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    Middle East
     Aug 9, 2008
Inside Iran's garden of diplomacy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
- Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus

With Russia contradicting the United States and Britain over Iran's nuclear program, saying there is no agreement on whether to try to get further United Nations sanctions against Iran, Tehran is driving a diplomatic wedge between the six powers dealing with its case.

Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, has compared the country's nuclear diplomacy to its unique talent in weaving exquisite carpets, promising to deliver a fine and sumptuous "silk carpet" at the end of the day, and this is what is happening in


negotiations with the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

It is a tough challenge and assumes Iran can overcome multiple and entrenched obstacles, such as United Nations sanctions and collective efforts by the big powers to pressure Iran into compliance with UN demands. These form many blind knots in the process of Iranian diplomatic weaving.

The issue is complex, given the latest video conference of the "Iran Six" representatives in response to Iran's one-page letter to the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana, deemed "unacceptable" by the US and Britain. Yet it is premature to brand Iran's diplomacy a failure and Jalili's efforts futile, as if he were Iran's Sisyphus rolling the nuclear ball up an endless hill in vain.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday said Iran's latest response to a demand for a freeze in uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for trade and technology incentives "is not a really serious answer". She added that Iran faced more sanctions if it failed to give an adequate response. The United Nations has already placed three rounds of sanctions on Iran, while the US has unilaterally imposed sanctions of its own.

But Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin admitted there is no clear consensus on further action against Iran. "There have been no firm agreements or understandings or any kind of concerted work in this regard," he said. "The main thing to remember [is] that the negotiating track is open, it is being pursued, there are contacts between the parties. Of course, some parties do raise the issue of sanctions from time to time."

What is more, per a recent report in the Russian daily Kommersant, Iran-Russia trade talks are in full swing, indicating that the Russians are not particularly worried about a new round of sanctions suffocating Iran's foreign trade.

But the chances are that, as long as we are mired in the language of analogies and mythologies, Jalili will prove a master weaver, planting a multicolored pleasant garden in place of what many Western pundits predict to be more akin to a barren cemetery. That is, the real Sisyphus in this scenario may well turn out to be in Washington, London or Paris.

They may in for a rude awakening soon, in light of the steady normalization of Iran's nuclear file as a result of Iran's improved ties with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reflected in this week's Tehran trip of the IAEA's deputy director, Ollie Heinonen.

According Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Heinonen's two-day trip signals improved "bilateral relations and ways to keep cooperation based on rules". Already, per a recent work plan between Iran and the IAEA, all the so-called "outstanding issues" have been resolved in Iran's favor and, despite some lingering questions about certain "alleged studies" in the past, the process of cooperation between Iran and the IAEA leaves no doubt that the full normalization of Iran's nuclear file is called for and necessary, irrespective of how the nuclear issue has been played out at the UN Security Council.

This, together with the fact that Iran has remained on a positive track in its ongoing dialogue with Solana, interpreting the July 19 talks in Geneva on Iran's nuclear program as a "step forward" and keeping the telephone line open for Solana-Jalili on-going conversations, means that the US-led efforts to drum up support for further UN actions against Iran are counter-productive. They are bound to increase the fissures within the "Iran Six".

These are already apparent. Germany has raised the ire of Washington by signing a gas deal with Iran, and then there is Russia's admission there is no clear consensus in the group.

In addition, Iran received timely support from more than 100 nations at the recent summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, which signed onto a final communique that supported Iran's peaceful nuclear program and praised Iran-IAEA cooperation.

This belies any pretension by the US and its allies that the "Iran Six" speak for the international community. Quite simply, they do not and the bulk of the UN member states are solidly behind Iran's position - that it is entitled to a peaceful nuclear fuel cycle that is fully monitored by the IAEA and lawful under the articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory.

The momentum is slowly shifting in Iran's favor and putting the US and its European allies increasingly on the defensive, thanks in no small measure to Iran's deft, flexible diplomacy, which has been well coordinated across state institutions, centralized in the Supreme National Security Council, and above all has been proactive rather than being merely reactive.

Iran's proactive diplomacy revisited
The delicate hands of Iranian diplomacy have steadily pushed the issue forward, from its own package of proposals, which was submitted to the sextet ahead of their "incentive package" to Iran, to Iran's "non-paper" that delineated a multi-stage, rational negotiation track, to Iran's one-page document, stating Tehran's readiness to provide a "clear response" to the incentive package while demanding a response to Iran's own package as well as its stated concerns and requests for clarifications.

At the same time, Iran has maintained the integrity of its stance in all negotiations, that is, it has not simply responded to the other side's demands, it has dictated its own terms.

It has simultaneously guarded against negotiation-distorting moves and counter-moves, such as President George W Bush's rash labeling of Iran's reaction to the incentive package as a "rejection", even though Iran has not yet formally responded to that package. The latest one-page document from Iran represents a summary of the Jalili-Solana conversation, according to the official Iranian press, and is meant to send a "message" regarding Iran's willingness to continue negotiations in earnest.

As far as Iran is concerned, and contrary to negative spins by the US media and various US government officials, Tehran has given a clear and positive intermediate response that suffices to take the talks to the next level. Yet Washington has rushed to criticize Tehran for giving a response that is neither "clear" nor "positive", thus warranting talk of further sanctions. The mere fact that Iran's response is not fully up to par with Washington's, or London's, expectations does not mean the glass is quite empty.

Complementing Iran's negotiation strategy is a defense strategy. This projects power and demonstrates a growing capability to exact damages on any would-be attackers, such as by test-firing anti-ship missiles and issuing warnings about Iran's ability to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. This has increased the number the chips in the hands of Iran's negotiators in what is often referred to in the Western press as "nuclear poker".

This Iranian hard power makes the difference with an Iraq analogy cited by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has predicted an Iranian defeat at Western hands similar to the one suffered by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

The point is, it was not Saddam's threat but rather his weaknesses, caused by years of isolation and sanctions, that invited the foreign invasion in 2003. Iran's challenge is to precisely defeat the isolation scenario and to produce the tangible benefits of its global diplomacy in the area of diversified trade partners.

In conclusion, the Iran nuclear crisis is one of choice, not of necessity, and can and should be ended by the world powers' agreement to end UN sanctions and return Iran's file to the IAEA. Here, the watchdog agency can exercise due diligence in verifying the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. Anything else, sanctions and punitive measures, will simply backfire against the sponsoring governments, which need to devise a smarter Iran strategy than observed so far.

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. For his Wikipedia entry, click here.

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