Snub for Iran eases nuclear crisis
By M K Bhadrakumar
A window of opportunity for Iran to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO) seemed to have opened when on July 18 the Russian news
agency quoted a source in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow hinting at such a
prospect. It happened two days after Washington let it be known that a shift in
its Iran policy was under way.
The unnamed Russian diplomat said the SCO foreign ministers at a meeting in
Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a week later would decide on whether to lift a moratorium
on bringing in new states. "The moratorium has lasted for two years. We have
now decided to consider the possibility of the SCO's enlargement," he said. It
appeared that weathering US opposition, Moscow was pushing
Iran's pending request for SCO membership. Founded in 2001, the SCO currently
comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Iran has observer status.
However, in the event, following the meeting in Dushanbe on Friday, Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that the foreign ministers did not
discuss the enlargement of the SCO, while finalizing the agenda of the
organization's summit meeting on August 28, and that Iran wouldn't be able to
get the status of an associate member.
Not only that, Friday's meeting also decided to set up a "mechanism for
dialogue partnership to establish links with all countries and international
organizations that are interested in the SCO". In other words, the US may
finally be on the verge of establishing links with the SCO.
Since such issues are invariably decided within the SCO on the basis of a
consensus between Russia and China, it stands to reason that either Russia
didn't press Iran's membership case or China disfavored the idea. On balance,
it seems to be a combination of both. Conceivably, Moscow didn't press after
informally ascertaining Beijing's lukewarm attitude. Tajikistan, which hosts
the SCO summit in August, has openly favored Iran's membership. If the two Big
Brothers had given the green signal, Tajikistan would have asked Iran to come
in from the cold. No doubt, Tehran, which openly canvassed for SCO membership,
has suffered a diplomatic setback.
On the face of it, neither Russia nor China would have any conflict of
interests to keep Iran out of SCO membership. Both countries enjoy excellent
relations with Iran. As The Russian news agency acknowledged, "Both China and
Russia have major commercial interests in Iran. China wants Iranian oil and
gas, and to sell weapons and other goods to that country, while Moscow hopes to
sell more weapons and nuclear energy technology to Tehran. The Kremlin also
needs Iran's endorsement for a multinational arrangement to exploit the Caspian
Sea's energy resources." They have been, arguably, the principal beneficiaries
of the Iran nuclear problem. Their "principled position" on the Iran problem
enabled them to optimally tap business opportunities in Iran so long as the
West continued to boycott Iran and Tehran needed friends.
What emerges is that Moscow and Beijing take great care that their doublespeak
on the Iran problem never quite gets to the point of antagonizing Washington.
As for Tehran, being an experienced player itself, it let the charade continue
and even to try to extract any advantages out of it as far as possible, until
options opened up with regard to Iran's relations with the West.
But the endgame may be nearing. It seems neither Beijing nor Moscow quite
expected that to happen so soon. Chinese commentators and scholars have been
confident that short of a war, the US-Iran standoff would remain on a high
pitch during the rest of US President George W Bush's term in office. Moscow
commentators were relatively outspoken and speculated on disarray at the
leadership level in Tehran, which all but precluded any progress on the nuclear
problem. They wrote that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was "on his way out". On
the whole, Russian commentaries have become needlessly critical of Tehran.
Chinese commentators have lapsed into silence.
Why is Moscow (and Beijing) edging closer to the West's stance? The short
answer is, they seem to be apprehensive that Tehran has found a new
interlocutor for communicating with Washington - Turkey. Thus, soon after talks
ended in Geneva on July 19 on Iran's nuclear program , Iran's chief nuclear
negotiator, Saeed Jalili, headed for Ankara, where Iranian Foreign Minister
Manouchehr Mottaki joined him. The two Iranian diplomats briefed Turkish
Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who flew to Washington immediately thereafter.
Tehran has indeed made a very interesting choice here.
Ankara is currently also mediating between Syria and Israel - most certainly,
with Washington's acquiescence, if not encouragement. Besides, Turkey has some
unique credentials to aspire to as a go-between in the US-Iran standoff. Apart
from being a leading country in the Islamic world, it is one of the US's
staunchest regional allies, while its relations with Iran have been on a steady
upswing in recent years. It is quite capable of acting as a bridge between the
Christian and Muslim worlds. Its strategic location makes it a kind of bridge
between Europe and the Middle East.
Despite its hostility toward Tehran, the US has largely looked away from
Turkey-Iran cooperation in stabilizing northern Iraq. Washington will not throw
a spanner into the Iranian attempt to mediate the easing of tensions in
Turkey-Armenia relations or in bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan to a path of
dialogue and negotiations. Such Iranian efforts would even serve the interests
of US regional policies in the Caucasus. Most important, Iran can be the key to
the realization of the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which would go a long way
in reducing Europe's energy dependence on Russia. Turkey, in turn, would be the
transportation corridor for any Iranian gas to be pumped to Europe.
All in all, therefore, a fascinating pattern of interlocking diplomatic moves
is forming on the regional chessboard in which Turkey, Syria and Israel are
already openly engaged as protagonists with Iran now appearing on the scene.
(Mottaki visited Damascus en route to Ankara.) The very fact that Turkey has
extended an invitation to Ahmadinejad to pay a visit to Ankara and the alacrity
with which the visit is being scheduled for late August surely indicates that
the diplomatic tempo is expected to pick up in the coming period. For the
beleaguered Islamist government in Ankara, any diplomatic breakthrough on this
front would be a feather in its cap, enhancing its prestige and prospects of
survival while at the same time underscoring Turkey's immense importance as a
regional power for both the US and the European Union.
Overarching everything is the reality that the clock is ticking for the
finalization of a US-Iraq security pact. (Turkish President Abdullah Gul is
scheduling a visit to Baghdad.) In the absence of a security pact, a further
extension beyond December of the United Nations mandate on the international
forces in Iraq becomes necessary, which in effect means that the US troops have
to stay in Iraq. Washington is desperately keen to wrap up the security pact,
though it is clear that the end-July deadline cannot be met. Tehran opposes the
pact and has influence on the Iraqi ulema, government and Iraqi groups
to block the pact.
Tehran has the capacity to ratchet up tensions in Iraq, but it is also in a
position to play a significant role in bringing down tensions. Indeed, the
Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cannot afford to cross
swords with Tehran. Clearly, no matter what Moscow commentators seem to think,
if Washington were to press ahead in September with a tough UN sanctions
resolution against Iran, it must be prepared for the fallout on the Iraq
In a fundamental sense, the Iranian stance remains highly pragmatic,
notwithstanding its matching rhetoric against the US or Israel. The Iranian
reaction to the deal between Hezbollah and Israel on a prisoner exchange was
restrained. Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani complimented
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for the latter's "wise diplomatic efforts
that guaranteed calm in the region", even while sending a "strong message to
Zionists that they are facing a strategic deadlock in the region". Tehran is
manifestly helping to calm the situation in Lebanon. It didn't disapprove of
the deal between Hamas and Israel either. Again, it has allowed the US to
finesse the Shi'ite Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. And it has signaled
its welcome to the establishment of a US diplomatic presence in Tehran and has
reiterated its own interest in establishing direct flights between the
Significantly, at such a critical turning point when issues of peace and war
are hanging by a thread, it was more than a coincidence that former Iranian
president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was chosen to deliver the customary Friday
prayer sermon at the Tehran University campus. The main thrust of his speech,
addressed unmistakably to the Western audience, was that the Israeli lobby in
the US is once again working hard to torpedo nuclear talks by harping on a
"deadline" and an "ultimatum" to Iran.
After taking a well-trodden route peppered with the familiar rhetoric of the
Islamic revolution of 1979, Rafsanjani came to the point. The senior cleric who
has seen many ups and downs in US-Iran relations over the past three decades,
urged, "With patience and perseverance, let us give this negotiation a chance.
Every time the situation is about to improve, these Western hardliners and
radicals begin their diversionary ploys, which only shows some powers cannot
bear to see peace in the region."
Rafsanjani summed up, "Iran is ready to negotiate. The aim of the talks is also
clear ... Staging military maneuvers and holding talks from a distance cannot
resolve issues. Do not try to invent pretexts. Be patient and let wise people
sit down and talk to resolve the problems."
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.