Iran's concerns about both equipment decay and preserving jobs for its nuclear scientists, while simultaneously providing a nuclear comfort zone for negotiations. For one thing, it would protect Iran's decision-makers from the perception of having caved in to outside pressure.

In implementing this option, Iranians would need technical support, and indeed there is no reason why the US, which has offered nuclear assistance to Iran, should not do so right away by teaching Iran how to put its enrichment facility on cold standby - for example, how to pump dry air into the cascades to ensure that damp air would not get in and cause corrosion. Also, the US could provide assistance in the area of nuclear-waste management.

In short, the standby option offers the best means for a verifiable pause in Iran's uranium-enrichment operations while keeping its capabilities for the future.

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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