Beyond the nuclear stalemate

Beyond the nuclear stalemate
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Asia Times, Hong Kong
30 Oct. 2004

TEHRAN – As expected, two rounds of talks between Iran and the European
Union Big Three (EU-3) – France, Germany and Britain – have failed to
resolve the growing dispute over Iran’s quest to produce low-enriched
uranium. In response to the EU-3’s demand that Tehran halt enrichment
activities, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this week
denounced what he called an “oppressive and unreasonable request” and
warned that Iran may terminate nuclear dialogue if the other side
persists in asking Iran to forego its “inherent right”.

The European negotiators in Vienna, including a representative from the
EU, refrained from calling the talks a failure, however, and, seeking
to salvage a seemingly sinking ship of diplomacy, expressed hope for a
more fruitful result in the next round, reportedly scheduled on
November 5 in Paris, just a couple of weeks before the United Nations’
nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
meets in late November to review the growing storm over Iran’s program.
The EU has warned Iran it will back United States calls for Iran to be
reported to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions at the
November 25 IAEA meeting if enrichment suspension is not verifiably in
place by then.

>>From Iran’s vantage point, in light of some 15 visits by the IAEA
inspectors in the past couple of years, the 23-member IAEA board of
governors should “close the file” on Iran – or face the prospects of
Iran withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But at the same
time, not every aspect of the EU-3’s “package offer” has been appraised
negatively by Tehran.

On the contrary, Iranian officials tried to put a positive spin on the
offer, which included promises from the EU that it would help Iran
acquire nuclear fuel “at market prices” and also support its light
water facility, as well as Iran’s bid to join the World Trade
Organization if Iran agrees to suspend its nuclear enrichment program
pending a “long term agreement”. A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme
National Security Council interpreted this as a step forward from the
previous, US-led demand that Iran suspend its enrichment activity
“indefinitely”. On the eve of the second Vienna talks, Iran’s top
negotiator articulated a sentiment widespread among Iranian officials
for a European deal that “would be thicker on the positive and thinner
on the negative”.

Meanwhile, the United States and Israel, playing anxious observers,
made a concerted effort to up the ante, with an Arabic paper in London
circulating a “reliable rumor from Washington” regarding an impending
strike by US forces against various Iranian facilities “including
certain mosques”, and Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon airing his
fear of “Iran’s existential threat to Israel”.

Concerning the latter, there are reasons to take such fears with a
grain of salt. For one thing, it was Iran under Cyrus the Great who
freed the Jews enslaved by the Babylonians and issued a decree allowing
them to return to their homeland. Even in today’s Islamic Republic,
with a population steeped in ancient history, it is hard to see how
Iran would ever venture to drop nuclear bombs on Israel, killing not
only the Jews but also the Muslim Arabs inhabiting Israel. Israel is
widely regarded as an “out of area” country by most Iranian foreign
policy makers, and while Iran remains ethically committed to the
struggle of Palestinian people for their right to self-determination,
this does not, and for the most part has not, translated into any
Iranian “over commitment” to the Palestinian people.

Nor is the situation of Lebanese Shi’ites, led by militant group
Hezbollah, any different, substantively speaking. Iran no doubt enjoys
its hard-earned sphere of influence in Lebanon, after 23 years of
military and financial investment, and has encouraged the Hezbollah to
take the parliamentary road to power. Thus, Israel’s paranoia about an
Iranian bomb in Hezbollah’s hands imperiling Israel’s existence is a
tissue of an unrealistic nightmare scenario built around a caricature
of the Muslim “other” as irrational zealots, when in fact, a cursory
glance at Iran’s foreign policy indicates the rule of sober national
interests over ideology.

>>From the Persian Gulf, where Iran has entered into low-security
agreements with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as shared energy
projects with nearly all the oil states of the Gulf, to Central
Asia-Caucasus, where Iran has promoted regional cooperation through the
Economic Cooperation Organization, and, in addition, has acted as a
crisis manager (eg, in Tajkistan and Nagorno-Karabakh), Iran’s foreign
policy has been widely praised by its neighbors, including Russia, as
constructive, pragmatic, and peace-oriented.

For US and Israeli officials – and their media mouthpieces – to
overlook this and, instead, attribute an out-of-control, purely
ideological orientation to Iran’s foreign policy, begs the question of
objectivity on their part; their virulent Iran-bashing actually serves
as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since by causing the further wrath of
Iranians by their pre-scripted policy of sanctions and isolation of
Iran, Tehran’s hardliners turn out to be the major beneficiaries, much
to the detriment of Iran’s liberalist reformers.

This aside, it is important, particularly for Europe, to consider the
fact that Iran is still leaving the door open for the extension of
Iran’s voluntary suspension of the fuel cycle. Hence, the glass may
actually be half full, and the EU-3 should ultimately embrace this
opportunity to seal an agreement with Iran, even though it may be short
of their hoped-for maximum objective. To do so, however, the EU-3’s
leadership must recognize that Iran is not another Iraq, and that with
its strong military and a population twice the size of the rest of
Persian Gulf combined, Iran must be treated with a great deal more
deference than Iraq.

After all, Iran is a main source of energy for Europe, both now and
more so in the future, and any UN sanctions on Iran’s oil industry will
instantly translate into higher prices at the European gas pumps,
hardly a pleasant prospect for the EU as a whole. Not only that, some
EU countries, such as Norway, Spain, Greece, and Italy, are likely to
oppose the EU-3’s hard diplomacy toward Tehran in light of their
cordial economic and trade ties with Iran. This means that the
collateral damage of a failure of EU-3’s Iran diplomacy may be a lot
more widespread than hitherto thought; that is, it may introduce policy
fractures inside the European Union itself.

With the stakes so high, a prudent European approach to the Iranian
nuclear stalemate might be explored along the following lines: A
balanced package whereby Iran would agree to a temporary, six months to
a year’s halt in its enrichment activities as part of a “confidence
building” measure, in exchange for which Iran would implement its
declared policy of “full transparency” and allow unfettered access of
IAEA inspectors to the nuclear facilities in Natanz, Isfahan, and
elsewhere in Iran, per the terms of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol.

Such an agreement may not allay Europe’s fear of Iran going nuclear
altogether, but at least it provides institutional mechanisms for close
monitoring of Iran’s nuclear programs, which in turn, minimizes the
risks or threats of Iran telescoping these programs to weaponization.
If combined with parallel initiatives, such as an Iran-EU security
dialogue, this initiative would likely be effective in terms of the
long-term process of dissuading Iran from the path of acquiring nuclear
weapons, a path that in the current milieu of a sole Western superpower
acting like a “wild elephant”, to quote an Iranian official, is
theoretically conducive to the idea of Iranian nuclear deterrence.
Historically, rising insecurity has been a prime motive force for
nuclear weapons, and Iran may turn out to be no exception, in the long
haul, if the US and Israel fail to address Iran’s security worries.

For the moment, such theoretical concerns do not appear to have
influenced the drift of actual Iranian policies, notwithstanding the
repeated public pledges of Iran’s leader to refrain from pursuing
nuclear weapons considered “amoral”. Yet, the dictates of national
security interests may dictate otherwise in the future, all the more
reason to consider the issue of Iran’s nuclear program within the
larger framework of regional and global security, instead of apart from

Unfortunately, the US and some European officials often overlook that
other countries too may have legitimate national security worries, a
serious oversight caused by their consistent Euro-centrism and
US-centrism. As long as a clean break from such arcane, underlying
security conceptualizations, or a cognitive map, has not materialized,
it is hard to see how the two sides in this stalemated negotiation can
achieve a healthy, mutually satisfactory, breakthrough.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions
in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and Iran’s Foreign Policy
Since 9/11, Brown’s Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former
deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political
science at Tehran University.