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    Middle East
     Dec 18, 2009
Iran blasts off ahead of countdown
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

WASHINGTON - As if tensions were not high enough, Iran on Wednesday test-fired an upgraded version of the Sajjil-2, a solid-state, medium-range, ballistic missile, drawing immediate criticism from the United States for the "provocative" act.

Iranian Defense Minister General Ahmad Vahidi said the missile's test would act as "a strong deterrent" against possible foreign attack, referring to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, which in some quarters in the West is believed to be designed to build a nuclear bomb.

The billows of smoke raised as the missile soared from its desert launch site cannot hide the fact that the crisis is coming to a head, with one important deadline set for Tehran just under two weeks away.

Adding heat to the issue were accusations run in The Times of


London this week that, in 2007, Iran was working on a trigger device for a nuclear bomb; the country has consistently claimed that over the past five years at least, its nuclear program has been solely for peaceful purposes.

Center-stage in the escalating crisis is a "fuel-for-fuel" initiative. On October 1, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) proposed a plan under which Iran would send the bulk of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to a third country to be further enriched, then shipped back to Iran for use in a medical research reactor in Tehran.

The administration of United States President Barack Obama has given Iran until the end of the year to respond to international demands on the nuclear issue, including this option, or face "tough" sanctions in addition those already in place by the United Nations and the US. Last Friday, European Union leaders also warned Iran that its apparent refusal to negotiate over its nuclear program would be met with a tough response.

It has now emerged that, several months ago, the US and Russia expressed in a non-official document presented to Iran their intention of helping the country with the delivery of highly enriched uranium for the small five-megawatt medical reactor in Tehran; this after Iran's formal request to the IAEA in June for assistance in this matter.

Then on Sunday, the New York Times reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had announced that Iran was now willing to ship out some of its LEU in a "simultaneous exchange" for nuclear fuel, in small batches and on Iranian soil. Iran would, for instance, place some 400 kilograms of its LEU under IAEA custody, perhaps on the Persian Gulf island of Kish, and, on a good-faith exchange of fuel, ship out a second such volume.

However, this has been flatly rejected by the West, with US officials saying the Iranian offer was inconsistent with the proposal brokered by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

"The IAEA draft agreement responds to Iran's request for fuel for the Tehran research reactor and offers Tehran an opportunity to begin to build confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program," a senior White House official was quoted as saying. "We urge Iran not to squander this opportunity," the unnamed official added.

This "take-it-or-leave it" Western approach, to paraphrase Iran's envoy to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, threatens to undermine the political goodwill of the Barack Obama administration in particular, recalling the US president's promise of honest diplomacy based on mutual respect and mutual interests.

According to Khazaee in his presentation to representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement at the UN headquarters in New York last Friday, the IAEA-proposed agreement did not take into consideration the Iranian viewpoint, and this was partly due to the fact that after the October Geneva talks on Iran, due to time constraints, the parties had not had a chance to discuss the issues involved.

The US and Iran are due soon to start another round of Geneva talks, along with other members of the "Iran Six" - Britain, France, Russia, China, France and Germany. These are now under threat, given the mood on all sides.

For the Iranians, a major problem is that US lawmakers are rushing the government toward new sanctions on Iran that could, if implemented, lead to a naval confrontation, in light of the possibility of an enforcement role for the US Navy in preventing foreign supplies of refined petroleum products into Iran.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill to this effect on Tuesday. It has still to pass through the senate, and the State Department appears to want to delay its passage so as not to adversely affect the administration's Iran policy.

One of the sponsors of the Iran Petroleum Sanction Act openly talked about "naval interdiction by the most powerful navy in the world". In short, the legislation is an invitation for naval confrontation between the US and Iran at a time when regional tensions are already high and the region is traumatized by years of conflict.

A leading voice against that bill was representative Dennis Kucinich, who reasoned that its expression of friendship toward the Iranian people rang hollow because the bill was likely to penalize average Iranians by causing them more economic hardship.

Kucinich is in the minority, though, and the bill's supporters appear to have made up their minds. Any waverers might have been swayed by the accusations carried in The Times' report regarding a two-page letter that deals with Iran's alleged "neutron initiative".

The letter appears on paper without a letterhead, precise date or seal of any kind. The New York Times has even hinted that it might be a fabrication designed to raise international alarm over Iran by presenting a "smoking gun".

This issue and the sanctions bill have certainly raised some smoke - including strong denials from Iran. So much so that the fuel-for-fuel project, in whichever form, has been overshadowed. It is unlikely that the bill will go before the senate, but given the US's end-December deadline, there is precious little time for diplomacy to stop the crisis from spiraling even further out of control.

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 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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