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    Middle East
     Sep 29, 2005

The high price of hounding Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The Middle East powder keg is now one step closer to explosion as a result of the impending showdown at the United Nations and beyond between Iran and its nuclear detractors, given the latest resolution of the UN atomic agency finding Iran in breach of its obligations and non-compliance. But the real question is, can this lead to anything but a lose-lose situation?

A clue to the inverted, Orwellian universe in which we live: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokeswoman Melisa Fleming has tried to put a positive spin on the said resolution decried by Iran as "unfair" and "political", by saying that it has "opened a new window of opportunity" for Tehran.

Yet, from Iran's vantage point, the only window opened by the

tough IAEA stance, ignoring the positive developments in Iran-IAEA cooperation of the past couple of years, is the window to the inferno of sanctions and international isolation or, alternatively, coerced submission to the will of Western nuclear haves too immersed in this bifurcated worldview to respect Iran's right to nuclear technology.

The European Three (EU-3 - France, Germany and Britain) have by all indications prioritized their transatlantic ties with the US over their relations with Iran, trying to outdo each other in appeasing the US in its unilateral march toward anti-Iran sanctions at the UN.

This is precisely where the word "multilateralism" begins to lose some of its luster, seeing how the collapse of European diplomacy in the cesspool of unilateralism is nicely covered by the make-believe concerns of top European diplomats over the fate of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Make no mistake, Europe is fizzling apart and the panacea of anti-Iranianism throwing them into the US's bosom can hardly suffice to glue its structural rifts. For what else can explain the French turnabout, from a few months ago when President Jacques Chirac, in a meeting with Iran's nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, agreed to Iran's proposal for an IAEA-led system of nuclear verification to satisfy the "objective guarantees" mentioned in the Paris Agreement, to the present hardline approach devoid of the slightest flexibility. Independent European diplomacy toward Iran is finished.

The stakes are getting increasingly high, with Iran now contemplating exiting the NPT and stopping all cooperation with the IAEA.

Well, if the Europeans' real concern is to keep the IAEA intact, their action is hardly going to have the desired result, as the North-South divide within the IAEA will sharpen dramatically and qualitatively, as explicitly feared by IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei.

In his latest report, ElBaradei cited good progress in Iran's cooperation with the IAEA and stated that Iran's nuclear program would be subjected from now on to routine inspections. How will he react a few weeks or months from now when Iran is no longer a part of the IAEA and the whole Muslim world is blaming the IAEA of indiscrete double standards?

Not exactly bright prospects for the IAEA and its Western composition, and all the more reason for the IAEA to amend itself and step back from the confrontational path it has chosen in regard to Iran.

Conveniently overlooked by both the IAEA and the European trio is a proposal made by Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in his recent UN speech for the involvement of foreign (state and private) companies in Iran's nuclear fuel fabrication which, if implemented, would further guarantee that no diversion to illicit purposes occurs.

Unfortunately, no serious consideration was given to Ahmadinejad's proposal and, understandably, the US and European media were more fixated on his criticisms of "nuclear apartheid".

At this point, a pertinent question: what exactly will be achieved by referring Iran's nuclear case to the UN, other than angering Iran to the point of exiting the NPT? A former top IAEA official, Pierre Goldschmidt, has recently written an article in the New York Times stating that the purpose would be not to impose sanctions but to force Iran toward greater transparency.

Right, Goldschmidt, you are asking the Security Council to supplant the IAEA, as if you were blind to the machinations of superpower politics and the explicit expressions of joy by US officials at the IAEA, who relish a new isolation of Iran in the international community.

At this point, all roads lead to the Security Council, but where do they go from there? In the absence of any smoking gun and Iran's steady cooperation with the IAEA inspections since 2003, this would be a huge leap backward, exacerbating global tensions, particularly if Iran acts on its threats to cease its cooperation with the IAEA and discard its adherence to the Additional Protocol, causing a tougher Security Council backlash, including sanctions.

But since Iran has already been under the sword of US economic sanctions for a long time, a UN sanction regime on Iran could only be effective if it covered Iran's energy industry, on which Europe and China, among others, count so much.

UN sanctions on Iranian oil and gas would cause havoc on the volatile global energy market, driving energy prices much higher than they are now, thus hurting Western consumers and energy-dependent industries.

It would not be unrealistic, according to one international oil consultant who spoke to Asia Times Online, to see an increase of 15% to 20% in oil prices in the event of such a scenario. That would mean somewhere between $80 to $90 per barrel of oil, quite burdensome on the non-oil developing nations which nowadays are weighing how to behave at the next IAEA meeting in November.

And as if Middle East tensions are not already high enough, with clashes in Iraq and Afghanistan seemingly increasing, who can deny the negative side-effect of the nuclear crisis in terms of a qualitative sharpening of these tensions, particularly in Iraq where Iran exercises considerable clout?

Already, Iran-Britain ties have suffered a big blow, with London leading the march against Iran within the IAEA, and there is anti-British turmoil in Basra, with Iranian accusations of British complicity in disturbances in southern Iran. Can Prime Minister Tony Blair, his country already a target of terrorist attacks in London and his party losing votes due to his unpopular common cause with the White House, really afford to take on Iran simultaneously, risking lucrative Iranian trade and having his paratroops in southern Iraq battling pro-Iranian groups? Clearly not.

Nor are President George W Bush's options any better, in the light of natural disasters forcing domestic priorities. Bush seemingly could not muster enough troops to collect the dead in New Orleans; how in the world is he going to tackle a major crisis with a nation of 70 million? Isn't it better for both Iran and the US to engage in direct dialogue and to try resolving their differences in a more civil and non-coercive way?

The answer is, not as long as the US government and its army of analysts stubbornly cling to the much-refuted notion of an Islamic regime in Iran on the verge of collapse (See The Persian puzzle, or the CIA's?, Asia Times Online, December 3, 2004.)

The Iranian regime is not about to collapse, at least not out of its own volition or internal dynamics, and after a quarter century of state-building it has weathered enough internal and external crises to master the game of survival. No doubt it will survive the coming showdown at the UN, perhaps with more popular backing to compensate for its legitimation deficits, all the more reason why some hardline editorials are even yearning for this battle at the UN.

Their views are not shared by everyone, however, and there are emerging voices of dissent that warn of negative ramifications for Iran's economy and Ahmadinejad's promises of jobs for millions of Iranian unemployed youths.

This external crisis has the potential to seriously derail the domestic priorities of the former mayor-turned president, much to the chagrin of Iran's moderate politicians who are against allowing the nuclear priority to set the country back economically and diplomatically.

In conclusion, maybe Melisa Fleming is right after all. There is a window of opportunity to resolve the nuclear crisis, though it is closing rapidly. After all, there is usually a healthy side to any crisis. One only hopes that this particular crisis is not terminal.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-authored "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume X11, issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu.

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