Iran launches new phase in nuclear crisis
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
On the same day Iran launched a rocket named Simorgh (Phoenix) into
space, Tehran pulled its diplomatic engagement with the West back from the
brink, saying it was prepared to accept a nuclear "fuel-for-fuel" proposal and
exchange three Americans held in Iran with Iranians imprisoned in the United
On Tuesday, in an interview with Iranian television, President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad said Iran had "no problem" with a deal proposed last autumn under
which Iran would relinquish most of its partially enriched uranium to be
processed in the West before
it was returned as nuclear fuel. He also said he was "hopeful" concerning the
three detained Americans; remarks that received a cautious welcome from some
"It's unclear what the president was referring to yesterday. I think from our
standpoint, we will look for actions as opposed to just words," said Philip
Crowley, a US State Department spokesman. "We will look forward to hearing
about the Iranian position through the IAEA [International Atomic Energy
Agency]. I think we're just seeking clarification through the IAEA."
Some Western politicians and media pundits characterized Ahmadinejad's remarks
as an Iranian "retreat", while Iranian officials said it was a sign that Iran
was willing to show transparency and aimed to reduce tensions over the nuclear
"The exchange of fuel reflects the flexibility of Iran's nuclear diplomacy,"
said Abulfazl Zahrvandeh, Iran's former ambassador to Italy. "Ahmadinejad's
statements concerning the fuel swap proposal were articulated in the past,
nothing new has happened. The delicate point in these statements deals with
objective guarantees rather than 100% guarantees ... the issue of objective
guarantees remains and the Western powers must move toward
China and Russia reacted swiftly to the news from Tehran, with Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov declaring Moscow's readiness to engage in the fuel swap
- Russia and France are the likely locations for the fuel processing. For
China, currently engaged in a heated diplomatic row with the US over its
planned arms sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama's plans to meet the
Dalai Lama, Iran's apparent change of course may strengthen Beijing's hand and
put the US on the defensive.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was "perplexed and even a bit
pessimistic" about Ahmadinejad's proposal, which he interpreted as "buying
time" ahead of possible new United Nations sanctions.
Insisting that there were no behind-the-scenes negotiations with Tehran,
officials from the Obama administration reacted by expressing willingness to
pursue negotiations, though they said Iran must first submit a formal offer of
the deal to the IAEA. The likelihood of this request being satisfied depends on
the ability of the Tehran elite to reach a consensus on nuclear strategy.
There remain ambiguities about Ahmadinejad's remarks that need to be clarified,
such as a write-up on the president's interview on his website,
www.rajanews.com, that put a different spin in its headline, "Gradual exchange
of fuel is not possible."
Another Iranian website, Tabnak, asked for more "transparency" from the
president, in light of the Western media's claim that Ahmadinejad had consented
to a "four to five months" time gap between Iran's delivery of nuclear fuel and
the receipt of higher-grade fuel for its Tehran reactor. The reference to four
or five months is not listed in the text of Ahmadinejad's TV interview.
Moreover, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in interviews with the foreign
press had stressed the need for a "simultaneous exchange".
Though Iran will continue to press for a simultaneous exchange, it will likely
not insist on this as a do-or-die precondition and Tehran will remain amenable
to a reasonable time gap between the outward shipment of 3.5% enriched uranium
and inward delivery of 20% enriched nuclear fuel rods. This is based on the
rationale that, should the West not return the fuel as promised, the
international environment would change to Iran's benefit.
This stance was outlined by Ahmadinejad in his television interview, "Some
people at home made a noise and said they would take our fuel and not give us
anything. And we responded, if they don't, what happens? Whose words will be
proven? If they do not fulfill their obligations, it will be proved that we
were right and the hands of the atomic agency and the signatories of the
contract will be exposed and then we will do our own things."
With respect to the three Americans hikers who were detained in July and
charged with spying after they strayed into Iran from Iraqi-Kurdistan,
Ahmadinejad said, "We do not like to see anyone in jail. There are some talks
and if it happens we are willing to do an exchange."
However, US officials have swiftly dismissed the idea, saying Americans in
Iranian custody cannot be equated with Iranians convicted in US courts.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that Iran must
"unilaterally release" the three US citizens - Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer and
Sarah Shourd - on humanitarian grounds. (See Pawns in a nuclear chess game, Asia Times
Online, February 4, 2010)
White House spokesman Bill Burton also called Iran's launch on Wednesday of a
Kavoshgar-3 rocket capable of carrying a satellite a "provocative act", while
Western media said it seemed a display of the nation's advancing missile
technology. The Obama administration announced this week plans for new defenses
against possible Iranian missile attacks in the Persian Gulf, including special
ships off the Iranian coast and Patriot anti-missile systems in Kuwait, the
United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
Iran has said that the launch of a rocket into space carrying living organisms
- a rat, two turtles and worms - was part of a peaceful Iranian space program.
The test of the Simorgh rocket, which is capable of carrying 60-kilogram
satellites 500 kilometers into orbit, coincided with Iran's annual Space Day
and the "days of dawn" between February 1 and 11 - which celebrate the Iranian
revolution and the days between the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiniนs return
to Iran on February 1, 1979 and the shah's exile 10 days later.
"These miraculous satellite projects are, in fact, key to the connection
between god and mankind," Ahmadinejad said at a ceremony to mark the Simorgh
With Iran demonstrating its willingness to pursue the twin tracks of
negotiations on nuclear fuel and prisoner exchange, it may prove difficult for
the US to justify the current swing in Washington towards a new round of
sanctions on Iran. A Western diplomat at the United Nations told the BBC on
Thursday that the US planned a fourth round of UN sanctions, including expanded
travel bans and asset freezes on people connected with the nuclear industry.
Israel, which gave rhetorical support for the IAEA-backed nuclear fuel
proposal, has mixed feelings about it since the deal not only legitimizes
Iran's enrichment activities it also could lead to a major diplomatic
breakthrough between Iran and the West. In this scenario, all eyes would then
focus on Israel's role in the stalled Middle East peace process.
On the other hand, Israel cannot be blind to the nuclear deal's significance in
terms of depleting Iranian "strategic assets" that can be used for weapons
purposes. This is what Obama referred to in October last year following a
fruitful multilateral meeting with Iran. Tehran has hinted at its readiness for
a "Geneva II" and, barring unforeseen developments, an announcement regarding
this matter should come shortly.
The deterioration of Tehran's relations with London led to the Iranian
president's press statement that "in the nuclear issue, on the condition of
fulfilling our nation's interests we will cooperate with all nations except
England the Zionist regime ... Russia, France and American can come and sign
contracts, build 20 nuclear reactors for us. It is in everyone's interest,
their interest and our interest."
The British government has, however, chosen to ignore this aspect of
Ahmadinejad's speech, welcoming it and emphasized the importance of sustaining
the Iran talks with the "Iran Six" group consisting of the US, France, Russia,
China, Great Britain and Germany. This points at a third aspect of any deal
with Iran, in addition to the two cited above, and that is a firm guarantee by
Western powers to steer clear of Iran's internal affairs in light of the recent
noise regarding "regime change" in Western media.
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.