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
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
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
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.