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    Middle East
     Apr 22, 2006
The Gordian Knot of the nuclear crisis
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

With less than two weeks to go before the 30-day deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for the International Atomic Energy Agency chief to report on Iran's compliance or non-compliance with the IAEA's demands, above all a halt to its uranium-enrichment program, the internal debate in Iran on the correct response to the escalating international pressure is intensifying.

One faction associated with former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and led by Hassan Rowhani, the former chief nuclear negotiator, has lashed out at the hardline nuclear stance

adopted by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and called for a "more balanced approach".

Rowhani, considered a pragmatic realist, has expressed concern about the debilitating consequences for Iran's national interests should the festering nuclear crisis further isolate Iran from the rest of the world and, worse, possibly invite a military confrontation with the United States, which is even now threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons against his country.

The Moscow meeting of the 5+1 (the UN Security Council's Permanent Five plus Germany) clearly showed that there is still no consensus on the next course of action. But it also revealed a narrowing of differences in terms of the "urgency of constructive demands from Iran", to paraphrase Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. For the moment, Russia has rejected Washington's call for a complete halt in its nuclear cooperation with Iran, yet one wonders how Moscow can maintain this stance if, on the eve of the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg a few weeks from now, the Security Council invokes Chapter VII and calls Iran's defiance a "threat to international peace and security".

Doubtless, it would be a hard sell for President Vladimir Putin and company with respect to both the Russian people and the international community. Hence the chances of a gradual intensification of Russian pressure on Iran to comply or face the inevitable suspension of Russia's nuclear cooperation are quite likely.

Iran's national interests and the nuclear crisis
Iran's policy analysts engaged in threat analysis by and large agree that the nuclear standoff has dangerous potential and can inflict serious damage on the country's national-security interests. One of Iran's main weaknesses is that it is vulnerable to the criticism that it cares more for its Islamist ideological values than for its own purely national interests. Otherwise, it would not commit itself so much to the issue of Israel and Palestinians.

The fact is that Ahmadinejad's incendiary comments about "wiping Israel off the map" have given Iran's opponents a new excuse to attack that country's legal quest to master the nuclear-fuel cycle independently. Consequently, should this crisis lead to a military confrontation, the US and its "coalition of the willing" would be justified in taking unilateral action with little worry about a backlash by the world community.

On the other hand, the various Iranian opposition groups, some helped by Uncle Sam, are busy propagating the notion that the Islamic Republic has sacrificed its national interests for the sake of its pan-Islamic dogma and, as the crisis drags on, this is bound to resonate with more and more Iranians.

Thus, no matter how seriously Ahmadinejad tries to sell the nuclear program as a matter of nationalist pride and global status, the addition of the confrontational anti-Israel rhetoric is undermining Iran's national interests and, as a corollary, the world's willingness to accede to Iran's legal right to full nuclear technology.

At the same time, as an Islamic state, Iran has every right to be concerned about the continuing nuclear blackmail of the Muslim Middle East by Israel. For once US policymakers, who are nowadays branded by certain voices as hostages to the whims and wishes of Israel, should factor in Iran's legitimate concerns and the concerns of other Muslim states and push vigorously for Israel's denuclearization.

A point typically missed by the Iran analysts is that it makes sense for an Iran threatened by a military strike by Israel and/or the US on its nuclear facilities to focus on Israel and express solidarity with the Palestinian people. That gives greater depth to Iran's sphere of influence, stretching from Western Afghanistan to southern and central Iraq, to the Shi'ite communities throughout the Persian Gulf region, to Lebanon and, since Hamas' victory, the occupied territories of Palestine.

Yet what makes sense at one geopolitical level does not make so much sense from the perspective of Iran's overall national interests, currently imperiled by the United States' planned attacks should diplomacy fail. In other words, a more sober analysis of Iran's national interests is called for, which may lead to a policy revision by Ahmadinejad and his circle of policymakers.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad and the factions behind him have much to lose in their current game of "nuclear poker" if the crisis eventually leads to Iran's international isolation and once again turns the country into the international pariah it was during the 1980s, a hole the government has tried to climb out of for some 15 years.

While basking in the crisis windfall of higher oil prices, Iran is today still suffering economically from the lack of foreign investment, capital flight and a war-preparation economy siphoning off precious resources. Even Iran's burgeoning oil-and-gas industry is hurt by the decline of foreign investment in light of the industry's dire need for billions of dollars of investment to upgrade equipment.

In addition to the economic interests, Iran's national security and its territorial integrity are also threatened by the various reports, including investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's controversial piece in The New Yorker, that the US has already dispatched teams to sow sedition among Iran's minorities. This news alone translates into closer scrutiny of the minority groups by the government, in turn causing their political alienation from the government.

Signs of Iranian accommodation
In his recent one-day trip to Iran, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei was unable to persuade Iran to stop the enrichment program, yet his trip was not altogether a failure either, as Iran showed greater willingness to cooperate to resolve remaining "outstanding questions". Moreover, on the eve of the meeting of deputy foreign ministers of the 5+1 in Moscow, Iran dispatched a high-level group that met with the representatives of EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain), reportedly offering a new proposal.

A key element in the proposal, as stated by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, is to establish an international consortium for nuclear-fuel production inside Iran. That is why Iran has asked the European Union to participate in the planned expansion of its hitherto limited enrichment program.

This proposal, modeled after the Dutch-led consortium Urenko, which keeps key aspects of its advanced T-21 centrifuge technology in a "black box", was recently put forth by Geof Forden and John Thomson in their articles in Jane's Defense Weekly and the Financial Times. Unfortunately, the US and EU have so far completely ignored this proposal, which has been declared "workable" by certain IAEA officials. This is yet another serious indication of the lack of interest on Washington's part to see a mutually satisfactory resolution of the crisis, despite the pretensions otherwise.

Again, Washington feels justified in rejecting any proposal that would enable, even as a slight chance, the Iranians to continue their march toward mastery of the nuclear-fuel cycle, at least as long as Iran continues to be a threat to Israel.

At this point a crucial question arises: Can Iran possibly stand back from its official position of seeking the elimination of Israel? One obvious answer is that Iran cannot possibly continue with its nuclear program unhindered by possible US aerial bombardment so long as Tehran's threat to Israel remains intact. Another answer is that, as seen strictly from the perspective of Iran's national interests, the over-commitment to the Palestinian cause is introducing rather exorbitant side-effects that may eventually deprive the government of its domestic legitimacy if Iran's national interests are seen as being sacrificed for the sake of religious dogmas.

Henceforth, no matter how assiduously the government negotiators work to assure the outside world that their nuclear actions are legal, transparent and within the parameters of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and "objectively" guaranteed as peaceful, the Western perception of Tehran's government as almost entirely committed to radical Islamist norms and dead set on destroying Israel will continue to neutralize those efforts. This is the real Gordian Knot of Iran's nuclear crisis.

Breaking the Gordian knot
Strictly speaking, Iran is not endangered by Israel's nuclear might, given Israel's distance and its confrontation with the nearer Arab world. Thus, unlike Iraq's old program of weapons of mass destruction, which was partly rationalized as a deterrence against Iran and partly against the "Zionist threat", Iran is not in a position where it would feel a compulsion to go nuclear in response to Israel's arsenal.

Nor does Iran feel the same pressure from any of the other nuclear-armed states in its vicinity, such as Pakistan, whose warheads are almost certainly aimed at its arch-enemy, India. With Iraq's theoretical nuclear threat neutralized since 2003, Iran's only legitimate worry is the overwhelming might of the US. In theory that can be addressed by persuading Washington to step back from its messianic, self-imposed goal of regime change in Iran and instead reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic.

Such a possibility is now on the horizon in light of the impending US-Iran dialogue over Iraq, which, according to Rafsanjani, can be connected to the "bigger talks".

Meanwhile, as the Iranian political factions debate among themselves the pros and cons of the various options to exit the nuclear crisis, another red line may need to be crossed, one that is ideologically rather painful, yet in the national interest - that is, the official line on the destruction of the State of Israel.

Considered a sellout or "betrayal", the push for softening Iran's position against Israel has a wealth of opponents, but as of now has not yet been seriously debated as a viable option. What is needed for that to happen, however, is to engage in sober threat analysis and the calculation of long-term risks to Iran's national interests, including its peaceful quest to acquire nuclear technology, caused by the continuation of the present approach toward Israel.

Already, various Iranian top officials have stated publicly that Iran has not "threatened any member state of the United Nations", even though this is contradicted almost every day by the pronouncements, led by Ahmadinejad, that Israel is on its way to being "eliminated". What Tehran desperately needs is to clarify where its real interests lie. Is it defined by abiding by the UN Charter, which demands that Iranians respect the existence of Israel, or is it an unflinching commitment to wipe out Israel?

The current double voice simply perpetuates the belief by the outside world that Iran's real policy is to help the struggle for the destruction of State of Israel, a widespread perception that may not be quite accurate with respect to Iran's security policies and priorities but, nonetheless, is sufficiently entrenched in the world's consciousness to provide validity to a future Western assault on Iran's nuclear facilities.

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", 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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