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    Middle East
     May 16, 2012


Tehran seeks to reset relations
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

In the current tumult of diplomatic maneuvers ahead of the crucial Baghdad talks on Tehran's nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 nations scheduled for May 23, reflected in multiple "cold" signals from the West, Iran and France are poised to reset their troubled relations if certain conditions are met.

This much can be seen in the surprise three-day Tehran visit by Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister, less than two weeks after the stunning presidential victory of his socialist colleague, Francios Hollande, who will introduce his cabinet on Wednesday.

Although dubbed as a "private visit", Rocard's high-profile meeting with top Iranian officials and lawmakers has clearly unnerved the United States and Israel, which worry that Paris may no longer

 

toe Washington's line on Iran, as it did for five consecutive years under the right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy.

On the surface, Hollande's government will undoubtedly maintain unity of purpose with the US, the United Kingdom and Germany, the other Western powers involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear talks (along with Russia and China), insisting that Iran must "fulfill its international obligations".

In reality, however, Hollande and his foreign policy team will be more inclined to echo Moscow's diplomatic approach, crystallized in its "step-by-step" proposal that reportedly calls for a temporary suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment program and gradual lifting of sanctions against Iran in exchange for its enhanced nuclear transparency.

Concerning the latter, on Monday and Tuesday, Iran and the top officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, are holding crucial talks aimed at reaching consensus on resolving the agency's areas of concerns about Iran's nuclear program, such as suspicion of nuclear-weapons related activities at the Parchin military complex.

In a conversation with the author last week, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, dismissed Western media reports regarding "certain activities" at Parchin as pure propaganda and insisted that the IAEA's own reports about Parchin pertain to 10 to 12 years ago - and if Iran had any intention of "cleaning up" any evidence it would have done so long ago and not waited until now.
The chances are the two sides will reach an agreement on a modality for further cooperation and the IAEA will be permitted to visit Parchin and, most likely, conclude that there is nothing suspicious, just as it has on two previous occasions.

For sure, the Iran-IAEA talks are an important mood-setter for the Baghdad meeting and, if successful, could shift the momentum in Iran's favor, much to the chagrin of the US and Israeli Iranophobic politicians and pundits who want to derail the Iran nuclear talks by forcing Western governments to adopt a hardline approach toward Tehran. [1]

The latter appear to be making some headway with the European Union, whose foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was in Tel Aviv this month and subsequently made a rather hawkish statement regarding stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program, in sharp contrast to her more conciliatory behavior during and especially after the April nuclear talks in Istanbul. As expected, Tehran has reacted negatively to the pre-talk pressure tactics, warning they could damage the prospects of the Baghdad talks. Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

The French connection
It is in this volatile and highly uncertain environment that Paris and Tehran are now engaged in the preliminary stages of exploring the option of improving relations, which are intimately connected to a whole set of other relations and considerations. These include France's pre-commitment to the EU's current coercive approach toward Iran, which will culminate in the EU's oil ban on Iran in July if the Baghdad talks fail to made tangible progress.

In that event, heightened tensions with Iran will simply translate into added economic woes for the troubled eurozone that can ill-afford the shock waves of an Iran crisis causing higher oil prices.

Optimistically, however, France and Iran may be on the road to a new chapter in their relations if the Iran-IAEA talks bear fruit and set the stage for more concrete progress in Baghdad. Then, France, which downsized its embassy in Tehran last December, may reverse course by restoring full embassy facilities, and Iran might also reconsider its decision to suspend oil shipments to France.

Although France received only 3% of its oil imports from Iran, there is no reason why this can't increase if the countries manage to reset their relations.

Not only that, Hollande is apt to discover a serious partner in dialogue in Tehran with respect to a number of key regional issues, such as Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, in the light of Hollande's campaign promises to withdraw French forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012.

The big question is whether or not the candidate-turned-president Hollande, who has no prior foreign policy experience, will be able to withstand pressure from fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members led by the US to reconsider his campaign promises.

Hollande's first foreign policy test will be at the NATO meeting in Chicago this month that is bound to be preoccupied with the question of Afghanistan's growing instability, not to mention Syria's escalating civil war.

Another important issue, which has raised the ire of Moscow, is NATO's planned anti-missile defense shield in Europe as well as modernization of NATO's nuclear delivery capability by relying on new US bombers.

A trend in Europe is that compliant right-wing politicians who have forfeited European national security into American hands are on their way out, and a more self-assertive EU is on the rise that could detach itself from the American-Israeli militaristic modus operandi.

NATO's nuclear modernization policy is coming under fire from some European pundits, who have labeled it as "expensive and unnecessary", although a more apt description might be dangerous.

The Western military assumption - that they can go about beefing up their nuclear arsenal and capabilities and, worse, rely on them for foreign policy purposes, while at the same time holding up the banner of anti-proliferation and demanding other nations to simply consent to their nuclear hegemony without an iota of resistance - is a tissue of naive Euro-centrism that lacks credibility with much of the rest of the world.

This is especially true about the Middle East, where Israel continues to receive critical nuclear-weapons related technology from the West while simultaneously portraying itself as a victim of Iran's fictitious "nuclear threat". (See Israel stokes the Iran threat Asia Times Online, May 8, 2012.)

Given the above, the new socialist government in France is caught between conflicting priorities, given the long-standing French socialists' support for Israel. But, with today's Israel led by right-wing and some "messianic" politicians, to paraphrase criticism of some top Israeli intelligence officials critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the worst thing that Paris could do would be to endorse Netanyahu's warmongering approach toward Iran. This would have serious adverse consequences for the European economy if left unchecked.

A more prudent French approach, reflected in Rocard's trip to Iran, is to build bridges with Tehran and thus act as a positive influence in resolving the Iran nuclear standoff through wise diplomacy, thus compensating for the current falling rate of diplomatic wisdom vis-a-vis the dangerous Iran crisis. [2]

Notes
1. Critical Threshold in the Iran Crisis The New York Times, May 11, 2012.
2. Former French premier welcomes expansion of trade cooperation with Iran Irna, February 25, 2012.

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. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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