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US, Iran, the Nuclear Bomb and Negotiations

By Reza Ghorashi

1- Introduction. Concern about Iran's nuclear plans has reached a new height. Officials in the US and other countries frequently have made it clear that a "nuclear" Iran is "dangerous" and "unacceptable." Iran has been threatened by the US and European countries with all sorts of sanctions and even hints of military "actions." How serious is the situation? Why has the Iranian government engaged itself in such a high-risk policy? What are the consequences for US-Iran relations and the issue of democracy in Iran?

2- Why Tension? Tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the US could be attributed to three sources. At the most general it is about Iran's resentment to US's role as the lone superpower. This was intensified with the Bush administration's increased "unilateralist" stands under pretext of fighting terrorism. Due to the difference in the power and influence of the two sides, the confrontation here is more rhetoric than substance. The real competition for the US, as the lone super power, comes from likes of France, Germany, Russia, and China. It is, however, much less costly to get into a verbal confrontation with Iran than those others.

The second source is regional issues. Here there are some serious differences, most notably Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and "rejectionist" Palestinians. Here too, the tension is not as high as the two sides pretend. Iran is unable and unwilling to provide Palestinian rejectionists with enough of material support and resources to make a real difference. More important, Iran and the US have many common interests in the region. They have cooperated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The "Great Satan" has removed Islamic Republic's two most notorious enemies: Saddam and Taliban! A glance at the region's map indicates that Iran is potentially the best "natural" ally of the US. It borders northern shores of The Persian Gulf and southern shores of Caspian Sea, two of the world's hottest spots of the 21st Century. Most of the Middle East and Central Asia could be accessed directly from Iran. It would have been much easier and less costly to send US troops to Afghanistan via Iran. It is only 60 miles (of paved road) from Iran's border to Baghdad, the shortest distance from any of Iraq's neighbors! In addition to its large market, as a central hop Iran would be an ideal location for American companies who want to do business in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why all these actual and potential benefits have not forced the two sides to improve their relations. In a nutshell; it is due to domestic politics in both countries and the influence of third parties that will lose as a result of such improved relations.

The third, and most contentious raw between the Islamic Republic and the US government is about Iran's nuclear program. To begin with, it is not clear how serious the Islamic Republic is in it's attempts to acquire the ability to make an atomic bomb.

3- Khatami's Side. At first glance it seems, like many other issues, here too the Khatami's camp ("reformers") and the "hard-liners" are in disagreement. Khatami's side insists they have no "nuclear" ambitions. Presumably all they want is assurances that signing the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP) entitles Iran to the benefits of it. Signatories to the NTP and the AP should have access to the available nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. In a number of ways, including economic sanctions imposed by the US, Iran is denied such access. This is a valid point at surface but does not explain extensive secret sites built by the Khatami government! It may not have nuclear ambitions but they see little harm and much benefit in following this policy. The associated risk is worth it if they can get some concessions; ultimately making the Bush administration to repeal the US imposed sanctions. Equally significant in their calculations are domestic politics. They don't want to be accused of being too "soft." To explain this we need to look at the "hard-liners" position.

4- The Hard-liners. On August 7 Mr. Khamanei, the Supreme leader, said Iran has no plans to build a nuclear weapon. Presumably this should put an end to the debate because the "hard-liners" will follow him. But it is doubtful if this is the end of it. Hard-line elements, particularly in the Revolutionary Guards and armed forces, want the bomb. Two of Iran's immediate neighbors (Russia and Pakistan) have it. Three others (China, India, and Israel) are in a very short distance. Two others (the US and the UK) are present in the region in a variety of ways and are very threatening. Hard-liners' determination to acquire nuclear weapons has intensified since the invasion of Iraq. However, for them too, domestic politics is an important factor to consider.

5- Domestic Politics. Both factions of the Islamic Republic are suffering from lack of legitimacy and public support, that during the past few months, has reached a new low. Being "anti-imperialist" and standing firm against the US, whom they accuse of instigating the recent student uprisings, would go a long way to satisfy their limited constituency. They can easily expose the hypocrisy and the double standard of US's position. They argue that the US is the only country that has ever used the nuclear weapons against civilians and owns more of them than anyone else does. The same Bush administration that is debating renewal of nuclear testing and introduction of new "mini-nukes" for offensive purposes, is asking Iran to join a treaty that itself has not joined! While their is pressure on Iran, not a word is being said about Israel's atomic arsenal, and practically all sanctions against Pakistan have been dropped. Hollywood couldn't write a better script!

Desperate for a "diversion" from recent student demonstrations and many signs of public's dissatisfaction with all of its factions, the Islamic Republic has found its nuclear program an appealing distraction.

6- The Real Issue. This is not to suggest that there aren't other, more important motives for Islamic Republic to pursue its nuclear plan. Both factions believe nuclear weapons are the best deterrent against external threats, most notably the US and Israel. They know there is a cost associated with it and they are willing to pay, but they may disagree on the price. Hard-liners put a lower value on international relations and are more eager to pursue the plan. "Reformists" value these relations, particularly to the EU. But they both want to get as close to having the bomb or the ability to build it as possible. In fact it would not be far fetched to assume that some of the above-mentioned disagreements are nothing but a "good cop, bad cop" ploy. Despite their many differences, both factions are "rational" enough to realize they have a common interest in the survival of the Islamic Republic. Nuclear weapons are very powerful deterrents against external threat to this survival. It is crucial, however, to note that both factions are also willing to negotiate if the price is right, but they differ on the right price.

7- What the hard-liners want? The hard-liners, with little control over "elected" offices and less public support, are weary of democratic movement in Iran. They value a promise of "non-intervention" the most. They want a free hand in the brutal suppression of the democratic movement and continuation of the current policy of containing their "reformist" counterparts in a box. They prefer secret, unofficial channels of communication. Mr. Rafsanjani, the former president and current head of the Expediency Council, has been the mastermind of such negotiations. It started from candidate Ronald Reagan on not releasing American hostages until after the US Presidential elections, continued in 'Iran Contra," and up to now. The last known round took place last year via Mr. Rezaie, the Secretary of the Expediency Council. These negotiations have sacrificed Iran's genuine national interests in many ways. In a real democracy Mr. Rafsanjani and his agents would be put on trial for treason. Nothing good will come for the people of Iran and the prospect for democracy from such negotiations. All freedom loving people, and Iranian-Americans in particular, should oppose such negotiations by all means.

8- The "reformists" are in favor of formal, albeit secret negotiations between the "official" of the two governments. That means they, and not the hard-liners, would sit on the table. Suppression of democratic movement in Iran may not be on top of their agenda, but it is up there as well. Would they be willing to accept some democratic reforms if the reward is the normalization of relations between the two countries? It is unlikely but worth the try. The benefit of this approach is not a change of heart by Mr. Khatami and his allies, it is to show their short-comings. A formal round of negotiations with an agenda that in addition to the nuclear program and economic sanctions, clearly include issues of human rights and democracy in Iran, may be a good first step. But would the Bush administration negotiate?

9- The Negotiations. It seems the Bush administration is of two minds when it comes to negotiation with the Islamic republic. Mr. Powell and the State department are in favor of negotiations. Donald Rumsfeld and other "hard-liners' prefer a confrontational approach. On August 8, Mr. Rumsfeld was forced to admit that there has been contact with some "elements" about exploring possibilities of "regime change" in Iran. Accordingly, this was more than a year ago and has stopped since. Mr. Powell and his approach must consider such admission as a victory. The likelihood of negotiations is higher now than anytime since declaring the Islamic Republic one of the Axes of Evil.

It would be unreasonable to expect any US administration, particularly the current one, to be genuinely concerned about human rights and democracy in another country. Their references to such issues are usually as part of a bigger picture that serves other policy goals. Indeed it could be argued that these administrations prefer to negotiate with autocratic regimes with little domestic support. It is much easier to get concessions from them. A good example was the case of elected parliament in Turkey that refused to permit the US military to use its land in the war against Saddam Hussein. Such refusal would be very unlikely in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and other similar countries. Pressure by their constituency, however, may force the Bush administration and Congress to insist on including issues of human rights and democracy in their communications with the Islamic Republic authorities. It is again primarily up to the Iranian-American community to mobilize to put pressure on the administration and Congress.

About the author:
Dr. Reza Ghorashi is a professor of political economy at Stockton College of New Jersey. In addition to economics, he teaches courses on the Middle East and Iran.

* The author would like to thank Mr. Nader Soltanpour from the Persian Voice radio in Toronto, Canada.

... Payvand News - 8/12/03 ... --

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