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    Middle East
     Dec 12, 2007
Iran prepares to further its US 'interests'
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Heated debate in Iran on the government's foreign policy moves have followed the US's release of its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program, coinciding with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's attendance at the 28th annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This has put the government on the defensive at home precisely when both developments have had beneficial results for Iran's foreign policy.

The GCC summit ended with a ritual statement on the part of the six sheikdoms - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - regarding Iran's possession of three

islands claimed by the UAE - Abu Mousa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb. But several Tehran editorials have attacked Ahmadinejad's decision to take part, particularly since post-summit GCC newspapers have nuanced it by claming that Iran had "invited itself".

Thus, for instance, while the daily Hambastegi has raised a "complaint against unwise foreign policies", another paper, Aftabe Yazd, asked Ahmadinejad why he allowed the Gulf states to belittle Iran. Another (moderate) paper, Etemad, questioned Ahmadinejad's trip not only to Qatar but also to Iraq, as well as his reaction to the NIE.

Simultaneously, another spark for public debate of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy moves has been provided by Ahmad Tavakoli, a member of Parliament (Majlis), who wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad questioning the wisdom of "expressing boundless joy" with regard to the NIE, which accuses Iran of illicit nuclear weapon activities until 2003. Tavakoli also questioned the wisdom of a pro-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stance on Iran's part which could backfire, given the record of the United Nations' watchdog in allowing the Iran issue to be politicized.

"This could come to haunt us in the future," Tavakoli warned, and his letter has been widely disseminated by the more moderate and liberal press in Iran. A mini clash between the pro-Ahmadinejad and anti-Ahmadinejad papers has thus appeared, with the latter accusing the former of distorting the president's initial reaction to the NIE as a "victory" for Iran.

Since last week, the Iranian government has been fine-tuning its response to the NIE and Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, has told a US news program, Charlie Rose, that the report contains a dual "positive" and "negative" nature, putting the accent on the US's new admission of lack of nuclear weapons work by Iran.

Relatedly, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated that "70%" of the NIE report is "correct", again emphasizing the positive side of it as far as Iran is concerned and urging Western governments to "correct their policies toward Iran".

So far, with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreeing to keep up the pressure on Iran, instead of introducing any sea-change in Europe's Iran policy, Iran has vested its hope on a more gradual, or better said incremental, impact of the NIE report, reflected in the Tehran visit of the head of the EU's board of parliamentary relations with the Islamic Republic, Angelica Ber, who, on meeting with Mottaki last week, stated that Iran's dossier should be returned from the UN to the IAEA.

Clearly, Ber is now articulating a growing sentiment in Europe that is somewhat traumatized by the White House's late disclosure of its new information on Iran, much to the chagrin of the French, in particular whose President Nicolas Sarkozy quickly jumped the gun by declaring Iran, in his first post-election interview, to be the number one issue of world peace because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Unable to make the necessary u-turn potentiated by the new NIE report, France and other EU governments have followed an unreconstructed approach with regard to Iran that is self-defeating and bound to have deleterious effects on the future of the EU's self-generated foreign-policy initiatives in the global arena. It is up to Ber and other EU politicians to openly "think the unthinkable", namely, publicly calling for the end of UN sanctions on Iran and the normalization of Iran's nuclear file in light of the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing on Iran's part.

Even in the absence of such a brave initiative on Europe's part, Iran's European policy has now been much strengthened as a result of the NIE report. This has been seized on by the government to put Europe on the defensive and cause a split from the US, which has been hard-pressed to justify the absence of any policy change toward Iran by recycling the old accusations of Iran's "threat to region", to paraphrase Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a security conference in the Persian Gulf last week. Clearly, the US's Iran policy has been delivered a stunning self-blow and the lame-duck White House is now operating in a vacuum on Iran policy.

Indeed, the NIE's impact, in raising the possibilities for a new US-Iran breakthrough, has for now at least had a disorienting consequence both in Tehran and Washington. On the one hand, the report has been immune from any visible US policy change toward Iran, as reflected in Gates' blistering attacks on Iran above-mentioned. On the other hand, Iran has responded forcefully to Gates' accusations by maintaining, in the words of a Tehran Times editorial, that the US has been simply reacting negatively to Iran's regional gains as reflected in Ahmadinejad's participation at the GCC summit.

The same sentiment in reflected in the pro-Ahmadinejad website, www.rajanews.com, in a commentary that claims Ahmadinejad has upstaged the Americans by his shrewd GCC initiative (which included a 12-point program for Iran-GCC cooperation in various economic, security, tourist, environmental and other areas).

Irrespective of minor, negative Arab feedback on Ahmadinejad's GCC initiative, such as by a Kuwaiti daily, the fact is that the GCC on the whole, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have welcomed Iran's new cooperative spirit. That means the domestic critics of Ahmadinejad are missing their mark when focusing on the secondary issues and neglecting the primary importance of Ahmadinejad's initiative, in seeking a new level of cooperation with the hitherto anti-Iran GCC. Fortunately, Iraq's leaders have not made the same error and have echoed Ahmadinejad's initiative by calling for a "regional system with Iran's participation".

That is certainly a good and timely idea, except that Iran refuses to take part in any US-sponsored security infrastructure, contrary to the claim of two Iran "experts" [1] . They naively think that Iran can be somehow persuaded to shelve its hallmark of identity, which is regional patriotism [2] and antipathy to dependence on extra-regional forces for underwriting security in the Persian Gulf, and thus become part of one happy family.

Such naive analyses of complex geopolitical realities in today's Persian Gulf region, where the US-Iran games of strategy denote a dynamic new cold war featuring containment strategies mirror-imaging each other, simply add to policy confusions instead of clarifying them.

However, the good news is that the US and Iran are moving in the right direction, that is by holding their fourth round of direct dialogue on Iraq's security later this month, and the NIE report, as well as the relatively good news about declining violence in Iraq, have improved the climate for a genuine, bilateral dialogue that, conceivably, can have broader purview touching on regional security issues.

As in the previous Cold War, conflict, competition and selective cooperation go hand-in-hand in the new milieu in the Persian Gulf, and Iran's priority now is to minimize its national-security risks and take advantage of the NIE's biggest implication in removing the risk of military confrontation in what would undoubtedly be "asymmetrical warfare".

Henceforth, small steps toward US-Iran confidence-building are called for, to build on the momentum generated by the NIE, which is under attack by Washington's war-mongers, such as former ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who has called it a "coup against Bush".

Israel, equally unhappy with the NIE, has begun its own campaign against the report, and it remains to be seen if Israel can reverse its "reversal of fortunes" on Iran in Washington. One thing is clear: the unreconstructed Republican presidential contenders, such as former New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani, who is running a stern anti-Iran media advertisement, are fundamentally incapable of reckoning with the NIE's findings, which deprives them of the lion's share of their Iran-bashing "tough president" image. No matter how hard Gates and company try to fix Iran's evil image, the NIE's major tremor in altering that image is still rumbling.

Inapt criticisms of Ahmadinejad
On the whole, contrary to the Iranian press' criticisms of Ahmadinejad, both the president's reaction to the NIE and his new GCC initiative make perfect sense and are undeserving of blistering attacks. These include those from certain members of the Majlis, who have criticized the government's "emotional and adventurist foreign policies, dominated by non-expert behavior and officials who only seek propaganda gestures".

In response, the president's deputy for parliamentary affairs, Seyed Ahmad Mousavi, has defended the government's foreign policy, stating that its priority is "having the upper hand and an active and powerful presence in the international arena".

There is today a considerable, though explainable, gap between the rhetoric and reality of Iran's foreign policy, the image and the content, which is not altogether dysfunctional, thus pointing at the very complexity of Iran's foreign priorities in the post-September 11, 2001, context.

The US, for sure, has deferred more weight to Ahmadinejad than to his more moderate predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, and the stage is now set for exploring what Ali Larijani, the former chief nuclear negotiator and current representative of the Supreme Leader in the Supreme National Security Council, has termed as "shared interests" between the US and Iran. The mere introduction of this term in the foreign policy lexicon of Iran is a sign of the evolution of Iranian thinking toward detente with the US, and the US would be remiss to ignore it.

1. Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, The Costs of containing Iran, Council on Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008. Similarly, the authors make the error of denying any real foreign policy input by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, attributing it solely to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei , yet another caricature of reality that overlooks the complex, and dynamic, nature of foreign policy making in today's Iran, where the leader, although the final arbiter of policies, does not necessarily act as a fount of policies, stemming from a complex set of variables including the executive branch led by the president.
2. See the author's Pan-regionalism: the next stage in Iran's foreign policy, Payvand's Iran News, March 22, 2002.

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