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    Middle East
     Jul 13, 2006
US's zero-sum diplomacy toward Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

On the eve of the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Russia, President George W Bush and his top policymakers openly boast about the US's multilateralist diplomacy toward Iran and, yet, their all-or-nothing approach with respect to Iran's nuclear enrichment program represents a zero-sum pseudo-diplomacy bound to fail.

While pressing Iran to provide a response to the international package prior to the much anticipated summit in St Petersburg, the US government has preemptively rejected the middle-of-the-road option of putting Iran's enrichment program on standby while the talks continue.

In talks in Brussels on Tuesday, the two sides made no headway with Iran, which is still refusing either to accept or reject the offer



of incentives made five weeks ago by six of the world's powers in return for giving up its uranium enrichment program.

In a recent interview with the Arms Control Association, the US envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), George L Schulte, clarified that the US opposes the idea of Iranian centrifuges running on "empty". Suspension, Schulte, explained, "means all enrichment activities to include research and development. We are not looking to parse that in some fashion. We're looking for a full suspension".

Lending a scientific hand to this maximalist US demand, the nuclear scientist David Albright has stated: "Among the proposals and counterproposals seeking a resolution to this issue, one that is especially gaining momentum in some quarters of Europe and Iran is to allow Iran's centrifuges to spin but with no uranium hexafluoride. This would give Iran important knowledge of centrifuge cascade operations with proliferation risks of its own, and must not be part of the negotiated settlement".

Yet, what Albright misses is the reason this option is gaining momentum in Iran and Europe, that is, its feasibility as a viable third option that, as stated by this author in a previous article, can potentially break the present impasse on nuclear talks, since anything beyond that, that is, full suspension, is simply not in the realm of political possibilities in Iran today.

In addition to readily dismissing a viable option increasingly favored by the Europeans, the US diplomacy is suffering from a chronic lack of creativity thinly cloaked by pseudo-solutions aimed at capturing the headlines more than providing substantive grounds for multilateral diplomacy.

In the latest development from Washington the US is about to start negotiations with Moscow for disposing some of its nuclear waste in Russia. Per the reports in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, this deal would be closely linked to Russia's cooperation on Iran. According to the National Security Council spokesman, Frederich L Jones, "we have made clear to Russia that for an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation to go forward, we will need Russia's active cooperation in blocking Iran's attempt to obtain nuclear weapons".

But, this is clearly a US misstep for three main reasons. First, as the host for the G8 summit, Russia hopes to utilize the opportunity to sell its new image as an energy superpower, not the dumping ground for nuclear wastes by the US and other third countries using US-made power plants, and this can hardly be said to favor Russia's global image.

Second, Russia's growing environmentalist movement is adamantly opposed to President Vladimir Putin's initiative in this regard and, consequently, any such US-Russia deal, is bound to add to Putin's unpopularity at home.

Russia today is already threatened by "widespread contamination of the environment", per a recent report of the environmentalist group, Ekozashachita, which has predicted "minimum profit and maximum radioactive waste", If the deal goes through "each Russian citizen will get an average of 140 grams of nuclear waste and $3.50".

Presently, Russia has 26 nuclear waste sites, many of them causing serious environmental problems. They include the city of Moscow, the Northwest region of Russia, the Kara Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Ural mountains, the Techa River. Even the G8 host city of St Petersburg is put at risk by the train shipments of nuclear waste tunneling through town, per the complaints of Greenpeace activists who cite the numerous problems with Russia's aging and malfunctioning train system, bedeviled by a long list of incidents.

Third, the strong linkage between the nuclear waste deal and Moscow's Iran policy is also bound to backfire with the Russian nationalists surrounding Putin who would be risking his reputation if he consents to this linkage. One thing is certain, precisely because of the US linkage diplomacy, the nuclear waste agreement will likely take longer to ink, perhaps not even during the remainder of Bush's presidency. Much ado about nothing then?

Not necessarily, in light of the rather robust US-Russia cooperation on strategic threat reduction, both sides have agreed to renew until 2013 their historic agreement to cooperate in reducing threats involving their nuclear arsenals. That agreement outweighs other, less important considerations and tensions, between Russia and the US, which is why the Bush administration's explicit linkage of normal nuclear cooperation to Russia's Iran policy is both illogical, untimely and unworkable.

This brings us to the agenda overload of the upcoming G8 summit. With North Korea's missile tests dropping in at center stage, the world leaders, including China's president, attending the summit might end up devoting more attention to North Korea than to Iran.

This, in turn, puts China at center stage, takes some of the heat from Russia, and simultaneously alleviates some of the pressure from Iran that has been somewhat cornered by the mounting pressure to respond to the package. Already, one of Putin's top aides, Sergi Prikhodko, has clarified that Iran will "not be a central international topic" at the summit. Both Prikhodko and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have kept up hopes that Iran will in the end adopt Russia's proposal for nuclear fuel production for Iran inside Russia, and that is probably one of the strongest common denominators of the White House and Kremlin at the moment.

Everything else has the bittersweet taste of zero-sum diplomacy unlikely to find too many converts either in Tehran, Moscow or elsewhere in Europe.

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. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review. He is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction .

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


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