With mounting tensions in the Middle East greeting President George W Bush's
trip this week to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Washington could seize the
opportunity for direct dialogue with Tehran, both on the subject of Iraq's
security and on Iran's controversial nuclear program. Yet, the White House
seems more interested in locking horns with Tehran's rulers than in exploring
confidence-building steps necessary for detente between the countries.
In Iraq, in light of Iran's successful mediation between the Iraqi government
and Shi'ite militias in embattled Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq's Foreign Minister
Hoshyar Zebari has called on Iran and the
US to "resume talks on seeking a solution to Iraq's security problems". And
Tehran, which suspended talks in reaction to the US's "indiscriminate attacks
on civilians" - per the words of an Iranian Foreign Ministry official - is now
poised to set aside its reservations and engage in a fourth round of dialogue
with Washington, assuming the White House is ready for it.
Unfortunately, the US's decision not to send a delegate, along with other
representatives from the "Iran Six" nations (ie, the United Nations' Security
Council permanent members plus Germany) to Tehran this week to formally present
their latest "incentive package" with respect to Iran's nuclear program, is a
bad decision. It is tantamount to missing a golden opportunity to commence
direct nuclear talks with Tehran, albeit through a multilateral "package
diplomacy". (In addition the the US, the other permanent UN members are Russia,
China, France and Britain.)
The US has doled out to London the task of studying an Iranian counter-proposal
that deals with "all aspects of our relationship with the international
community", to quote Iran's ambassador to London. There are set limits to such
diplomacy that cannot possibly compensate for the lack of direct and formal
contact that weighs on policy makers in a more meaningful and substantial way.
Although Tehran has ruled out suspending its uranium-enrichment program as
demanded by the Security Council, there are strong indications Tehran will give
a nuanced, studied reaction to the "incentive package", particularly if the US
is perceived to be an integral part of it. Yet, that is not the impression
given by the US, which in 2006, after the delivery of a similar "incentive
package" to Iran, openly balked at the idea of "nuclear sharing" with Iran, as
well as giving any "security guarantee", as promised in that package. The
question, then, is: is it any different now?
Combing through various public signals and statements from Washington, there
appears to be no clear answer. Instead, the same old politics of ambivalence
can be observed, without any evidence that lame-duck President George W Bush,
who still hopes to leave a legacy of a peacemaker in the Middle East in the
twilight months of his eight-year presidency, after years of diplomatic hiatus,
has any clue about how to break some ice with Tehran.
Instead, with the show of force by the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Beirut last
week serving "a blow to Washington", to paraphrase a report by the Associated
Press, and Washington and Tel Aviv accusing Iran and Syria of instigating
instability in Lebanon, the chances are the net result of Bush's trip will be
to further cement a key US strategy in the Middle East. That is, containing
Iran by following a policy of alliances against the region's "rogue states" led
A problem with this approach is, however, that it risks worsening the already
hot climate that has in part been responsible for the giant increases in oil
prices, precisely at a time when prudent steps to de-escalate tensions are
called for. If anything, Iran's positive input in Iraq above-mentioned should
be taken as a good omen by the US. That is, that Tehran's shrewd politicians
are pragmatists and they can be counted on to replicate that role elsewhere,
for example in Lebanon.
Yet, that is highly unlikely when (a) various "moderate" Arab states such as
Jordan and Egypt bask in the rewards of the US's containment strategy and (b)
Israel continues to benefit from the side effects of such tensions that in
effect make the situation in the occupied territories into a side-show as far
as world public opinion is concerned.
The US should not mortgage its foreign policy into the hands of other players
in the region and should "show more sensitivity toward Iran", to echo the
sentiments of the director general of the UN's International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA), Mohammad ElBaradei.
IAEA officials are in Tehran this week for a third round of talks on the last
remaining issue on the Iran-IAEA plate, that is, alleged weaponization studies.
Iran's top envoy at the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has had a closed-door
meeting with ElBaradei, this while Iran's European diplomats have gone on the
offensive, hinting at greater Iranian flexibility on the nuclear issues,
perhaps even Iran's willingness to re-adopt the intrusive additional protocols
of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as part of Iran's own "package".
An "outline" of this package has been presented to Spain, which has amicable
ties with Iran, and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has issued
a statement that "we have no problem with this country".
"Iran welcomes talks with the Five plus One [Iran Six]," Mohammad Mohammadi, a
member of Iran's parliamentary commission on national security and foreign
policy, has stated. This is yet another sign that Iran is prepared to engage in
direct dialogue with the US on the nuclear issue.
Meanwhile, an editorial in the Tehran Times has quoted a former Foreign
Ministry official, Ali Khorram, as stating, "Iran can show a positive reaction
to the West's package and thus silence the massive propaganda campaign claiming
that Tehran is being uncooperative." A number of Tehran pundits have stressed
the importance of creating a "positive atmosphere" and, yet, the US does not
seem the least bit inclined to take advantage of this, or of Iran's offer for
participation in regional security cooperation.
Regional security linked to nuclear dialogue A Russian official familiar
with the content of Iran's (counter) package has told a British paper: "They
want to secure regional cooperation and other incentives, but carry on doing
what they're doing with uranium enrichment. That is not going to fly."
Russia has already signed into law the terms of the Security Council's third
round of sanctions on Iran and Iran has little expectation from the Kremlin's
new boss, Dmitry Medvedev, to deviate from his predecessor's Vladimir Putin's
nuanced policy of backing UN sanctions while continuing nuclear cooperation
But is Moscow truly interested in a major breakthrough in the Iran nuclear
standoff that, hypothetically, heals the wounds between the US and Iran, in
light of the security rampart of the "Iran Six" incentive package? If so, then
is Moscow blind to the fact that building confidence between Iran and the West
on the security front is an important prerequisite for such a breakthrough? The
answer is that Moscow has its own unique set of interests that do not
necessarily point in the direction of endorsing any meaningful leap in security
understanding - not only between the US and Iran but also between Iran and the
Iran's former top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has urged the government to
"stop paying so much attention to Russia" and a certain decoupling of Iran's
foreign policy priorities from what some Iran pundits call a "Russia-centric"
approach may be on the horizon in Tehran. Tehran is disquieted by Russia's
intervention in Georgia, which was a part of Iranian territory for some 400
years prior to being ceded to Russia in the early 19th century, and Moscow's
current bid to bolster irredentist movements in the breakaway regions of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgian do not sit well with Iran. (Iran still
remembers Russia's similar post-World War II gambit in northern Iran, when
Moscow supported Iranian Kurdish and Azerbaijani separatists.)
What is more, with fresh signs of Islamist turmoil in such south Russian parts
as Ingushetia, a harsher anti-Islamist Moscow policy is likely in the near and
intermediate future which, again, does not bode well for the future of
That aside, the question of "security incentives" for Iran certainly merits
attention, especially at a time that Tehran sees itself under the heavy guns of
the US. Another pertinent issue is what Europe can offer.
Most of Iran's political analysts seem to agree that not much can be expected
from the European Union as a whole or of its leading member states, given the
US's prominent role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Europe is too
slow in devising an independent security strategy and despite lip service by
the likes of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Germany and others in the EU
are ill-prepared to offer Iran any meaningful "security incentive" on their
own. Rather, when it comes to such issues, the centrality of the US's role is
Still, that does not preclude important secondary initiatives that have the
potential to cause minor breakthroughs and thus improve the climate between the
EU and Iran. A good step would be for Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy
chief, who is about to lead the "Iran Six" delegation to Tehran to deliver the
incentive package, to take with him a representative from the OSCE
(Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe), to explore an Iran-OSCE
Among its 56 participating states, the OSCE has a presence in most of Iran's
neighboring countries - Turkey, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan,
Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Russia, Armenia and Uzbekistan. Also, the OSCE has
been engaged in conversations with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf who are
members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and, therefore, there is no logical
reason why Iran should shun a similar discussion with the OSCE regarding areas
of collaboration. The OSCE was created during the Cold War-era as an East-West
forum and is concerned with conflict prevention, crisis management and
Indeed, Iran and the OSCE have a history of collaboration - in Nagorno Karabakh
in the South Caucasus and Tajikistan's civil war during the early 1990s, when
Iranian and European mediators worked together to diffuse the situation in both
conflict theaters. Although Iran has some misgivings about the OSCE's recent
prioritization of elections and corruption in the OSCE-participating states,
there is sufficient ground for common cause between Tehran and the OSCE
This could pave the way to the OSCE's opening of a skeletal office in Tehran in
the near future, in light of Iran's package that focuses on "energy security"
and combating narcotics traffic, among other things. Both these issues are
priorities for Europe and Europe would be remiss to overlook the need to
enhance its selective "confidence-building cooperation" with Iran as a prelude
for a breakthrough in nuclear talks. The failure of Europe's leaders to do so
has a practical as well as a symbolic significance; in a word, it would
reinforce Tehran's suspicion that the EU's talk of an independent post-Cold War
foreign policy is simply for public consumption.
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.