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    Middle East
     Feb 9, 2005
US takes a new tack
By M K Bhadrakumar

The past weekend has few parallels for its extraordinary spectacle of public diplomacy. In a series of calibrated statements, numbering over a dozen within the space of 72 hours or so, senior officials in key positions in the US administration toned down their rhetoric against Iran.

US Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, not to be underestimated by any means, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz contributed to this.

It all began on Thursday at the testimony in Washington by Wolfowitz to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which was largely devoted to a US "exit strategy" for Iraq. During the entire testimony lasting several hours, Wolfowitz did not point an accusing finger at Tehran - an unusual feat for someone so closely identified with neo-conservatism. He summed up the Iraqi "enemy" as "an unholy alliance of old terrorists and new terrorists" - Ba'athists allied with new al-Qaeda terrorists. Wolfowitz targeted Syria and "other neighboring countries" for allowing the "flow of foreign fighters" and even spoke of "some of Iraq's neighbors" who fear the phenomenon of majority rule in Iraq.

But Wolfowitz found it "encouraging" that the Iraqi Shi'ite leadership was showing signs of sagacity, wisdom and political accommodation. He paid compliments to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (a close follower of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani), and quoted him to justify optimism in an admittedly grim scenario.

Cheney took his cue in an interview with Fox television on Sunday, and spoke of "a lot of evidence" that the Shi'ite coalition in Iraq was displaying political accommodation. He pointed out that the Shi'ite slate did not set any deadline for US troop withdrawal. Cheney reciprocated that "this is not going to be an Iraqi version of America. This is going to be an Iraqi [constitution], written by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis, implemented and executed by them, and it is absolutely essential that we preserve the integrity of that process."

Cheney touched on Iran's nuclear program, calling on Tehran to do the "right thing" and agree to "transparency" as the US could still not say with "absolute certainty" that its nuclear-enrichment program had been stopped. Cheney repeated the assurance held out by Rice over and over again in a series of statements during her tour of European capitals over the weekend, that the US is supportive of the efforts of the European Union's Britain, France and Germany (EU-3) to solve the nuclear issue.

Distancing himself from recent Israeli statements on an imminent specter of a nuclear Iran emerging within the year, Cheney elaborated that if EU-3 efforts did not prove fruitful, the probable next step would be to approach the United Nations' watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. And if that too failed, it would be for the UN Security Council to decide on whether or not to impose sanctions against Iran. "We have not eliminated any alternatives," Cheney said, but "at this point we obviously are seriously pursuing a diplomatic resolution" to persuade Iran.

Rumsfeld went a step ahead to deny that any covert US military operations were under way in Iran. In his view, Iran did not possess any nuclear weapon and it could be years before it could actually have one. Meanwhile, he said, "The president has talked about Tehran and indicated that we're on a diplomatic path with them, and is hopeful that that will be successful." Rumsfeld also acknowledged the importance of Iran's cooperation in Iraq: "My concern in Iraq is that to the extent a neighboring country is unhelpful, it makes our task that much more difficult."

On the sensitive issue of "regime change" in Iran, Rice in several interviews over the weekend doggedly refused to be drawn into discussions - except to amplify that all Washington was saying was "just telling the Iranian people that they are not forgotten in the great reform movement that is going to sweep through the Middle East". In fact, Rice invited Tehran to partake in the so-called "Forum for the Future" (the current variant of the United States' four-year-old "Broader Middle East" initiative).

Cheney on his part acknowledged that elections had been held in Iran in the past but, "unfortunately, the most recent elections have been tainted by the ruling power". Alluding to the Iranian Guardian Council's role, Cheney regretted that "they've kept a lot of serious reformers off the ballot to put a crimp" on the potential for the younger generation in Iran to express itself freely.

The downsizing of the strident US calls for regime change in Iran becomes obvious when the weekend statements are juxtaposed with what Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said in Tehran on Sunday.

Khatami said that the pillars of democracy needed to be strengthened in Iran. He regretted that there were people in the Islamic world and in Iran whose religious thinking was rooted in outdated convictions of the most backward layers of the society. "They try, in vain, to give philosophical or religious justifications to their obsolete beliefs. The religion they offer is not only at odds with democratic values, but goes so far as to disregard even the most basic rights of the people. In doing so, they lie, defame their rivals and order murders." Khatami, with supreme irony, went on to lament that the ideology behind the formation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda was "embedded in the same convictions".

The summary abandonment of the stick in US rhetoric and the weekend's handout of carrots can be viewed in perspective. The huge imperatives of the Middle East peace process are self-evident. It is absolutely critical that Iran should not associate with the "rejectionists" (to quote Rice) in the region who are bound to try to torpedo the peace process. (Iran has extended an invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit Tehran.)

Second, as the election results in Iraq are trickling in, the full import of a commanding victory by the Shi'ite alliance is dawning. Any realistic US "exit strategy" in Iraq will have to factor in Iran's cooperation, no matter the dialectics within the Shi'ite world or between Najaf and Qom, two key spiritual Shi'ite cities in Iraq and Iran, respectively. It is hardball ahead.

Third, after a heavy-duty thrust to evolve a "unity of purpose" (to quote Rice again) between the US and European powers over Iran's nuclear issue, it is apparent that the cherry-picking days of the trans-Atlantic alliance are over. The EU-3 would rather constructively engage Iran. As the EU's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana put it, "I don't think that the United States has at this point of time the wish or the will or the capability" to attack Iran, and any unilateral US action would be "very difficult to conceive" and would be "counter-productive".

Another important consideration in the US calculus will be Tehran's own overtures. True, Tehran has not been slow in matching Washington's rhetoric. Be it in belligerence or in sound bites, Tehran gave back to Washington every bit what it received. Equally so, Tehran remained conscious of its innate strength - be it the legitimacy of state power in Iran, the national consolidation over the nuclear issue, the non-viability of a US attack on its nuclear facilities, US imperial overreach in the region and its consequent vulnerability to Iranian retaliation. But that has not kept Tehran from estimating its national interests or from reaching out to signal that it is open to a reasonable deal - if only the Americans would listen.

An authoritative presentation of what motivates Iranian thinking becomes available from a speech delivered by one of Iran's influential diplomats, its ambassador to the United Kingdom, Syed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, at the prestigious Chatham House on Friday - just ahead of Rice's arrival in London. In his speech titled "Pragmatism in Iran's Foreign Policy", Adeli spelled out without any sophistry the ABCs of what Iran is seeking at this juncture. He admitted that Iran understands perfectly well the "realities of the world order" (warts and all) and does not harbor notions of strategic defiance. Iran just as always gives primacy to its "self-interests". Any "fanatic theocratic picture" of Iran by ill-informed quarters would be overlooking the moorings of Iranian conduct. Pragmatism, characterized by caution and prudence - that is what Iranian policies are about, he said.

The ambassador defined the elements of Iran's national interests: its geopolitical location, the national (Persian) identity of the Iranian people (pride, sense of independence and an "enthusiasm for modernity and advancement") and economic development that translated into keenness to integrate with the world economy.

Adeli singled out four "empirical evidences" of Iranian pragmatism: (a) its readiness to offer "objective guarantees" for its nuclear program in return for "firm guarantees" for the security of the country, as well as cooperation in different fields; (b) Iran's commitment to the stability of Afghanistan and Iraq where "thanks to American adventurism, we have gotten rid of both the Taliban and Saddam [Hussein]" - where Iran offers "effective cooperation" in establishing stability and a democratic process despite the "affinities of Shi'ism"; (c) openness to a Persian Gulf security system where Iran plays a "positive role" in the unhindered transportation of oil to the world market; and (d) Iran's readiness to regard Europe as a "post-modern state".

The ambassador concluded that Iranian foreign policy would address the developments in its region solely from self-interest - "prudent, expedient and cautious", "flexible" with a readiness to "reconcile where necessary" and striving to play its role in "a responsible way" in the world order. Tehran, he stressed, would act out of its national interests, the "ideological color" of its regime notwithstanding.

From the fashion in which four top figures in the Bush administration chose to respond, it must be assumed that Washington has in hand much food for thought.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian career diplomat who has served in Islamabad, Kabul, Tashkent and Moscow.

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