The dangers of playing
hardball By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
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
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
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
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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".
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.
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.
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