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
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
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
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
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
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
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his
Wikipedia entry, click here.