A Not-So-Diplomatic Turn

Last week Iran responded to the latest European proposal regarding its controversial nuclear program. The so-called Iran Six, however, were neither amused nor heartened by the proposal’s apparent "ambiguity" 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 a fundamental lack of will on the Iranian side. Tehran thus far has been noncommittal regarding the offer of a six-week "freeze-for-freeze" deal in which Iran would 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 U.S. 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 and 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 and that Iran is 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 who pulls all the strings and is 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 kind that makes diplomacy and negotiation possible, seems to be in short supply.

The minor diplomatic steps hitherto taken have been attacked by prominent hawks in both the American and Israeli foreign policy establishments. Former American ambassador to the UN John Bolton has been among the most gung-ho in calling for military action against Iran. He never seems to tire of saber-rattling and finger-wagging, and he has been consistent in lambasting Washington’s diplomatic efforts at every possible 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 hourglass is spent. A ticking time bomb scenario is carefully crafted and presented in which an attack is undesirable but necessary to prevent a wave of death and destruction of untold magnitude further down the line. Among the most ominous of these was "Using Bombs to Stave Off War" by Israeli historian Benny Morris, who argued in what can only be described as a torrent of fear-mongering that a nuclear strike against Tehran might become necessary if Iran’s nuclear facilities were not bombed in the coming months.

A recent report [.pdf] published by the Institute for Science and International Security maitains that an attack would probably not succeed in definitively crippling Iran’s nuclear program. Hence, on the basis of Morris’ logic, Iran would need to bombed 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 stunning. (Morris in his benevolence 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 the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a cultish, schizophrenic, and dictatorial organization that is featured on the U.S. 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 chaos that will precipitate the collapse of the clerical regime, despite the low regard in which the MEK is held by most Iranians. Many Iranians even view the organization as guilty of treason for allying itself with Saddam Hussein’s regime 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 Jundallah, Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) and Arab separatists in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. The prospect of this metamorphosing into a full-blown American attack in coordination with such groups seems unlikely. Washington is playing a game of tit-for-tat, keeping the Iranian government busy with quelling internal dissent so it has less time and resources to amplify its very real reach inside Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though oil prices have dropped in recent weeks ($115 per barrel as I write this), they have been forecast to skyrocket to at least $500 per barrel in the event of a military strike against Iran. Such an increase, in concert with an already marked economic downturn, might well spark a meltdown of global proportions, which the Bush administration is unwilling to risk, at least for the moment. Experts say that $500 per barrel could quite easily be surpassed if Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 40 percent of the world’s oil travels. The strait forms part of Iranian territorial waters, and Tehran could ensure its closure in the event of a U.S. attack with relative ease.

It is this looming possibility that has caused Washington to temporarily soften its position and tame the trigger-happy element in Vice President Dick 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 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have managed to enter the breach and deter Bush from unthinkingly pursuing the line expounded by the hard-line Cheney faction.

Détente is not in the offing any time soon, and many commentators have prematurely jumped the gun as a result of Undersecretary of State William J. Burns’ presence at the recent talks in Geneva and the announcement of a U.S. interests section possibly opening in Tehran (the U.S. and Iran haven’t had official diplomatic relations since the 1979 revolution).

Many Iran analysts have already suggested that forgoing enrichment constituted a red line as far as the Iranians were concerned, and it seems the analysts 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, senior research fellow at 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 with its international obligations vis-à-vis its nuclear program is evaluated.

Tehran is adamant about 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 the middle of 2005 to allow for negotiations with the European Union. No tangible benefits 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 thanks 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 UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has also in effect undermined the supposed "unified front" conjured up by the U.S. 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. International Atomic Energy Agency (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 struggles 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 consider 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 helps 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 protests 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 it 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.