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    Middle East
     Jun 6, 2006
US 'allies' keep Iran options open
By M K Bhadrakumar

In diplomacy, when adversarial relations undergo mending, grandstanding becomes necessary. Henry Kissinger's Paris talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s were interspersed with some of the fiercest US bombing campaigns of the war.

Yet we now also know how quickly the US temperament can adapt to new equations when vital interests are at stake. Kissinger took a few extended evenings in Beijing to rewrite the narrative of Sino-US relations. In its sweep of realism, dramatic irony and its phenomenal potential for rewriting world politics, the turnaround in US policy toward Iran is perhaps comparable to Kissinger's 1972 mission to China.

But the Paris talks somehow come to mind with greater ease. Last Wednesday's policy shift in Washington in which it said it

would talk to Iran over its nuclear program (with conditions) has intriguing aspects to it.

Much of it seemingly lies in the realm of public diplomacy, though. Part of the problem lies in that the Bush administration has to grapple with three different fronts at the same time - domestic, international and the Iranian.

First, the domestic aspects. It is important to remember that hardly a fortnight has passed since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while visiting Washington, described the Iranian government as an existential threat.

At a joint press conference on the White House lawn on May 23 with President George W Bush, Olmert made a hard-hitting statement: "The Iranian regime, which calls for Israel's destruction, openly denies the Holocaust and views the United States as its enemy, makes every effort to implement its fundamentalist religious ideology and blatantly disregards the demands of the international community. The Iranian threat is not only a threat to Israel; it is a threat to the stability of the Middle East and the entire world. And it could mark the beginning of a dangerous and irresponsible arms race in the Middle East."

True, Israel is not a salient issue for many Americans. To be sure, Washington first used the neo-conservative gentile, John Bolton, who serves as the US permanent representative to the United Nations, to call up his Iranian counterpart in New York, Javed Zarif, to intimate that the US was willing to talk with Iran.

Nonetheless, question marks arise, given the Israeli lobby's known influence on Capitol Hill and with the US media and prominent think-tanks. Indeed, the Bush administration's own track record has been one of allowing the Israeli government and the pro-Israel groups in the United States to shape US policy toward Iraq, Syria and Iran, and its grand strategy of reordering the Middle East as a whole.

This is so much so that the former national security adviser under president George H W Bush, Brent Scowcroft, two years back said that Israeli premier Ariel Sharon had George W Bush "wrapped around his little finger". Moreover, pandering to Israel is a bipartisan malaise in US politics - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry wore on his sleeves through his election campaign in 2004 his unqualified loyalty toward Israeli interests. Hillary Clinton will gladly emulate Kerry's example.

Therefore, are we to assume that Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have finally chosen to make a distinction between US national interests and Israeli interests? More important, can the lobby's power be curtailed?

In a brilliant essay titled "The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy" in the London Review of Books in March, two leading American academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, analyzed precisely this question.

Their conclusion: "Given the Iraq debacle, the obvious need to rebuild the American image in the Arab and Islamic world ... there are ample grounds for leaders to distance themselves from the lobby and adopt a Middle East policy more consistent with broader US interest ... But that is not going to happen - not soon anyway. AIPAC [American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] and its allies (including Christian Zionists) have no serious opponents in the lobbying world ... Besides, American politicians remain acutely sensitive to campaign contributions and other forms of political pressure, and major media outlets are likely to remain sympathetic to Israel no matter what it does."

That is why it is important to recollect that on May 24, hardly a week before Rice was to make her Iran announcement, Olmert referred to Iran in apocalyptic terms. Addressing the US Congress on the concluding day of his official visit to Washington, Olmert said, "Allow me to turn to another dark and gathering storm casting its shadow over the world ... Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, and a notorious violator of fundamental human rights, stands on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. With these weapons, the security of the entire world is put in jeopardy ... This challenge, which I believe is the test of our time, is one the West cannot afford to fail.

"The radical Iranian regime has declared the United States its enemy. Their president believes it is his religious duty and his destiny to lead his country in a violent conflict against the infidels. With pride he denies the Jewish Holocaust and speaks brazenly, calling to wipe Israel off the map. For us this is an existential threat, a threat to which we cannot consent. But it is not Israel's threat alone. It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East and the well-being of the world at large.

"Our moment is now. History will judge our generation by the actions we take now, by our willingness to stand up ..."

Could it be that Olmert has since had a change of heart regarding Iran? Israel is keeping mum about the US offer to Iran. Could Bush and Rice have woven their famous charm around Olmert? (Curiously, Rice's announcement coincided with the arrival of eight ships belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's southern forces at Haifa port in Israel and the announcement that Israeli naval craft would participate for the first time as an "integrated force" in a NATO exercise in July.)

It is inconceivable that Bush has chosen the weakest point in his political standing at home to take on the lobby frontally. Bush administration officials have begun "leaking" to influential sections of the US media a far too embellished version to the effect that the president and the secretary of state have single-mindedly choreographed the overture to Iran, brushing aside the reservations of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Yet Rumsfeld condemned Iran while speaking at an international conference in Singapore this weekend - calling it "one of the leading terrorist nations in the world".

Rumsfeld sarcastically added that it was "strange" that Moscow and Beijing chose to bring into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization "one of the leading terrorist nations in the world" even as the SCO claimed it was opposed to terrorism.

Rumsfeld was savvy enough to know that this was hardly the way Bush would expect a senior member of his team to speak publicly. So was Rumsfeld reassuring the lobby back home? Rumsfeld added, "The information [emphasis added] has just been communicated to them [Tehran], and it seems to me the appropriate thing now to do is to wait and see which path the Iranian government will take."

A second aspect about the United States' Iran offer concerns the compulsions under which the Bush administration would have made its policy reversal. Deep briefings to select US media organs by unnamed "senior officials" in Washington have largely concentrated on casting Bush and Rice as visionary leaders. Period.

The "leaks" have a contrived tone. No one argued that talking to Iran would help the US stabilize the Iraqi situation and the Middle East in general - though it is the most obvious thing to say. The American officials admitted that contrary to US assertions, Iran was far from internationally isolated. But this was not any secret.

The latest evidence in this regard was the statement by the ministerial meeting of the coordinating bureau of the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement at its meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia, last week. Even a close ally of the US, Singapore, takes note of this political reality.

Referring to the warm welcome accorded to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to Indonesia, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last week, "This showed how successfully Iran has portrayed itself as a leading Muslim country, its nuclear project as a project in which Muslims worldwide should take vicarious pride, and the issue as a nationalist struggle."

The Bush administration's briefings alluded to two external factors having influenced the change of course in US policy. First, Washington could sense that the "Iran Six" (the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) was falling apart, and an initiative was necessary that would somehow bring all the six powers to share a common platform. And there could be no better platform than if the US were to join any future talks with Iran.

The US officials claimed that having now made the offer to talk to Iran, Washington had a right to expect reciprocal Russian and Chinese support if the talks did not proceed with Iran, and the nuclear issue was thrown back to the court of the United Nations Security Council.

According to the New York Times, "Three senior officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were describing internal debates in the White House, he [Bush] made the final decision only after telephone calls with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany led him to conclude that if Tehran refused to suspend its enrichment of uranium, or later dragged its feet, they would support an escalating series of sanctions against Iran at the United Nations that could lead to a confrontation."

But that wasn't how the Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to view the events. According to a Russian statement on Thursday, while Moscow welcomed the US side's announcement on its readiness to hold direct talks with Iran, such talks were "long overdue" and "there is no reasonable alternative" to talks and negotiations.

Furthermore, Moscow saw the US decision to normalize relations with Iran in terms of a cessation of the "crisis state" in US-Iran relations, which was not serving the interests of the two peoples. Moscow felt that the normalization of US-Iranian ties would "benefit regional and international stability" and help resolve "other crisis situations in the region" (read Iraq).

Putin, too, welcomed the US decision and called it "an important step". So where is the question of Moscow reciprocating Bush's decision? This brings us to a crucial point. Indeed, what happens if Iran refuses to give up its uranium-enrichment activity?

Significantly, the statement of the Iran Six foreign ministers' meeting in Vienna on Thursday scrupulously avoided any mention of sanctions or other specific punitive measures. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett refused to take any questions from the media after reading out a brief statement in Vienna. It seems "sanctions" has suddenly become a dirty word.

The path ahead
But where do the Iran Six go if Tehran does not give up its right to enrich uranium? At the grouping's Vienna meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov apparently insisted that any consideration of punitive action by the UN Security Council must remain frozen for the present. And, indeed, it seems the idea of sanctions has been frozen.

Putin said in a dismissive tone in Moscow on Friday that it was simply premature to talk about sanctions and that Russia would like to talk earnestly with the Iranian leadership first. (Putin is likely to meet with Ahmadinejad during the SCO summit in Shanghai on June 15.)

Putin also made it clear how multilateralism figured in the Russian calculus. He said, "That the UN openly discusses issues and remains a venue for resolving international problems and does not serve the foreign-policy interests of a particular country not only gives it a greater universality, but also makes it indispensable for working out acceptable international solutions."

The furthest that Lavrov would go in summing up the Iran Six meeting in Vienna was that there was "a better quality of participation of Russia, the United States and China in the process of negotiations". In the run-up to the meeting, Lavrov had said, "Together at the negotiating table, we will be able to work out a way that would allow us to ensure Iran's legitimate right to peaceful nuclear energy and yet maintain the non-proliferation regime."

It seems that once again, unnamed "US officials" are giving a deliberate spin that Russia and China have "agreed privately" to turn the screws on Iran. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman last Tuesday urged the international community to "pay attention to the demands and concerns of Iran". He said Beijing would like the diplomatic negotiations to proceed "in a way that would protect the interest of all sides". He pointed out that while Beijing supported the European proposal to resolve the issue, it also called on the international community to "remove Iran's concerns".
On the same day, Lavrov said, "Iran must be involved in international economic cooperation and the efforts to enhance security in the region ... in parallel, we are ready to guarantee Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear-power engineering." Lavrov drew the bottom line as to what Thursday's Vienna meeting was about. He said those consultations had a single objective, namely, to work out a common approach that would reflect the strategic goal of ensuring the non-proliferation regime while observing the interests of every signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Again, last Thursday, China's permanent representative to the UN, Wang Guangya, said in response to the United States' Iran talks offer, "I think it in a way proves that the US is more serious about the negotiations than about other options, but I do hope that this offer could be less conditional." A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said on the same day that Beijing welcomed the US offer to hold talks with Iran and urged the United States to pave the way for a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement last Thursday welcoming the US offer to Iran underlined that "the prospects of talks should not be impeded by attempts to threaten Tehran or place on their agenda matters not pertaining to the central task of settling the problem of Iran's nuclear program".

Russia has also made it clear that it does not accept any strict time frame for Iran to respond to the European Union offer. Lavrov said, "There is no categorical deadline. But I think we are talking about several weeks."

In a telephone conversation with Bush last Friday, Chinese President Hu Jintao welcomed the US decision and said China believed the nuclear non-proliferation system should be preserved and the Iran nuclear issue should be resolved "in a peaceful way through diplomatic means and talks", and that to this end, China would be willing to "maintain contact and coordination" with the US and play a "constructive role in resuming negotiations at an early date".

Clearly, from all the above it appears that there is a degree of disinformation regarding the alleged shift in the Russian and Chinese position on the Iran nuclear issue in the past week or so. This disinformation campaign, the puzzling "Israel factor", the lobby's immense political clout in the US, Rumsfeld's innuendos - all this underlines that Washington is having a messy time retracing steps from the cul-de-sac into which its Iran policy has driven it. Tehran would have every reason to be pleased.

But in all probability, Iran's response to the EU offer will be neither negative nor effusive. Iran remains wary of US intentions but knows Washington is caught in a bind too. Iran is, therefore, bound to come up with a pragmatic reaction.

Tehran seems to be cautiously optimistic that this time around, the EU will have something substantive to offer. (At a gathering in Tehran on Sunday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, "We have good and healthy relations with Europe and, in the near future, because they need our gas and energy, these relations will become even better.")

Tehran is conscious of the energy card it is holding. Amid the cacophony over the Iran nuclear issue, Russia has been probing a new partnership in energy with Iran that could prove the tipping point in international energy politics. This puts pressure on the West.

On May 23, the chief executive officer of Russian energy giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, met with the Iranian ambassador in Moscow, Gholamreza Ansari. To quote a Gazprom statement, the discussions pertained to "possible cooperation in gas production, transportation and use". Clifford Kupchan, a former US diplomat who is currently with Eurasia Group, a Washington-based think-tank, commented, "Russia very much wants to coordinate gas supplies with Iran."

Coordination could help alleviate the strain on Gazprom's supplies in 2011, when Russia has promised to supply China with 40 billion cubic meters per year. Kupchan said, "The idea in Moscow is that Iran would concentrate on Eastern markets, while Russia would maintain its grip on Western markets."

An expanded energy partnership cementing a strategic axis involving Russia, China and Iran - this would be an ultimate nightmare scenario for Washington. The US State Department recently sought "clarification" from Moscow as to why Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the SCO summit in Shanghai on June 15. To quote Kupchan, "The potential realignment ... crystallized by those participating in the SCO meeting is new and is of concern to US interests."

But Iran is an ambitious country. Russia and the "eastern option" are not Iran's first choice in energy cooperation. Arguably, Iran would by far prefer an intensification of energy cooperation with Europe, leading to its broader integration into the international community.

The remarks by Ahmadinejad on Saturday at a ceremony in Tehran contain more or less the salients of the likely Iranian response to the US offer of talks. He said Iran would be ready to hold "fair and unconditional" talks.

Second, Ahmadinejad said Iran's stance would be based on its "national interests". Anti-Iran propaganda aside, Ahmadinejad is an immensely popular leader in Iran. He is arguably the first Iranian leader in a long while who has reached out to the common people.

But he has asked for realism. The US cannot expect Iran to negotiate on the basis of preconditions. The "peaceful use of nuclear energy" is Iran's "legitimate right", which is not open to negotiations.

Ahmadinejad concluded his remarks saying, "We welcome talks, logic and contacts, and there are lots of issues in the world we could discuss." In other words, Iran intends to make use of the "breakthrough" (Ahmadinejad used this expression in telephone conversations with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Saturday).

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki summed up in carefully balanced phraseology much the same when he said, "We won't negotiate about the Iranian nation's natural nuclear rights but are prepared, within a defined, just framework, and without any discrimination, to hold dialogue about common concerns."

The Iranian reaction, in short, will leave room for negotiations. As Mottaki put it, "We think if there is goodwill, a breakthrough to get out of a situation they [EU and the US] have created for themselves ... is possible."

But the challenge facing the Bush administration is immense. Israel and the lobby are closely watching. The Bush administration is yet to give a transparent explanation regarding its abrupt turnaround. There is no certainty that within the Bush administration there is unanimity of opinion.

It is unclear whether Bush and Rice have thought through a strategy of negotiations with Iran (which is of course closely linked to the United States' regional policies) or whether this is a ploy aimed at stalling any Russia-Iran-China energy partnership taking shape within the SCO.

It is certainly going to be an uphill task to keep up a reasonable momentum of negotiations and at the same time assert Washington's leadership of the Iran Six. Not only Russia and China, but also Germany and France would feel justified in seeking to ensure that their bilateral relations with Iran remained protected.

In contrast with the US, they all have huge political and economic interests with Iran. The position of Russia and China on the legal grounds for sanctions or military enforcement measures against Iran may continue to frustrate the US negotiating brief with Iran.

The Russian and Chinese position already allowed room for maneuvering for Tehran. (On the other hand, as Supreme Leader Khamenei implicitly warned on Sunday, Moscow too ought to realize how its existing "good" relations with Tehran would have suffered "if a pro-American government was in power in Iran".)

Finally, as time passes, the fundamental contradiction in the US stance is bound to become more and more glaring: why is it that Iran cannot have what other NPT allies of the US such as Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina can have?
Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan told Annan in Beijing on May 23 that the Iran nuclear issue concerned the "authority and efficiency" of the international non-proliferation mechanism, and "it also concerns the peace and stability of the Middle East as well as international energy security". Therefore, Tang stressed, "It is pivotal for relevant parties to continue dialogue and negotiation, to increase trust and find a solution with broad support."

Bush and Rice have quite a job on their hands.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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Rabbit and carrot: US turns the tables on Iran (Jun 3, '06)

Tehran wants more than talks (Jun 3, '06)

More hot air over Iran (Jun 2, '06)


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