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The Unending Iranian Nuclear Crisis

Stanly Johny is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • July 25, 2008

    If anybody thought that a change of talk in the Bush administration’s Iran policy would be enough to induce the “isolated” Tehran to give up its intransigence and toe the western line, the July 19 meeting proved him or her wrong. Before the Geneva meeting between Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the US sent feelers to Tehran. In a clear indication that Washington was prepared to change its belligerent stand towards Tehran, the Bush administration announced that William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, would attend the meet. In addition, unconfirmed reports said the US was planning to open a diplomatic post in Tehran for the first time since relations were severed during the 444-day occupation of the American embassy in Tehran nearly three decades ago.

    Iran welcomed the developments and said it was ready for a “comprehensive agreement” with the five-plus-one powers (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany), which initiated the latest diplomatic push to find a breakthrough to the impasse over the Iranian nuclear issue. However, despite these goodwill gestures, the Geneva talks ended in another deadlock, thanks to the complexities of the proposal the six-power bloc laid down before Iran and the latter’s increasing inflexibility.

    The recent diplomatic initiative gained momentum as Solana, along with the representatives of the five countries (excluding the US) visited Tehran on June 14 with the incentive package that offered political and economic benefits to Iran. The proposal offered direct talks between the six-power bloc and Tehran but only if the Islamic Republic stops producing enriched uranium, which can be used to make electricity or fuel bombs. It also asked Iran to freeze further expansion of its enrichment activities for six months as a confidence building measure in return for the international community freezing its efforts to impose more sanctions on Iran during the same period.

    Iran has long made it clear that any precondition to the talks is not acceptable. Soon after Solana’s Tehran visit, President Mohammad Ahmadinejad said that his country was open for talks with the US and other powers, but would not change its nuclear policies. According to many analysts, Iran was responding to the West’s carrot-and-stick policy in the same coin. Tehran does not want to send a message to the outside world that it is weak and vulnerable to the American and Israeli pressure tactics. When Israel carried out a major military exercise in June, which many American officials said was a rehearsal for a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran responded in July with the test-firing of long-range Shahab-3 missiles which can hit Israel. The Islamic Republic has also carried out Prophet Mohammad III war games and reportedly given orders to soldiers to dig 320,000 graves in Iran’s border provinces, in which to bury the bodies of invading soldiers.

    General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, also threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz through which almost 40 per cent of the region’s oil flows, if Iran were attacked. In an apparent move to protect the oil installations in the Gulf in case of emergencies, the US, Britain and Bahrain jointly carried out a naval exercise codenamed ‘Operation Stake Net’. These war preparations and threats were going on at the same time when the Iranian diplomats were preparing a written response to the six-power group’s incentive package. Israeli commentator Uri Avnery calls it “psychological warfare”. He wrote recently that the war games and rhetoric could well be part of the strategies of both sides to increase their bargaining capacity in a possible diplomatic engagement.

    Iran also understands the complex dynamics in the region very well. It knows that its former President Mohammad Khatami suspended the country’s nuclear activities owing to the pressure of the West, but gained nothing in return. Unlike the Khatami era, today’s Iran is emerging as a regional power, thanks to the wars that the US and Israel have fought in the last few years. Today, when the US is bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Hezbollah has emerged more powerful in Lebanon after Israel’s 2006 summer attack, Iran’s regional importance is much higher. Also, record energy prices would force second thoughts before planning an offensive against the world’s second-largest oil producer.

    Ahmadinejad’s government has clearly indicated that it is willing for a diplomatic engagement, but not ready to give up the enrichment programme, which is a key bargaining chip in its talks with the West. The fact that Iran did not reject the latest proposal out of hand, like it did two years ago, demonstrates its willingness for talks. Besides, a powerful lobby within the Iranian establishment is increasingly critical of the way Ahmadinejad has handled the nuclear issue. This difference came into open when Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, publicly urged the government to accept the European package. In what was seen as an indirect attack on the president, he warned the Iranian leadership not to make provocative statements on the nuclear issue.

    So what is the outcome? Ahmadinejad is playing diplomacy without giving up his nuclear intransigence. The two-page note Iran circulated in the July 19 meeting, “The Modality for Comprehensive Negotiations (Non-Paper),” clearly underscores this stand. Iranian diplomats appear to be very cautious and optimistic while talking to the media, in sharp contrast to their president’s public speeches. After the Geneva talks, Saeed Jalili reiterated that his country was ready for a comprehensive agreement with the international community. But Iran’s letter does not address the key demand of the West – ending enrichment activities. Instead, Iran has proposed at least three more meetings with Solana and six more meetings at the foreign ministerial level, which would start with the halting of sanctions against Iran. The New York Times quoted an unnamed diplomatic source saying, “If you were to try to implement it, it would take minimum of several years.”

    Europe has asked Iran to respond to the “freeze-to-freeze” proposal in two weeks. Both the US and Britain have threatened more sanctions. Whether Iran would change its policy and accept the “freeze-to-freeze” proposal still remains unclear. Iran appears not to be in a mood to make concessions to the administration of President George Bush, though its quest for a diplomatic solution still remains strong. The two-page response indicates that Iran wants to buy more time, perhaps thinking that a new incumbent in the White House would be more flexible. One also has to wait for the official response of Russia and China, two powers which have resisted harsh sanctions against Iran, to the Geneva meeting. One thing is, however, clear. The Iranian nuclear crisis is unlikely to be resolved any time soon