Iran: Maneuvers and more maneuvers
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
The power struggle over Iran at the United Nations Security Council has reached
a critical threshold, with Russia and China throwing their weight against a
proposed sanctions resolution and the United States toughening its stance by
insisting on identifying Iran's nuclear program as a threat to global peace and
Meanwhile, Iran's military exercises in Persian Gulf send a strong
signal that Tehran is in no mood to compromise its rights.
Indeed, the theater of Iran's nuclear row has definitely extended to the warm
waters of the Persian Gulf, scene of a US-led arms-interdiction exercise late
last month, followed by the 10-day land, sea and air maneuvers by Revolutionary
Guards, proudly displaying Iran's new generation of missiles that "can reach
the far corners of Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea", to quote a military
The "Great Prophet 2" exercise was specifically billed by the Iranian press as
a powerful response to the US-led maneuver that was, in the words of an Iranian
analyst on the semi-official website Baztab.com, conducted "in parallel with
the pressures on Iran at the Security Council".
The author goes on to state that Iran's unveiling of its advanced missile
technology, including the enhanced Shahab-3, which can carry multiple warheads,
demonstrates the futility of any attempt to deprive Iran of this technology, in
light of the draft UN resolution banning the sale of all nuclear and missile
technology to Iran. Another message is Iran's intention to retaliate against
any neighboring state that collaborates with the US on any attacks on Iran.
As far as Iran is concerned, the rationale for the US having a permanent
presence in the Persian Gulf is aided by the hyped-up allegations of Iran's
nuclear proliferation. This is hardly a figment of Iranian imagination or
paranoia. After all, the people who put together US President George W Bush's
foreign-policy agenda were frank when they stated, in their report for a new
century led by the United States titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses", that
their horizon transcends Iraq: "The United States has for decades sought to
play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security ... the need for a
substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the
regime of Saddam Hussein." One might add that it also transcends Iran's nuclear
Combining hard power with soft power
Simultaneously, Iran has combined its military, hard-power approach with a deft
soft-power approach by (1) allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) to conduct more inspections of Iran's uranium-enrichment activities, in
light of Iran's announced launching of a second cascade of centrifuges, (2)
announcing Iran's willingness to hold direct talks with the US on Iraq, and (3)
encouraging Hezbollah to participate in Lebanon's national-unity talks.
Moreover, Tehran has been busy playing host to visitors from the likes of
Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and France, soliciting sympathy for its grievance
against the United States' "illegal bullying" on the nuclear issue.
Thus, for example, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Saeed Jalili recently told a
French parliamentary delegation to Tehran that Iran's nuclear diplomacy is
based on the twin pillars of "maintaining Iran's rights within the framework of
the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and lack of diversion from the peaceful
Regardless, the US has remained steadfast on the notion of stopping Iran from
the path of mastering the enrichment technology that would ultimately allow it
to possess nuclear weapons, to paraphrase US Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice in her recent interview with the Bloomberg news agency.
But the United States' "zero-sum" approach on Iran's centrifuges is clearly not
working, and the military option is unlikely to bear fruit now or in the
future, notwithstanding Iran's nationalist zeal and pride behind the nuclear
project. Instead of making futile efforts within or outside the UN to pressure
Iran to give up its nascent nuclear-fuel cycle, the US and its European allies
are better off pursuing the alternative of ensuring that the objective
guarantees regarding Iran's peaceful program are fail-safe and trustworthy.
As IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei recently stated, Iran is a "latent nuclear
power". The question, as articulated by this author in a recent piece in the
Harvard International Review, is how to avoid idealism and to pursue policies
that would ensure Iran's latent proliferation tendency remains just that,
latent. After all, this tendency is germane to the nature of beast, as the
dual-purpose nuclear technology and the possibility of "reverse engineering"
even in the event of a full suspension of questionable activities testify.
The UN's conundrum
It is perfectly possible now that a Security Council action against Iran may
have the unwanted, yet fully predictable, consequence of aiding Iran's latent
proliferation tendency, by bolstering the hands of hardliners who counsel
Iran's exit from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and termination of its
cooperation with the IAEA. In that case, both the UN system and the
non-proliferation regime would have suffered, thus adding to the monumental
headaches introduced by North Korea's nuclear test.
In a recent conversation with a senior UN official, this author was told that
the Security Council has "boxed itself" in concerning some form of sanctions
against Iran in light of that country's defiance of Resolution 1696, which
called on Iran to suspend some of its nuclear activities. "The council does not
have the option of completely ignoring this, and for its own sake if nothing
else, will take action sooner or later."
The above sentiment is seemingly shared by a number of Tehran politicians,
including several members of parliament (MPs) who have openly predicted that
"we are on the verge of witnessing limited sanctions against Iran". According
to Soleyman Jaafarzadeh, a member of parliament's National Security and Foreign
Relations Committee, the best option is "calmness on Iran's nuclear dossier ...
benefiting both Iran and the Western nations".
Stating, like other top Iranian officials, that "Iran is ready for
comprehensive cooperation", Jaafarzadeh and his colleagues have at the same
time warned about Iran's "firm and appropriate response" to any sanctions.
Another MP, Hossein Afarideh, who serves on the Energy Committee, has aired
blunt criticisms of Russia, accusing Moscow of seeking "incentives" from the US
in line with its "own interests" to the detriment of Iran. Afarideh has thus
articulated a growing fear in Iran that ultimately Russia will go along the
sanctions regime and set aside its present misgivings on UN action against
Of course, not everyone inside or outside Iran shares this sentiment about
Russia, and an opinion column in the International Herald Tribune levels the
opposite criticism at Moscow for toying with the US and maneuvering at the UN
to Iran's advantage. By the same token, from Iran's vantage point, Russia's
vulnerability to such stinging criticisms in the West translate into even
bigger question marks about Moscow's ultimate stance on the nuclear row.
In light of a new secretary general assuming his position in January, the UN is
in a state of political transition, and chances are the Security Council will
defer action until early next year. For the Bush administration, whose Middle
East policy was severely tested in the United States' mid-term elections this
week, this is not such a bad option either, since to do otherwise is simply to
augment the boiling pot of Middle East crisis at a time of falling oil prices
and when the US public is in no mood for higher energy costs this winter.
Henceforth, with the window of opportunity of several weeks to negotiate the
Iran nuclear issue in European capitals, the lesser evil out of UN's conundrum
is, indeed, none other than inaction. Anything else might be a recipe for
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
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.