Sunday, July 02, 2006

In Tehran, things just got more complex

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

"nuclear iran"--Iran is promising a quick response to an offer of incentives in return for suspending it nuclear program, specifically its uranium-enrichment activities, but the process of decision-making in Iran requires a consensual decision that may be hard to achieve in light of the institutional complexities of the Islamic Republic.

The latest news from Tehran on the foreign-policy front is the formation of a new council on foreign affairs headed by the former foreign minister, Kemal Kharrazi, and inclusive of, among others, Kharrazi's predecessor, Ali Akbar Velayati, as well as heads of military forces.

The new council was created to help the process of decision-making on foreign issues, along with the Foreign Ministry, the

Supreme National Security Council and the (quasi-legislative) Expediency Council. Also, mention must be made of the parliament (majlis), which has an oversight function per the articles of the Islamic constitution.

The resurfacing of the cautious Kharrazi after nearly a year of public hiatus may be interpreted as a good omen in terms of the moderate drift of Iran's foreign policy, which will likely influence the current debates on the nuclear question toward compromise rather than confrontation.

But there is now the danger of "bureaucratic muddling through" of the nuclear decision-making, as the various inputs from different institutions within the government bring forth an even more complicated process aimed at balancing the multiple vested interests, above all the national-security apparatuses of the state.

The latter by all accounts have gained new prominence within the Islamic Republic since the events of September 11, 2001, and, more recently, over fears and concerns of a US and/or Israeli invasion of Iran, notwithstanding the occasional Washington leaks of clandestine activities inside Iran, particularly among the country's ethnic populations.

As Madeleine Albright, US secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration, has pointed out, Iran's national-security concerns have greatly increased since the US invasion of neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet Albright's point about Iran's determined quest for nuclear weapons in response to these developments misses one crucial point - the old rationale of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is now gone. And that is a major national-security blessing that operates against the discourses in favor of proliferation.

Those discourses, more and more openly articulated by certain clerics from the holy city of Qom, often fail to contextualize the issue of regional proliferation and the net benefits to Iran by forcefully pushing for a Persian Gulf nuclear-free zone.

Currently, there is lively debate in policy circles in Iran on the merits as well as pros and cons of adopting the notion of a Persian Gulf nuclear-free zone, as a subset of the Middle East nuclear-free zone. Chances are that in the near future, as an expression of its regionalist orientation, Iran may bandwagon with the Gulf Cooperation Council and adopt this notion as a pillar of its foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the problem of bureaucratic decision-making on the nuclear question is partly internal, connected to the spirit of political factionalism and institutional diversity of the government, as much as to the external pressures and inputs.

Consequently, it is sheer error on the part of Western governments and their army of Iran experts to attribute Iran's delayed response to the nuclear package as "foot-dragging", since this interpretation overlooks the complexities of decision-making in a political system where no one wants to be blamed in the future for a major foreign-policy blunder, in light of the serious stakes in the ongoing nuclear row.

Ultimately, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, makes the final decision, and for now he has opted against direct dialogue with the United States on the nuclear issue, while leaving open the door for negotiation on "controls, verification, and guarantees". By contrast, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wants direct talks with Washington.

Though the six-party talks in Beijing with the Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States have failed to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, such negotiations have more legitimacy under those circumstances than they would with Iran.

The US lacks legitimacy, as it may have with North Korea in light of its 37,000 buffer forces on the Korean Peninsula, to seek North Korea-style multilateral talks with Iran.

Indeed, a North Korea analogy to Iran doesn't work, though the US media in particular have been helplessly infected by it, especially in light of recent rumors of secret military ties between Pyongyang and Tehran. But whatever the nature of their relations, comparisons between their two situations don't hold water, for several reasons.

First, unlike North Korea, which has legitimate national-security concerns with respect to the United States and South Korea, Iran does not face quite the same predicament, irrespective of US force presence in Iran's vicinity.

Second, whereas North Korea is openly proliferating and boasting about its program, Iran has formally renounced nuclear weapons on religious and national-security grounds and has neither exited the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty nor terminated its safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finally, North Korea is a hermetic, reclusive Stalinist fortress compared with the somewhat pluralistic Islamic polity in Iran.

False analogies often lead to false expectations and policy decisions, which is why the sooner the deluge of comparisons of Iran and North Korea stop the better.

That aside, at this point one wonders what Iran's counter-offer to the package of incentives will look like. Will it be primarily accommodationist or not? Will it be creative enough to take advantage of the plethora of incentives offered by the so-called 5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia and China - plus Germany), or will it be hostage to the bureaucratic process of foreign decision-making?

We will know the answer before the summer is over, that is for sure.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi is a political scientist and author of books and articles on Iran's foreign affairs. His writings have appeared in, among others, Harvard Theological Review, UN Chronicle, Middle East Journal, Mediterranean Affairs, Global Dialogue, New York Times, Der Tagesspeigel, and International Herald Tribune. His latest article is "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs (Summer 2005). 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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