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The dangers of playing hardball

by : Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Sunday October 24, 2004 - 21:50

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

TEHRAN - The month of November in a US presidential-election year is not supposed to be particularly eventful, but this year may be an exception, in the light of the gathering storm over Iran’s nuclear program, due to be reviewed by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in late November. November is also important because of the Egypt summit on the future of Iraq, bringing the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries and Iraq’s neighbors together, with the United States and Iran eyeball to eyeball.

But, based on the IAEA’s September report, calling on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program, repeated shortly thereafter by the G8 countries, and Iran’s adamant rejection of this demand, the stage is now set for the fulfillment of the United States’ long-sought drive to bring the matter before the UN Security Council.

In a last-ditch effort, diplomats from France, the United Kingdom and Germany meet top Iranian officials in Vienna on Thursday to offer Tehran one more chance to halt its uranium-enrichment plans. If, as expected, Iran rejects this European Union offer, most European states are likely to back US demands that Tehran be reported to the Security Council when the IAEA meets in November.

Iran has threatened to exit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if this happens, which would be a blow to the troika of England, France and Germany, which has taken the lead in exploring a "carrot and stick" package deal in order to persuade Iran to comply with the IAEA’s demand, and thus to diffuse the growing crisis, which, if left unchecked, may have serious repercussions on multiple fronts.

"Their package is long on stick and short on carrots," a high-ranking Iranian official told Asia Times Online, adding, "What we like to see is not ’broad talks’ and ’long-term’ promises, but instead ’concrete talks’ and ’tangible" incentives’." Yet even the same official was skeptical that any economic incentive could persuade Iran to give up its "NPT right" to produce low-enriched uranium, necessary for its Russian-built Bushehr power plant.

Uranium enrichment can be used to make fuel for civilian reactors, but also the explosive core of atomic weapons. The US has accused Iran of having a secret nuclear-weapons program. Tehran says its nuclear efforts are only for power generation.

"It is a question of national sovereignty, and if we compromise, then we have allowed them to dismantle a section of Iran’s peaceful nuclear industry in the name of ’confidence building’," said the official.

Reflecting a political consensus in Iran, the above-cited official held the opinion that the real intention of the G8 is to achieve complete denuclearization of Iran through a clever stage-by-stage strategy. "If Europe is serious about a deal with Iran, why don’t they join us and develop our nuclear industry? Hasn’t France done that with China?"

In fact, France has outpaced the other two of the European trio in criticizing Iran for failing to heed the IAEA’s request, and Germany, by comparison, has adopted a more muted response, focusing on an economic deal to sweeten the Iranian appetite for a quid pro quo, whereby they would eschew nuclear weaponization in exchange for meaningful economic rewards.

As of this writing, the Iranian government had not yet received the official version of the "package", and the chances are that it will not receive anything more than a pseudo-package that rings hollow, due to the following problems with the entire approach.

First, this approach follows closely the recipe for action spelled out by Harvard Professor Graham Allison, who claims to have devised a "grand new strategy" on "nuclear terror" which, in fact, is barely more than a descriptive rehashing of pre-existing ideas nuanced to appear novel. In "How to stop nuclear terror" (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004), Allison refers to Iran as a "decisive test" of the "no new nascent nukes" approach, and writes, "Enforcement should begin with political and economic sanctions for recalcitrant states, but should also include threat and the use of military force if necessary, whether overt or covert." And all this from a supposedly dovish professor at a liberal institution.

But of course this (old) approach is disguised as a new approach by the author’s emphasis on "package deal", including economic and security incentives. To win Moscow’s support, Allison writes, "Washington should accept Russian completion of the Bushehr reactor, confirm Russia’s role as fuel supplier to the reactor, initiate joint Russian-American research on new proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants, and agree that Russia become the secure depository for international spent fuel."

No sooner had this article been published when the presidential hopeful, Senator John Kerry, repackaged it as one of his main foreign-policy objectives distinguishing him from the incumbent, George W Bush. Both Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, have repeatedly adopted a two-track policy on Iran that promises a "get tough" approach vis-a-vis Iran in case its leaders dare to reject their generous offer of tolerating the existence of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program on the condition that Iran imports its nuclear fuel and return the spent fuel. Unsurprisingly, Kerry has found a willing and enthusiastic allay for his Iran policy in the form of the EU led by the above-mentioned troika.

In fact, EU leaders have even escalated their demands by insisting that Iran should have a "sustained suspension" of the enrichment cycle, meaning nothing short of permanent, in contrast to the IAEA’s request for a "confidence-building" cessation, implying it is temporary (after all, confidence-building is a means to an end and cannot last forever). Thus a degree of disjunction or lack of fit between the IAEA’s and the EU’s approach toward Iran’s nuclear program, which, in turn, raises the question of the validity of the latter.

From Iran’s vantage point, the opposing side lacks a minimum justification for its demand to give up its legitimate right to enrich uranium bestowed by the NPT. The Bushehr power plant requires some 27 tonnes of enriched fuel per year, and it will cost more if it has to be shipped from thousands of kilometers away.

"If Europe is ready to foot the bill, we may consider their offer," said the same official speaking to Asia Times Online, and then quickly added, "But I seriously doubt what they are getting into. Once they sit down and make a simple calculation of exorbitant costs, I am sure they will think twice about it."

The nub of the economic argument, presented by Iran, is as follows: four types of costs need to be incorporated in any package deal on the nuclear program:

The costs of the Natanz enrichment facility and other similar facilities running into hundreds of millions of dollars. The additional cost of importing nuclear fuel instead of producing it at home. The cost difference between burying the spent fuel in Iran’s vast deserts versus trans-shipping them via land or sea, not to mention the economic hazards. The cost of "future income" lost as a result of the G8’s denial of Iran to compete for a share of the lucrative nuclear fuel market.

Concerning the latter, IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei admitted in his September press interview that "20 members are involved in designing advanced nuclear fuel designs". Several G8 nations, eg Japan, Russia and France, are among those, who nonetheless insist that Iran should dispossess itself of its "inalienable right" to enrich uranium as part and parcel of its peaceful nuclear industry. No wonder the Iranian press is awash with criticisms of a "hypocritical double standard" on the part of the G8 nations.

One of Iran’s options is to invoke article 22 of the Iran-IAEA nuclear energy agreement, which calls for an "arbitral tribunal" in case a dispute between the two sides occurs. Another option would be to drop its resistance to the idea of going before the Security Council and, instead, welcome this and expose the "illegal" and "unfair" nature of the IAEA’s, and the G8’s, demands by subjecting the issue to vigorous and new international scrutiny. A third option would be to exit the NPT altogether and continue its nuclear programs without the headache of the IAEA.

However, there is a powerful sentiment against exiting the NPT, following the argument that only Israel benefits from further erosion of international norms and regimes. This may or may not be true, but it is worth remembering that there are definite cons for Israel as well in the event that Iran goes to the Security Council. Then, the non-aligned members would use the opportunity to throw the spotlight on Israel and its secret proliferation. This factor alone may mean that the United States’ stated intention to take the matter before the Security Council is not foolproof and, in fact, there may be a paradox of preference at work here, whereby the pro-Israel policymakers are engaged in considerable play-acting, bluffing and veering back on the path of a vicious cycle of verbal and economic denunciation of Iran, this as part of Israeli "politics of deflection", notwithstanding Israel’s abhorrent record vis-a-vis various UN resolutions. And China’s top envoy to the UN went on record on Tuesday as promising to veto any Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran.

At this point a question: given the absence of any smoking gun, Iran’s compliance with the intrusive "additional protocol", and the IAEA’s own admission that several issues have been resolved, such as the laser enrichment, uranium conversation experiments, and the outside sources of traces of highly enriched uranium (reportedly sourced to Pakistan), the question arises as to why should the world risk torpedoing the NPT regime and augment the Middle East crisis when more cooperative behavior could solicit favorable responses from Iran?

Already, the Russians have announced their completion of the Bushehr power plan, and reportedly the final Iran-Russia agreement on the return of the spent fuel will be inked by President Vladimir Putin when he visits Iran in the near future. Some Iranians are unhappy that Russia has joined the G8 chorus against Iran, instead of emphasizing Iran’s legitimate right. How Russia will conduct itself in the coming hot November will likely become the basis on which the Iranians will make their final decision on whether or not to collaborate with Russia for more, up to six, power plants, deemed necessary to complement Iran’s depletion of its precious non-renewable resource, oil.

To pause on Russia’s "predicament" for a moment, any Moscow bandwagoning with the G8 come November, such as making the matter Security Council-bound, will harm the Russia-Iran strategic relationship deemed important with respect to Russia’s containment strategy toward the United States’ intrusive power. The obverse scenario of a Putin defiance of the G8’s collective will have negative ramifications on US and Western aid to Russia, which Putin can ill-afford to endanger right now. Moscow’s best hope is for a middle-ground, mutually satisfactory resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis so that it can reap the benefits of being the sole provider of nuclear fuel to Iran while, simultaneously, standing up to Uncle Sam. Indeed, this requires a tough balancing act, reflected in the schizoid, contradictory, statements of the Russian foreign minister during and immediately after his recent trip to Tehran.

The EU and its self-imposed troika leadership, on the other hand, has been scrambling for a feasible package, to no avail as of this moment, as they have been unable to formulate one at their recent Brussels or Washington meetings on Iran. With the United States’ blessing, the European diplomatic initiative is presently a policy adrift, barely able to withstand critical scrutiny - while on the surface the EU’s approach, of carrot and stick, looks coherent and rational, it is in fact like Swiss cheese, full of holes.

Perhaps Europe is afflicted with an Iraq syndrome, notwithstanding Saddam Hussein’s post-invasion complaint that he felt deceived by the European leaders who repeatedly assured him that there would be no US invasion if he fully complied with the weapons of mass destruction inspections. Hopefully this will not turn out to be an incurable disease and the European leaders can bracket it sooner rather than later, before the "proto-crisis" over Iran’s nuclear program degenerates into a full-blown crisis, thanks in part to the holes of their pseudo-package deemed unacceptable by the Iranian government insisting on its internationally sanctioned right to create nuclear fuel for its reactor(s).

Assuming for a moment that the matter is hurled at the Security Council, the chances are that the Iranians will be able to mount a major international publicity coup by deconstructing the nuclear discourse of the G8, the illegal, unfair and impractical nature of their approach to the problem.

With neither Europe nor the US actually willing to subsidize Iran’s nuclear program by covering most if not all of the costs cited above, an Iran sanction imposed by the Security Council is bound to cause havoc on the energy-deficient world market and, as a result, create the opposite momentum that would weaken and ultimately nullify that sanction regime, given the less than appreciable record of UN sanctions in its not so glorious history.

A more fundamental question, of course, is whether or not the Security Council will adopt the Iran issue in the absence of any smoking gun which could be used as a rallying cry by Iran’s welter of opponents about a "serious breach of international peace". Indeed, short of lowering the bar exceptionally low, the incidental list of Iran’s non-compliance as mentioned by various IAEA reports do not muster to Security Council standards.

Henceforth, short of any "October surprise", the boiling pot of Iran at the IAEA is unlikely to be proceeded toward the UN immediately, and so much can be garnered by the latest statements of John Bolton, the fierce anti-Iran policymaker in the US State Department, now citing "complicated technical issues".

A decent resolution of this crisis is presented by Iran, which has offered a sustained, unconditional dialogue, and further extension of the temporary cessation of enrichment activities, strictly as a transitional "confidence-building" measure. It remains to be seen if the Iraq syndrome persists and another major crisis materializes from the vortex of a new, post-Cold War order gone Orwellian.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran’s Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown’s Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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