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    Middle East
     Dec 11, 2008
The search for a US envoy for Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

United States president-elect Barack Obama needs to pick a special envoy to deal with Iran, so much is clear by the priority assigned to the Iran nuclear "crisis" by nearly all US foreign policy experts. The question is: Will Obama make the right choice?

This is an exceedingly important question that raises, in turn, another question: What are Obama's criteria for the right choice in this matter? Certainly, in light of Obama's declared willingness to engage the Iranians in dialogue without preconditions, his special envoy on Iran would have to be a convert to this principle.

This essentially means that he or she would not be recycling the George W Bush administration's stiff demand that Iran must halt

 

its uranium-enrichment program before sitting across the table from the US, a position that was reversed by Bush when he sent Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to meet with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Geneva in July. According to Le Monde, Burns confined himself to the following comment:
I'm happy to be here to transmit a simple message: the United States is serious in its support of the offer [of cooperation] and of the way forward [freeze-for-freeze]. We are serious in the search for a diplomatic solution. Relations between our two countries have been based on a profound mistrust for 30 years. I hope my presence today is a step in the right direction, and that you will seize this opportunity.
The idea of "freeze-for-freeze", that is, that Iran would for six weeks or so stop its uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for the US's suspension of any more sanctions, has resurfaced recently. In an article in the International Herald Tribune, Volker Perthes, a prominent German policy advisor, defended this idea under the guise of a "new approach". [1] Yet, neither the Europeans nor the Americans are willing to discuss what their ultimate aim of the dialogue during this period is: to lengthen the Iranian freeze, and if so, for how long and, more important, under what justification?

When Iran several years ago suspended its enrichment program for two years per an agreement with the European troika (Germany, France and Britain), it was understood as a temporary measure of "confidence-building". Yet, the British negotiator, who is now ambassador to the United Nations, John Sawers, sent an e-mail to his fellow European Union counterparts stating that their purpose should be to negate the Iranian position that the suspension was temporary and to make it permanent. So much for good-faith negotiations.

So, the question is: Will it be any better when and if Iran consents to a "freeze-for-freeze" option? Definitely not as long as the West is dead-set in belief that the sole purpose of Iran's enrichment activity is to produce nuclear bombs - which brings one to the subject of an Obama envoy on Iran.

Amid growing reports that Obama is on the verge of naming veteran diplomat Dennis Ross as his special envoy on Iran, this should give serious pause to those hoping to see a noticeable change of US approach toward the Middle East in general and Iran in particular.

Ross, a counselor and distinguished fellow at the pro-Israel think-tank, Washington Institute For Near East Policy, might not be able to fend off undue influences by Israel and pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington.

In his interview with the Huffington Post in July [2], he clearly put a timeline on the US's march to war with Iran, that is, 18 months: "We are headed on a pathway now that will lead to the use of force." No stranger to self-contradiction, a year earlier, in his 2006 article in the Washington Post, titled "A new strategy on Iran", Ross discounted the military option by admitting, "The Iranians can foment a far greater number of insurgent attacks against our forces in Iraq - literally trying to set the Earth on fire under our feet."

Ross is now an ardent believer, just as is practically everyone else in Washington, in comprehensive dialogue with Iran, whereby with a mix of "incentives and disincentives" somehow Tehran's ruling clergy can be persuaded to bracket their "nuclear program" and "give up material support for Hezbollah [in Lebanon] and Hamas [in Palestine]" as well as "opposition to peace with Israel".
Ross does not mention that no matter what the Iranians do or don't do, the Israeli policy of Jewish settlement on Palestinian land, and so forth, will most likely continue. But, in the absence of any evidence that the coming Obama administration will exert any pressure on Israel, which deflects attention from its problems via the "Iran threat", Ross' linkage of a new Iran approach with the stalled Middle East peace simply complicates the nuclear standoff.

A clear delinking of these issues is called for, particularly since Iran is simply too close to the Lebanese Shi'ites to deprive them of its solidarity as part of a nuclear quid pro quo.

On the other hand, Ross' call on the Europeans to "ratchet up the pressure on the Iranians" is also problematic, partly because the economic slump in Europe makes it harder for their governments to impose further sanctions on Iran that would prevent European companies from doing business with Iran. Given the lack of any vested economic interests with Iran, it is easy for US politicians to advise the Europeans to take steps that will translate into net losses for them.

Nor is Ross' call on Iran to accept a "go anywhere-anytime inspection regime" defensible, even by the parameters of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) intrusive Additional Protocol under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Such excessive demands are bound to be rejected by the Iranians, who insist on the normalization of Iran's nuclear file and the application of normal IAEA standards.

According to a Tehran political scientist, Kayhan Barzegar, if there is to be "grand bargain" between Iran and the Obama administration, it has to focus on Iran's regional role, above all in the realm of regional security, with the understanding that a prominent Iran "is not necessarily a threat to US interests". True, but then again it depends on the definition of US "interests". If Obama does not shift the discourse toward a non-hegemonic definition of US "vital interests" in the region, the policy demands of the old hegemonic discourse will inevitably reign supreme and, bottom line, that would put US and Iran perpetually at odds.

On the whole, the recipe for action on Iran by the emerging Obama administration so far does not seem very promising, and Obama has not responded to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's letter congratulating him. Iranians are beginning to feel slighted.

The fact is that Iran has already mastered nuclear fuel technology and the only thing the outside world can do to prevent a "break-out" is to address the country's national security fears and concerns that may one day trigger such a development.

Notes
1. A new approach, no illusions International Herald Tribune, December 4, 2008.
2. 18 Months to Avoid War with Iran The Huffington Post, July 5, 2007. See also Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Delinking options on Iran Asia Times Online, October 18, 2008.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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