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    Middle East
     Mar 11, 2006
Mr Lavrov goes to Washington
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

This past week, Russian foreign policy experienced a thinly disguised humiliation that is bound to reverberate throughout the inner sanctum of the Kremlin's policy edifice for some time to come.

This came in the form of a Russian turnabout in Washington, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chewed his own words and denied that he had pitched any new Russian proposal to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Lavrov thus recanted what he and his deputy, Sergei Kisliak, had

told the Europeans and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, on March 4 and 5, before Lavrov's ship of diplomacy was sunk in mid-Atlantic before he even set foot in the United States.

Sending fleeting shivers to US policymakers bent on United Nations Security Council action against Iran, the aborted Russian proposal was "swatted down" by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to a New York Times report on Thursday. That means applying strong-arm tactics and, most probably, even "coercive tactics" against the Russian visiting Washington unexpectedly in the midst of the IAEA meeting on Iran.

At their joint press conference on Tuesday, Rice stated that "we did discuss Iran in great detail ... but the Russians did not tell us of any new proposal that they have made to the Iranians concerning anything but the February 4 resolution" by the IAEA. Rice is an astute, quick learner, aptly filling the shoes of her predecessor, Colin Powell, given Powell's stealth tactics with regard to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"I can reiterate what Dr Rice said. There is no compromise, new Russian proposal," Lavrov said bluntly at the press conference, despite earlier reports that Russia backed Iran engaging in limited uranium-enrichment research on its own soil. He then went on to complain of the US foot-dragging on Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, hoping to suggest a face-saving quid pro quo, instead of returning home empty-handed and rather humiliated.

Sadly, Rice has set a bad example with her dissimulation. US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns recently testified in Congress that last year he traveled oversees 11 times and spent hundreds of hours talking to the Europeans, Russians, Chinese and others about Iran and added that "there was not one single person who doubted that Iran was involved in nuclear proliferation".

That is rather strange and one wonders whom he has been talking to, given the fact that repeatedly last year Russian President Vladimir Putin stated publicly that he saw no evidence that Iran was acquiring nuclear weapons. Chinese officials have also repeatedly made similar statements.

If Burns wants us to believe that somehow these politicians across a number of countries for some mysterious reason prefer to say one thing in public and the opposite in private conversation, that is something we must take with a pinch a salt.

Nevertheless, what does all this say of Russia's occasional self-bombast about its prudent world diplomacy based on, to quote a Russian daily, "balanced argument, discretion, tact, norms of international diplomacy, discussion and dialogue"? In light of the Lavrov fiasco in Washington, let us add a few more apt adjectives: weak, vacillating, contradictory, unprincipled, shameful.

Who can now count on anything uttered by Lavrov and company, for example on the inadvisability of Security Council sanctions on Iran, when he has established such a poor track record by reversing himself at a critical juncture in the Iranian nuclear crisis?

This is certainly a serious question to ponder by the Russian intelligentsia now forced to grapple with the attrition of Russia's standing on the world stage leading to the diminishing of Russian diplomatic prowess.

In fact, there are two Lavrovs, one brave and bold when he is in familiar European territory, and another scared whenever he sets foot in the US. Thus, prior to his departure from Vienna, the former Lavrov was put on full display at a press conference, boldly promising Iran's return to the implementation of its "right to develop a nuclear energy sector full-scale" after a period of confidence building.

Naively, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei took the Russians at their words and while Lavrov's jet was still crossing the Atlantic, told the press that the Iranian crisis could be resolved in "a matter of a week". Such unfounded optimism, based on miscalculation of Russian, and to a lesser extent European, resolve to stand up to the US, had clearly foundered by the time the IAEA meeting was over and the Iranian referral to the Security Council was a fait accompli.

Still desperately clinging to his optimism, ElBaradei's concluding remarks at the IAEA meeting played down the body's decision as simply "a new phase in diplomacy". But not if you were US Vice President Dick Cheney and the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, smelling an opportunity to draw blood. They both wasted little time in informing a cheerful crowd at the annual meeting of a powerful Jewish lobby group that Iran faced dire consequences if it refused to comply with the will of the international community.

And to no surprise to cynics, given its timing, Britain claimed on Thursday that Tehran could acquire the technological capability to build a bomb by the end of the year. A senior Foreign Office official said that although it could take Iran several years to build a nuclear weapon, it might gain the technical know-how within months. "By the end of the year is a ... realistic period," the official was quoted in the media as saying. "It would be really damaging to regional security if Iran even acquired the technology to enable it to develop a nuclear weapon." Previously, European diplomats have said that Iran would need five to 10 years to build a bomb.

Yet contrary to such hype, Iran's request to keep 168 centrifuges operational for research and development purposes does not represent a huge risk warranting all the current saber-rattling. Even respected US nuclear scientists have gone on record stating that Iran would need a minimum of 500 centrifuges put together in order to assemble enough fissile material for a single bomb. For one thing, such a small cascade as 168 centrifuges has a reduced separative work unit (SWU) capacity of 30% or more, hardly alarming in terms of military diversion. [1]

The US media's role in scuttling a compromise
The mainstream media in the United States dutifully and masterfully played their compliant role as props for US foreign policy. Without exception, all the big players lambasted the Lavrov initiative as "capitulation", "route of appeasement", and "backstabbing the US".

Without them, the White House's "preemptive" nipping in the bud of the Russian-IAEA proposal would not have been possible. At least the Washington Post subsequently exposed Rice's little white lie of no new Russian proposal by conceding that "after making his pitch Lavrov appeared to retreat from the new proposal".

Clearly, crisis prevention is not good news for the corporate-controlled US media, basking in an approaching Iraq-type major international crisis bound to galvanize the public's attention. Any hope that something might have been learnt from the Iraq experience has now been effectively dashed by the example set in the Lavrov debacle in Washington.

The road ahead: Bolton versus Zarif
The US, having finally got its wish to have Iran brought before the UN, has now directly inherited a crisis that was until now outsourced to the Europeans, and we shall see how deftly the White House can handle it, given the paucity of the Bush administration's expertise on Iran.

Rice is a Russian expert first and foremost, still on the learning curve on the Middle East in general and Iran specifically, and the National Security Council (NSC) is not an improvement either. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley continues to play second fiddle to Rice, obviously no Henry Kissinger in the Vietnam crisis. Eliot Abrams at the NSC is reportedly in charge of Iran's proliferation threat, a better hand relatively speaking, but perhaps too ideologically oriented for his own good.

How then can we expect prudent US diplomacy in the coming storm when the policymakers in Washington are so ill-equipped to deal with it, in terms of the depth of their understanding of the tremendous complexities of today's Iran and the various security and non-security considerations that are integral elements of this crisis?

That aside, the US has had it relatively easy so far, basking in the huge dividends from the Iranians shooting themselves in the foot (and belly) with their rather amateurish diplomacy over the past few months. But with the nuclear ball now moving to the UN, we can expect a reasonable and qualitative improvement in light of the leadership role by Iran's competent permanent representative to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif. He is well liked in the UN halls and has already given the US a taste of his shrewd diplomacy by delivering a blistering defeat to the US at last year's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, almost singlehandedly.

For the moment, the Security Council is expected to issue a statement by its president noting Iran's non-compliance with IAEA requests, hurling it back to the IAEA for further review, and picking it up again after another status report by the IAEA, either in a month or less, in light of the United States' "shotgun diplomacy" aimed at compressing the timeline. A more prudent approach would allow a reasonable cooling period both for adequate deliberation and dialogue as well as for an Iranian increase of their margin of maneuverability at home for the sake of a compromise solution.

The first issue the council will have to decide is procedural - whether the issue should be addressed under the general item of Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (an item already on the council's agenda since 2004) or a new Iran-specific item. The second issue, given the general view that the matter should be approached in an incremental way, is how to establish a meaningful series of steps that will send progressively stronger messages to Iran, but leave enough room for the resumption of negotiations.

Bolton, waiting impatiently for months for this golden opportunity, has said that he wants the Iran case to remain in the Security Council and, by the looks of it, he is determined to do all he can to achieve that. In so doing, Bolton may characteristically overlook the opportunity side of this crisis - a meaningful dialogue with Iran touching on all the relevant issues on the Iran-US table.

For sure, the US will ignore the IAEA chief's increasingly soft stance on Iran, blaming Iran mostly for lack of adequate transparency and tardiness rather than outright breach and non-compliance, and focus instead on the latest IAEA resolution's harsher language against Iran.

Worse, the Security Council may not even bother to engage Iran in their dialogue.

On the other hand, Bolton's mission may not turn out smooth sailing after all, partly as a result of the worthy opponent he faces in Zarif. This might explain why Bolton may be maneuvering to deny Zarif a platform at the Security Council, circumventing the process and even strangling it with his punchy warnings against Iran, aimed at muddying the picture.

No matter, a litmus test of US "soft power" diplomacy is in the offing now. What one can safely predict is a mixed result, whereby the US will lose some by winning some, definitely far below ideal expectations. That is the best-case scenario. In the less sanguine worst-case scenario, this crisis may well turn out a sad lose-lose predicament for all involved, including the IAEA.

Yet the US and Iran, as this author has repeatedly noted in the past, have a considerable pool of shared and parallel interests in the region which can be the ammunition for constructive dialogue on the sidelines of the Security Council.

1. Separative work unit (SWU) is a function of the amount of uranium processed and the degree to which it is enriched, ie, the extent of increase in the concentration of the U-235 isotope relative to the remainder. The fissile uranium in nuclear weapons usually contains 85% or more of U-235, which makes it "weapon-grade".

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", the Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction .

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