Last Chance for Diplomacy?

NEW DELHI – After a toughening of postures by the Western powers, reflected in a vote against Iran a fortnight ago at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Moscow meeting can still work to avoid taking Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council.

The present window of opportunity might slam shut with the next meeting of the IAEA board of governors on Mar. 6, at which, the IAEA’s director-general is expected to submit a report on Iran.

If diplomacy fails, the United States might be tempted to try a military option with or without Israel’s collaboration — ith potentially serious consequences.

”The likely effects of a military operation against Iran will be nothing short of catastrophic for the whole of the Middle East,” says Achin Vanaik, professor of international studies and global politics at Delhi University. ”There will be a virtual conflagration in the Muslim world. Besides, Iran’s nuclear pursuits are unlikely to permanently ended.”

As the Moscow meeting approaches, Tehran has sent out positive signals of a conciliatory approach. On Thursday, it announced that it has not actively started uranium enrichment at Natanz. It has only injected a small quantity of uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges but it has not begun operating or even testing them.

Besides, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Gholamreza Aghazadeh underscored that the cameras installed by IAEA inspectors, under the ‘additional protocol’ still remain in place. Following the Feb. 4 vote in Vienna, Iran declared that it would suspend implementation of the protocol signed in 2003, allowing intrusive inspections. The retention of IAEA cameras is meant to signal that the decision is not irreversible.

Equally important, Iran has said it sees the coming talks with Russia as ‘constructive’ despite reservations over a Russian proposal to set up a joint venture under which Iran’s uranium would be enriched on Russian soil for use in power reactors.

Iran’s position is that ”the proposal has the potential of resolving the issue if its shortcomings and disadvantages are removedà” The key to overcoming these ‘shortcomings’ is to allow Iran to carry out the enrichment process on its own soil, within a joint venture framework with another state.

Iran has repeatedly said it would study the Russian proposal in a positive spirit, and would like to broaden the joint venture to include other countries. Earlier this week, the parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel hinted that Venezuela could be one such country.

Apparently, Iran has set three conditions for accepting Russia’s proposal. According to Radjab Safarov, head of Russia’s Contemporary Iran Studies Centre, Tehran wants that its specialists be given access to the enrichment process, that part of it must take place in Iran, and that a third party should join the venture.

”It is not clear how far the Russians will go in trying to persuade the U.S. to discuss such an arrangement,” says Vanaik. ”They, like the Chinese, adopted a weak and pusillanimously pro-U.S. stance at the IAEA. Unlike in September, when they abstained on a motion holding Iran ‘non-compliant’ with its obligations to the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, on Feb. 4, they voted for a Western-sponsored anti-Iran resolution.”

Both Russia and China repeatedly emphasise that they want a peaceful negotiated diplomatic resolution to the Iran crisis. But whether they will veto a tough U.S. resolution against Iran in the UNSC or dissuade Washington from targeting and punishing Iran is an open question.

Should the Iran-Russia talks fail, the U.S. might embark on a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ (London) reported that extensive preparations are underway for a devastating bombing of several targets in Iran. It quoted a senior Pentagon adviser as saying the planning went beyond just contingency assessment. ”This is more than just the standard military contingency assessmentà This has taken on much greater urgency in recent months.”

Within the U.S. scheme of things, there is no way a ‘rogue’ state like Iran can be even remotely permitted to have access to a technology which might in the long run help Tehran develop a nuclear weapons capability. Top U.S. officials, including secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, have said as much.

India, which has close ties with Iran, has frowned at nuclear proliferation in its immediate neighbourhood. India voted against Iran at the IAEA at the last two sessions and is likely to maintain that stance on Mar. 6.

On Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament at a special session to discuss India’s vote at the IAEA that there were “unresolved” questions on key issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme. Areas of concern included ”use of centrifuges imported from third countries and designs relating to fabrication of metallic hemispheres.”

”Members (of parliament) are aware that the source of such clandestine proliferation of sensitive technologies lies in our neighbourhood, details of which have emerged from successive IAEA reports,” Singh said making an oblique reference to Pakistan’s involvement.

India has favoured a solution, based on acceptable mutual compromises, in which Iran’s interests and the concerns of the international community would be addressed, Singh said. “We have consistently worked to promote a consensus in the IAEA towards this end. This has been the logic of our stand at the IAEA Board of Governors meetings both in Sep. 2005 and earlier this month.”

Singh said he was hopeful of a positive outcome to the discussions between Iran and Russia and that India fully supported Moscow’s initiative.

Prof. Paul Rogers of the University of Bradford, author of a just-published report by the independent Oxford Research Group, believes that ”there is at least a 50:50 risk of some sort of real crisis, probably with military action, before the end of next year.” The report says a military attack on Iran would probably spur Tehran to work as rapidly as possible towards developing a nuclear military option. It would have a “powerful unifying effect within Iran.”

Iran could retaliate with deadly effect in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria. Rogers describes scenarios such as ”moving Iran’s Revolutionary Guard elements into parts of Iraq” where Iran enjoys tremendous influence in its new Shia-majority government.

Diplomacy, Singh was emphatic, should be given a chance. What remains to be seen is whether the Western powers and Russia allow it a chance.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.