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    Middle East
     Sep 13, 2006
Iran steps back from the brink
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Iran has finally blinked, reportedly agreeing to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, as a confidence-building measure in response to growing international pressure.

This is a welcome development that can potentially take the wind out of the sails of the ship of sanctions planned by the US and its
allies at the United Nations Security Council.

A diplomat close to talks between the European Union high

representative on foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, and Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Larijani, in Vienna made the announcement on condition of anonymity.

According to the source, Larijani did not rule out the possibility that Iran would cease uranium enrichment for a month or two. Iran failed to fulfill the requirement of the international community to cease uranium enrichment by August 31, and its case is now before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

It should be noted that Iran imposed conditions on a possible suspension, including, according to some reports, a halt in activity on Iran at the Security Council and a step-down from trying to impose sanctions on Iran.

In response, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated that Iran's temporary suspension of its nuclear program might be enough for the first direct negotiations between the United States and Iran in more than 25 years. Rice said Iran needed to suspend uranium enrichment before talks could begin, but she did not rule out something less than a permanent suspension.

This marks a softening of the US approach, which has steadfastly ruled out any hint of negotiation unless Iran permanently abandons enrichment activities. This hard line has been drawing fire domestically, such as by Senator Chuck Hagel, who has pointed out the need of serious US negotiation with Iran, warning that allies of the United States would support tough action against Iran only if they were confident Washington was serious about achieving a negotiated, diplomatic solution.

Larijani has been a master tactician so far and in making this important concession has proved that he is not quite as unpragmatic and rigid as previously believed. Indeed, he possesses the necessary diplomatic acumen to realize that his earlier criticism of his predecessor, Hassan Rowhani, for inking a similar suspension in October 2004 was not entirely warranted.

Ironically, precisely at the time Larijani was disclosing this important information to Solana, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Iranian press that returning to the past case of suspension was not "a reality".

This, in turn, raises the question of whether or not Iran's internal debate is over and the concession by Larijani is fully backed by the powers that be in Tehran.

Clearly, this is not an easy decision that can possibly satisfy everyone in Iran. Some hardline elements in the Iranian parliament (majlis) and the media are adamantly opposed to any such concessions, insisting that Iran must remain steadfast on its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to peaceful nuclear technology, which includes the right to produce nuclear fuel under the safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog.

As a result, a small political brush fire can be expected if Iran makes good on this announcement and in the near future re-suspends, albeit temporarily, its nascent nuclear-fuel cycle.

Not to worry too much, however, as Iran has placed the accent on "temporary", and in the overall scheme of things, such as the lack of urgency for nuclear fuel in light of Russian foot-dragging on completing the Bushehr power plant and the technical difficulties Iran has experienced with its cascades of centrifuges, such a move by Iran is prudent and absolutely called for as a crisis-prevention measure.

Reflecting a growing sentiment inside Iran's ruling circles, Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, recently told the Financial Times, "We can achieve that right later, if that means we can avoid a crisis."

Indeed, several interrelated factors have converged to bring Iran to this policy shift, ranging from mounting international pressure and the growing prospect of escalating sanctions, to the threat of military action, to Iran's unease about Russia's commitment to complete the expensive nuclear reactor in Bushehr.

Concerning the last, Iran has finally aired its frustration - that the project is now seven years overdue - through Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi. He bluntly told Moscow to make good on its promises to turn Bushehr operational.

Assefi's public comments came in response to reports in the Russian press that Moscow was considering halting its cooperation on Bushehr should the UN impose sanctions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian news agencies that there was no basis to those reports and Russia was committed to its contract with Iran on the power plant.

But of course none of Lavrov's verbal assurance can be completely reassuring to Iran, which sees Washington's hidden hands influencing Moscow to keep postponing the due date for Bushehr's opening day. After all, whereas Russian nuclear officials touring Iran this year had promised that Bushehr would be completed in 2006, they have since extended that, first to early next year and now to late 2007.

Inevitably, many Iranians rightly ponder whether Bushehr will ever be completed, recalling how only a few months ago Nicholas Burns, a top US State Department official, bluntly asked Russia to withdraw from the Bushehr project if Iran failed to heed the UN's call to suspend enrichment activities.

At the time, Russia reacted angrily to the United States' request, but as time has passed and Iran has defied the UN Security Council's demand, Russian President Vladimir Putin is put in an awkward position of either honoring Russia's contract with Iran on nuclear cooperation or going along with the US and EU on the threats of sanctions.

From Iran's vantage point, looking at past episodes of Russia's barter trade with the US over Iran, there is now a distinct possibility that Putin will prioritize his ties to the West over Iran if pushed to make a choice - and the diplomatic momentum is drifting precisely toward such a stark choice.

Consequently, the stakes have exponentially grown for Iran now, with the prospect of a longer-term setback to its much-cherished nuclear program that will have significant ramifications for the country's economic planning.

Given this dire consequence, Tehran has given a serious reply to the international community's incentive package over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran seeks clarification on a number of items, eg, the timeline on the offered nuclear assistance, the guarantee of implementation, given existing US sanctions that preclude the sale of dual-purpose technology to Iran.

Germany and the five permanent UN Security Council members - the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and the US - offered Iran a package of economic and political incentives in June if it suspended nuclear-fuel work. The package was negotiable, but the six powers said Iran had to halt all enrichment work first.

In a sign of moderation toward Iran, US President George W Bush permitted a visa to Khatami and made the conciliatory gesture of stating his willingness "to learn about that country". This is a timely turnabout from his incendiary remarks in August, calling Iran the leader of a global "Islamic fascist" movement.

Certainly, the US and Iran policy of labeling has gotten the two countries nowhere and the sooner they shelve their reciprocal demonization in favor of a prudent, and polite, diplomacy, the better.

As long as Washington ignores Iran's stability role in the region and limits itself to castigating Iran's "subversive" role, there can be no meaningful progress on a key aspect of the incentive package, namely, security.

The package calls for Iran's inclusion in a regional security arrangement and, again, an important prerequisite is Iran's and the United States' ability to see beyond the fog of their hostile rhetoric-supplanting policy and explore their wealth of shared or parallel interests.

Both Tehran and Washington support the present besieged governments in Kabul and Baghdad, and the combination of impending civil war in Iraq, potentially spilling over to neighboring countries such as Iran, and the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan alone dictates fresh thinking on Tehran's and Washington's part on how not to let the situation in the region get out of hand.

Clearly, the nuclear crisis can add a qualitative turn for the worse in the current Middle East crisis still grappling with the tenuous ceasefire in Lebanon, whose economic infrastructure has been wiped out. No matter how Iran publicly celebrates Hezbollah's victory, the fact is that Hezbollah has sustained serious injury and faces an international buffer between itself and Israel that, in turn, denies Iran crucial leverage in its geostrategic game with the US.

This observation leads us to question seriously the conclusion of a recent study by London's Chatham House, which naively proclaims Iran a "major beneficiary" of the "war on terror". Sure, the change of regimes in Kabul and Baghdad has been a security plus for Iran, but the massive infusion of US military might, bolstered by base-building in both Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan and elsewhere in Iran's vicinity, have been tantamount to major tremors threatening the wellspring of Iran's national security.

Any premature conclusion that ignores the security predicament of Iran in the post September 11, 2001, milieu cannot possibly be taken seriously.

In fact, the real, clear and present danger of a US military threat against Iran has caused a state of semi-emergency that the government's leaders yearn to end and to return to the state of normalcy - this against the present pattern of war games and war preparation draining precious resources and deflecting from burning economic priorities.

It is hoped that Iran's declared intention to take the confidence-building measures on its nuclear program will have the desired result of de-escalating tensions in the region.

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

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