Upgrade or Downgrade? Iran's Options vis-a-vis the Nuclear Deadline
By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D
A clue to the contradictions of Iranian diplomacy; yesterday just as Iran's envoy to the UN atomic agency was informing the world of Iran's intention to reduce its cooperation, at the UN a different cord was being struck by the Foreign Minister assuring the world's leaders that "Iran's cooperation with the IAEA is active, upgrading and transparent." The question is, of course, which side will have the upper hands by the end of October set as the deadline by the IAEA for Iran to prove its nuclear intentions?
For now, at least, the seemingly contradictory reaction by Iran is neither irrational nor counter-productive, given the complex requirements of a fluid response to a "quasi crisis," to quote another foreign minister official, generated by the September 12th resolution of the Governing Board of the IAEA. Yet, this may well degenerate into a full-scale crisis if the combined responses of Iran do not measure up to a prudent policy satisfying the demand levels touching on power, prestige, sovereignty, and other key variables of Iranian foreign policy and if, instead, reflect a schizoid, bifurcated approach devoid of coherence and internal unity.
By all indications, part of the problem stems from Iran's domestic politics featuring divergent nuclear aspirations, with the moderates keen on limiting Iran to peaceful nuclear technology and some of their hard-line opponents seeking to telescope the nuclear buildup to weapons technology, citing regional proliferation and the national security needs of Iran, such as with respect to the value of a nuclear deterrence of the U.S. power breathing monster-like at Iran's neck at all fronts. To his credit, President Khatami has taken a lead in reiterating Iran's peaceful intentions with the nuclear know-how and in disavowing the nuclear weapons as "amoral." The pro-Khatami factions including in the Majlis have similarly called on the government to sign the IAEA's Additional Protocol which calls for more intrusive inspections. They are opposed, however, by an array of hawkish voices who have demanded Iran's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and or significant reduction in cooperation with the IAEA.
While the Iranian hawks' prescription for action has been dismissed by certain pundits as excessive or illogical, it is not without legitimacy however, notwithstanding the importance of standing up to the U.S.'s manipulation of the IAEA and the nuclear double standards that ignores proliferation in other parts of the Middle East and seeks to deprive Iran of even peaceful nuclear reactors. Indeed, what a sad spectacle that while the Bush Administration has aggressively pursued the proliferation of a new generation of nuclear weapons, contrary to the U.S.'s NPT commitments, at the UN today President Bush could self-deludingly call on the UN "to criminalize the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction" through a new Security Council resolution! But, of course, this is not an administration even slightly bothered by its accumulation of distorted facts and "a disgraceful record" to paraphrase a recent blistering criticism by the Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy, who called Bush's Iraq policy "adrift" and accused Bush of squandering over one billion dollars a month in bribing other countries to contribute troops to Iraq.
Hence, short of compromising its power and prestige, Iran cannot succumb to the IAEA's pressure, for to do so would set a negative light on Iran as a weak country allowing itself to be subjected to superpower manipulation of a UN agency. A dosage of anti-IAEA reaction is therefore called for and absolutely necessary, in the light of the IAEA's own admission that Iran as of late had increased its cooperation with the Agency. A concerted effort to expose the incoherence of the IAEA's Iran approach and the politics behind it is therefore necessary, which must be in tandem with the carrot approach of continuing negotiations with the IAEA officials and the use of third party intermediaries to reach a compromise.
Doubtless, the danger of not reaching a compromise is that in November the IAEA may follow-up with another resolution declaring Iran to be in material breach of its NPT obligations and turn over the matter to the UN Security Council. Here, it is important to bear in mind that in the case of North Korea and its decision to exit the NPT, the Security Council did not impose any sanctions and limited itself to a regretful rhetoric. It is not far-fetched to think that similarly in Iran's case, the Security Council may fall short of a collective sanctions regime if Russia and France do not follow the U.S.'s lead. Even Great Britain may be hesitant in pushing for an aggressive anti-Iran initiative at the Security Council for a variety of reasons including the following: (a) this may further jeopardize London's carefully-cultivated ties with Iran over the past several years and represent a setback to Tony Blair's embattled government whose Middle East policy is under serious scrutiny at home and abroad; (b) given the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the world is unwilling to accommodate Bush-Blair against Iran short of solid evidence of proliferation; and (c) already several British politicians including from within the government are openly accusing Blair of catering to Israel's Sharon.
Consequently, it is far from clear that a mixed, intransigent yet accommodationist reaction by Iran, which falls short of appeasing the IAEA's demands and yet shows signs of greater nuclear transparency, is bound to fail. The political moderates of Iran have adopted a one-dimensional reaction that is far too conciliatory and below the radar of Iran's national interests. They fail to see the shortcomings of their initial reaction, typified by the Majlis Deputy from Tehran, Elaheh Koolaee, a dear friend of this author, who on September 13th implicitly blamed the government for the IAEA resolution by not signing the additional protocol. Conspicuously absent in MP Koolaee's statements were any criticisms of the IAEA and the U.S.'s intense lobbying of its governing board prior to their September meeting.
On the other hand, the problem with the hard-liners' reaction is that they often seem unable to look ahead and calculate the various collateral damage of their hawkish position with respect to, among others, future of Russia-Iran nuclear cooperation, and economic trade with the European Union (EU), notwithstanding the Russian's postponement of export of nuclear fuel for Iran's Bushehr power plant and the EU's explicit linkage of Iran's nuclear transparency with its trade with Iran. A purely hawkish response is anathema, therefore, to Iran's ties to both Russia as well as the EU, and a middle ground must be surveyed which can somehow patch up the difference with the IAEA without introducing serious compromises of Iran's national security interests.
It is noteworthy that the Bush Administration is actively seeking to exploit the nuclear row to its advantage, seeing how in his UN speech Mr. Bush referred to "outlaw states" seeking weapons of mass destruction and the need to keep these weapons "out of the hands of our common enemies." As a prelude to his upcoming summit with Russia's Putin, President Bush is clearly trying to paint (a nuclear) Iran as a potential threat to Russia, just as his aides have recently emphasized the threat of Iran's missiles "reaching Europe."
Defiantly, however, Iran has escalated the "quasi crisis" by displaying its modern weapons including its Shahab long-range missiles, vesting its hope on the role of hard power in softening the emerging tough stance of Europe, Israel, and others vis-a-vis Iran.
This is an apt strategy that is in full correspondence with the dictates of national security interests and likely important as background factors in the current discussions with the European Union and its constituent member states, who need to be reminded of Iran's legitimate grievance that its constructive role in Afghanistan and Iraq has gone under-appreciated and that, as a result, the balance may soon tip in favor of the hard-liners in Iran advising a more belligerent, even bellicose, policy in the region; certainly, so far Iran has behaved cautiously and responsibly which can no longer be taken for granted, as Iran may well revert to a hawkish spoiler role in both Iraq and Afghanistan, namely, to deepen the quagmire for the U.S. one way or another.
The spoiler role of Iran is deeply connected to the question of Iran-U.S. relations currently experiencing one of its darkest chapters since the 1979 revolution. There are serious limitations on the Bush Administration with respect to an aggressive anti-Iran policy by this Administration, which, in turn, provide certain leeway to Iran's foreign policymakers in devising their Iraq, and U.S., policies. Indeed, how far is the Bush Administration willing to go in order to prevent Iran's alleged nuclear proliferation? Is it willing to follow Israel's push for a preemptive strike on Iran at a time when even the U.N. Secretary General has openly questioned the doctrine of "preemption?" And hasn't this Administration undermined the rule of international law more than any other U.S. president in recent memory?
The limits of U.S.'s policy toward Iran cannot be overlooked, some of which are superimposed by Iran's own regional clout, such as its spheres of influence inside Iraq and Afghanistan, nor should even the Russians ever overlook the fact that they have much benefited from Islamic Iran's status quo role in Central Asia and even in Russia's own Islamic enclaves plagued with a growing problem of Islamic insurgency. Surely Iran has no intention of appeasing the U.S.'s wish of persuading Russia that Iran represents a "common enemy," but one cannot be indifferent in Iran to Russia's occasional proclivity to bargain with the U.S. over Iran. Either cooperation with Iran is of strategic value and interest to Russia, as repeatedly admitted to by Putin and his men, or not, and if it is, then Iran has every expectation that Russia fulfills its prior nuclear commitments to Iran, above all, the timely completion of the Bushehr power plant the signing of the accord on the return of spent nuclear fuel to Russia.
What must Iran do then? Here are some suggestions:
1. For now, Iran must pursue the present course of action which is best described as a mixed reaction, ranging from outright defiance to threat of exiting the NPT to signs of conciliation and compromise. Yet, any excessive compromise, such as pledging to sign the additional protocol without forcing the IAEA to backtrack on its deadline is contrary to Iran's national interests. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes, and the EU and the world community should clearly understand Iran's legitimate misgivings about the latest IAEA resolution on Iran.
2. Article 22 of the IAEA-Iran Agreement calls for an "arbitral tribunal" in times of dispute between the two sides, and this avenue should be explored in order to reach a compromised solution.
3. Depending on the degree and scope of Iran's alleged proliferation, i.e., if Iran is indeed in the late stage of nuclear weapons build up as claimed by a recent LA Times report (June 4, 2003), then Iran may have no option but to turn a blind eye to IAEA's pressure, for to do so would be tantamount to squandering untold sum of money, of the nation's wealth, spent on the nuclear technology, perhaps amounting to several billions of dollars. As a result, if the outside world is genuinely interested in steering Iran away from the nuclear buildup, an economic quid pro quo is necessary, perhaps by the easing or lifting of the U.S.'s economic sanctions on Iran and assurances of technical support by the IAEA to Iran's peaceful nuclear program.
4. A more active European policy is needed, and this is where President Khatami can be instrumental by, among others, use of telephone diplomacy and even a trip, e.g., he could take up Switzerland's long-standing invitation and once there reiterate Iran's nuclear policy.
5. Assuming safely that Iran is currently at a critical threshold on the verge of crossing the cross-roads to nuclear weapons or peaceful technology, Iran can still reroute its energy, sign the additional protocol, upgrade its cooperation with the IAEA and show greater nuclear transparency, and thus neutralize or minimize the collateral damage to its foreign policy interests. Yet, as stated above, there are serious side-effects, with respect to the external perception of Iran's power as well as the domestic calculation of the damage to Iran's prestige if perceived as accommodating itself to U.S. and Israel's machinations behind the IAEA's deadline, slowing the bridge to cooperation. For now, that is between now and the October deadline, the two halves of this 'London bridge' better continue moving in contrary directions. http://www.payvand.com/news/03/sep/1148.html