Global Policy Forum

Incoherence Stymies US's Iran Policy


By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi*

Asia Times
November 16, 2006

Next week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will once again address the issue of Iran's nuclear program and, in light of the growing impasse at the United Nations Security Council over a draft sanctions resolution on Iran, a new window of opportunity to relieve the council of this unwanted pressure and to tackle it at the atomic-watchdog agency has now emerged.

On Tuesday, the IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei submitted a new, brief report on Iran, reiterating the absence of any evidence of military diversion, calling for Iran's re-adoption of the intrusive Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, again, complaining of Iran's inadequate transparency and the need to resolve certain outstanding questions.

In response, Iran's representative at the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has insisted that the "remaining" issues can be resolved if Iran's file is brought back from the Security Council, urging the governing board of the IAEA to stand up to the US lobbying aimed at denying the agency's technical support for Iran's heavy-water reactor in Arak. According to Soltanieh, the Arak reactor under construction, which will serve entirely peaceful pharmaceutical purposes, is one of 12 nuclear projects for which Iran is eligible for the IAEA's help and yet the only one that the US is pressuring the IAEA to deprive of assistance. Meanwhile, there are reports of the IAEA finding traces of plutonium and highly enriched uranium at an Iranian waste facility. This is acting as a fresh log in the furnace of US accusations against Iran.

Back at the Security Council, US Ambassador John Bolton has publicly scolded Russia for substantially weakening a draft resolution calling for mild sanctions on Iran for its defiance of the UN's call to halt enrichment-related activities. The draft, prepared by the European Troika, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, calls for a ban on the sale of dangerous nuclear and missile technology, as well as a similar ban on the export of nuclear fuel to the Russian-made power plant in Bushehr. Russia successfully watered down the resolution, excluding any references to Bushehr, thus making it unacceptable to the US and its European allies.

Behind Russia's amendments

Time and again, Russian officials have justified their opposition to any sanctions on Iran by referring to the absence of corroborating evidence regarding Iran's proliferation of nuclear weapons. Case in point, on October 31 Russia's national security secretary stated: "Russia has no information indicating that Iran is pursuing a non-peaceful program."

Last week, returning upbeat from a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his chief advisers in Moscow, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, told the Iranian press that Russia supports Iran's nuclear stance and has promised not to back down from pushing for serious revisions in the draft resolution. "We will revise our relations with the IAEA if the UN adopts the European Troika's resolution that will not take into account amendments proposed by Russia," Larijani has warned.

Russia's proposed amendments contain several key components. Per the words of Sergei Kislyak, a Russian deputy foreign minister, they are "aimed at backing negotiations on the resolution, with there being no alternatives". First, Russia wants a refocus of priorities, "with the emphasis placed on tangible problems identified by the IAEA", to quote Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Second, Russia wants "clear time limits" for the punitive measures and, fourth, a "mechanism for lifting these measures".

According to Lavrov, the main problem with the draft resolution is that it "extends beyond the framework of agreements" by the so-called 5+1 (the Security Council's permanent five members plus Germany), and for seeking measures that are not "appropriate to the actual threat". Consequently, Russia has sought to introduce major loopholes in the draft's call for a ban on nuclear and technological cooperation with Iran, defending its planned completion of Bushehr power plant by arguing, in the words of Lavrov: "Bushehr is not so much a commercial as a political project ... [it] serves as an anchor bringing Iran under the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime ... Until the resolution on Iran is agreed upon, we will not take any steps to modify the plans of our cooperation with Iran ... These plans ... do not upset the balance of forces in the region."

Clearly, the implicit message behind such official declarations in Moscow is that Kremlin is wary of any side-effects due to the proposed sanctions, such as a substantial weakening of Iran, an anchor of deterrence vis-a-vis US power in the region. As a result, it is almost a sure bet that Moscow will not heed President George W Bush's recent call for "international isolation" of Iran, which Bush made after meeting Israel's embattled prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has publicly called for instilling "new fears in Iran".

Israel's new offensive against Iran

Unlike Russia, Israel has no doubt about Iran's nuclear intentions and has begun a new, spirited public relations offensive against Iran, which it brands as "Islamo-fascist" and bent on the "existential destruction" of the State of Israel. Thus, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh stated that the Israel Defense Forces "must be ready to stop Iran at all costs".

While somewhat distancing himself from Sneh's inflammatory statement, Olmert in his week-long visit to the US has prioritized Iran's nuclear threat, telling his US audience that Tehran's goal is to "ultimately wipe Israel off the map" and "the whole world has to join forces in order to stop it". Seeking Arab sympathy for his anti-Iran stance, Olmert has cleverly hinted that he is now serious about peace with the Palestinians, this despite a horrific episode of shelling civilians in Gaza on the eve of his trip. Iran has reacted angrily to Israel's blunt threats, and Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has lodged a complaint against Israel with the UN's secretary general, calling Israel's actions a threat to international peace and security.

President Bush, on the other hand, has echoed the sentiment of his Israeli visitor by calling for "international isolation" of Iran and adding that "one source of isolation would be economic". As a clue to the incoherence of US foreign policy, only hours earlier, Bush had hosted a meeting at the White House with the members of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which it is expected will advise a strategy of "engaging" with Iran. Unable to jettison its one-sided, pro-Israel orientation in favor of a more balanced approach, the Bush administration is today caught in the crossfire of paradoxical preferences, in light of the defeat of the Republican Party in the mid-term elections by the Democrats, who are now poised to take control of Congress.

Foreseeing a sea change in the United States' Middle East policy, Olmert's visit has clearly taken the wind out of the Democrats' sails, given his blunt portrayal of US policy in Iraq as a "success". In fact, Olmert has no notion of any defeat and has also branded Israel's recent military gambit in Lebanon a "success", his reasoning being that the Lebanese army and an international force are now in southern Lebanon acting as buffer between Israel and Hezbollah. What, then, are Israel's intentions vis-a-vis Iran? Is Israel on the verge of going it solo against Iran's nuclear facilities, now that it has considerably less fear of a Hezbollah backlash? And what about Iran's backlash in other parts of the Middle East, above all Iraq?

Ironically, Olmert's campaign tour against Iran comes at a time when the US public has grown completely disillusioned with Bush's cowboy diplomacy and seeks a softer approach abroad, reflected in Donald Rumsfeld's replacement with a new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, known as an advocate of a "talk to Iran" policy, decried as outright "appeasement" by the Israeli leaders and their lobbyists in Washington. Too bad for Olmert, Gates and his former colleagues at the ISG are not alone and have found a powerful new ally in Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair.

Washington and London: Parting ways

In his video teleconferencing with the ISG, Blair has reportedly emphasized the need to engage Iran and Syria over Iraq, which will no doubt hearten the relatively moderate US officials, particularly in the Department of State, who favor comprehensive dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The latter include a veteran diplomat, James Jeffrey, who has recently told the British Broadcasting Corp that the US has no problem with the existence of the Islamic Republic.

Blair's advice has not gone unheeded in Tehran, which has recently gone out of its way to show its preparedness to engage in direct dialogue with the US. Yet in spite of the positive signs by Ambassador Jeffrey cited above, the US government appears caught between the Scylla of its Iraq policy requiring engagement with Iran and the Charybdis of its Israeli policy nullifying that desire in the direction of confrontation. While the ultimate direction of this policy flux is yet to be determined, what is clear is the sign of a parting of ways between Washington and its closest European ally.

"There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran. First, those two countries do not at all share identical interests. But in any event that is not where we start. On the contrary, we start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core." Such a powerful and categorical statement by Blair must have jolted Washington's pro-Israel forces, who have been trying in vain to frame the conflict in terms of "war on terror", with Israel as America's staunch ally against the rogue states of Iran and Syria.

Offering a "new partnership" with Iran, Blair, notorious for his sudden flip-flops, may not remain consistent on his new, bold statements on the Middle East, but for now at least he has opened a whole brand-new vista for the Western approach toward the Middle East hitherto clogged up under the Bush administration. Without doubt, the success of this new realism on Blair's part depends on no small measure on Iran's willingness to reciprocate by moderating its stance.

Need for Iran's policy adjustment

For its part, Tehran is beginning to show signs of a serious debate on its foreign policies and priorities, including the thorny subject of foreign occupation of Iraq. Whereas Iran's leaders have repeatedly called for the immediate departure of US forces from Iraq, in the aftermath of the Democrats' electoral victory and their call for a "phased withdrawal" from Iraq, suddenly a great deal of disquiet about the unwanted consequences of such a possibility can be heard in Tehran, some going as far as openly pushing for a "delayed" departure in view of the security threats in Iraq.

While there is no question about the long-term Iranian desire for the complete departure of US forces from the region, in the short run this is held back by the growing realization that there is no alternative to US power and that Iraq will almost definitely break up to the detriment of Iran's Iraq policy; the latter has been identified, in the words of Larijani, in terms of "Iraq's national unity and territorial integration". Yet both pillars may vanish almost overnight in the aftermath of a US pullout.

Thus the need for a more nuanced foreign-policy balancing act on Iran's part, following the prescriptions of its national (security) interests. Until now Iran has too closely linked its Iraq policy with its nuclear policy, which may require a new adjustment should there be a firm US pledge of no invasion. Concerning the latter, Jeffrey has assured Iran that "we have no desire to invade Iran" and that if Iran cooperates with Iraq's stability, then the "150,000 soldiers will go back home" and will "maintain regional peace and stability".

In the same interview, Jeffrey also guaranteed that the US will "live up" to the agreement that it has signed on to with the 5+1 respecting an incentive package for Iran, exhorting Iran to "put us to the test". Iran should take up that challenge, deepen its cooperation on Iraq (and Afghanistan), and thus help stabilize a neighbor that is quickly drowning in the quagmire of deadly sectarian and ethnic warfare.

Perhaps Blair's interpretation is not so apt after all, and even a resolution of the Palestinian problem will not prove more than a panacea for the crisis in Iraq, which has its own set of root causes.

About the Author: Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent, Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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