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The Not so Diplomatic Turn: The Continued Frailty of Iran-US relations and the Possibility of War

By Sadegh Kabeer


Last week Iran responded to the latest European proposal regarding its controversial nuclear program. The so-called "Iran Six" were however neither amused, nor heartened by the proposal's apparent "ambiguity" or deafening silence regarding the demand that Iran cease it enrichment activities. Such ambiguity has not been received in the spirit of Kissingerian 'constructive ambiguity', whereby intractable sticking points are glossed over in a bid to further diplomatic progress and make negotiators lives slightly easier, but instead as effrontery and as a fundamental lack of will on the Iranian side. Tehran thus far has been non-committal vis-à-vis the offer of a six week long "freeze-for-freeze" deal which would see Iran temporarily halt its nuclear program while negotiations putatively ensued with the aim of finding a lasting solution to the nuclear dispute. As a quid pro quo, western states led by the US would hold off on pressing for a fourth round of sanctions.


Hawks in both Washington and Tel Aviv have for some time been calling for a series of 'targeted air strikes' against Iranian nuclear facilities but also Revolutionary Guard positions in and around the country. Proponents of a unilateral attack claim Iran is less than two years away from achieving a nuclear weapons capability; that Iran is stirring up trouble in Iraq and fomenting unrest and providing succor to Iraqi insurgents. With more than a tad of irony it appears that Iran has emerged as Washington and Tel Aviv's 'Great Satan'; the puppet-master pulling all the strings and responsible for every act of malfeasance not matter how big or small. Shaul Mofaz, the current Israeli deputy prime minister, transport minister and Kadima Party leadership contender, has gone so far as to dub Iran the "root of all evil". Sober and dispassionate talk, the very kind which makes diplomacy and negotiation possible seems to be in short supply.  


The minor diplomatic steps hitherto taken have been attacked and railed against by prominent hawks in both the American and Israeli foreign policy establishments. One time American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has been amongst the most gun-ho in calling for military action against Iran and never seems to tire of saber-rattling and finger waging. He has been consistent in lambasting Washington's diplomatic efforts at every possibly turn. Most recently in a fiery and highly dubious article in the Wall Street Journal, While Diplomats Dither, Iran Builds Nukes.


The pages of the New York Times have also been littered with calls for an attack on Iran before the hour glass is spent. A ticking time bomb scenario is carefully crafted and presented in which an attack isn't deemed desirable, but necessary to prevent a wave of death and destruction of untold magnitude further down the line.


Amongst the most ominous was an op-ed entitled Using Bombs to Stave off War by reputed "new" Israeli historian Benny Morris who argued in what can only be described as a torrent of fear-mongering and a transparent effort at justifying unilateral military action against Iran by the US and Israel, that a nuclear strike against Tehran might become necessary if Iran's nuclear facilities were not bombed in the coming months. 


A recent report published by the Institute for Science and International Security states that even in the event of an attack it would unlikely succeed in definitively crippling Iran's nuclear program. Hence on the basis of Morris' logic Iran would need to bombed and then inevitably nuked at a later date because of the assured failure of the initial bombing campaign! The complete disregard for the human cost of such man-made destruction is frighteningly cast aside without a second thought; Morris in his benevolence however does at least concede that Iranians would prefer not to see their country turned into a "nuclear wasteland".


Finally, Daniel Pipes, a leading neoconservative has also openly called on the Bush administration to support of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a cultish, schizophrenic and dictatorial organization which is featured on the US State Department's very own list of foreign terrorist organizations. Pipes and other neoconservative-minded Iran commentators such as Patrick Clawson at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, harbor the belief that the MEK will be able to provide reams of intelligence and sow the seeds of anarchy and chaos that will precipitate the collapse of the clerical regime. They maintain this, despite the low regard in which the MEK is held inside Iran itself. Many Iranians even view the organization as culpable of treason because it allied itself with the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).


According to veteran journalist Seymour Hersh, Bush has already signed a Presidential Finding, authorizing up to $400 million to fund armed groups such as the MEK, Balochi Jundollah, Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) and Arab separatists in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Whether this will metamorphose into a full-blown American attack in coordination with such groups looks unlikely. Washington is playing more a game of tit-for-tat, keeping the Iranian government busy with quelling internal dissent so it has less time and resources to further amplify its very real reach inside Iraq and Afghanistan.


Though oil prices have dropped in recent weeks and at the time of writing this article stand at some $115 per barrel (09/08/08); they have been forecast to skyrocket to at least $500 per barrel in the advent of a military strike against Iran. Oil prices in concert with an already marked economic downturn might well spark a meltdown of global proportions, which at least for the moment the Bush administration is unwilling to risk. Experts say that $500 per barrel could quite easily be surpassed if Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz through which some 40% of the world's oil travels. The Strait forms part of Iranian territorial waters and Tehran could ensure its closure in the event of an US attack with relative ease.


It is this looming possibility which has caused Washington to temporarily soften its position and tame the trigger-happy element held up in vice-president Cheney's office. This new sense of caution (though we should be careful not to overstate it) also owes something to what Tom Engelhardt has fittingly called the ascendancy of the "adults in the room". Figures such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and even Condi Rice have managed to enter the breach and deter Bush from unthinkingly pursuing the line expounded by the hardline Cheney faction.


A fundamental change in relations and détente is not in offing any time soon and many commentators have prematurely jumped the gun as a result of Under Secretary of State, William J. Burns, presence at the recent talks in Geneva and the announcement of a US interests section possibly opening in Tehran (the US and Iran haven't had official diplomatic relations since the 1979 revolution).


A number of Iran analysts and acute observers have already suggested that forgoing enrichment constituted a red line as far as the Iranians were concerned and it seems they have been proven right. The International Herald Tribune recently featured an op-ed by Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council and Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation in which they argued that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and not the Washington-led consensus should act as the sole criterion by which Iran's compliance or non-compliance with its international obligations vis-à-vis its nuclear program are evaluated.


Tehran is adamant on protecting its rights as enshrined in Article IV of the NPT and at least for the time being remains unwilling to bow to international pressure. The reasons why are fairly straightforward:


1) Iran previously suspended uranium enrichment between late 2003 and mid-2005, to allow for negotiations with the European Union. No tangible benefits were accrued and Tehran's program was merely retarded as a result. Dr. Akbar Etemad who previously ran the Shah's nuclear program pointedly told Time that the last freeze yielded "nothing" and even added that 'with its bellicose behavior the West is pushing Iran towards nuclear weapons, even if they don't want them now". Present Iranian leaders view the whole matter in a similar light and see little incentive for Iranian leaders to repeat what they see as an exercise in futility.


2) Tehran is counting on Beijing and Moscow to 'impede' the imposition of further sanctions due to the close political and economic ties Tehran enjoys with them. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, director of Global Interfaith Peace, has pointed out that trade talks continue to progress between Moscow and Iran with little fear evinced by the Russians about the impact of damaging sanctions. Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, has also in effect undermined the supposed 'unified front' conjured up by the US and Britain by opining that there's no consensus regarding a fourth round of sanctions.


3) According to analysts, Iran's relations with the IAEA are improving and lingering issues have been resolved. The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) deputy director, Ollie Heinonen's recent trip to Tehran has been interpreted as confirming the alleviation of prior tensions. 


4) The nuclear program is a symbol of national pride. Despite the Iranian public's many issues and internal struggle with its theocratic and authoritarian government there is overwhelming support for the pursuit of a peaceful nuclear energy program. According to a 2006 World Public Opinion poll 9 out of 10 Iranians reckon it "important" for Iran to have a full-fuel-cycle program. Though sanctions are certainly beginning to pinch, as anyone who has recently been to Tehran can tell you, such sentiment is unlikely to change significantly; if anything, the perception of 'western bullying" only goes to consolidate it.


In short, Tehran will continue to refuse to forgo its right to uranium enrichment and the Bush administration despite the very loud protestations of hawks will continue along the path of 'aggressive diplomacy' i.e. more sanctions in a bid to break the back of the Islamic republic. The possibility of full-blown military conflict remains real, but is presently tempered by energy prices and the global economic downturn. Rapprochement however is a distant prospect and the NPT remains the only genuine alternative by means of which a resolution to the ongoing crisis can be found.


About the author: Sadegh Kabeer is an Iranian student due to start his PhD in Politics and International Relations focusing on the Middle East, specifically Iran. He has  previously worked as a journalist in the Middle East and blog at

... Payvand News - 08/14/08 ... --

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