Snub For Iran Eases Nuclear Crisis

M K Bhadrakumar

Asia Times Online
July 28 2008
Hong Kong

A window of opportunity for Iran to become a member of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO) seemed to have opened when on July
18 the Russian news agency quoted a source in the Foreign Ministry
in Moscow hinting at such a prospect. It happened two days after
Washington let it be known that a shift in its Iran policy was
under way.

The unnamed Russian diplomat said the SCO foreign ministers at a
meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a week later would decide on whether
to lift a moratorium on bringing in new states. "The moratorium has
lasted for two years. We have now decided to consider the possibility
of the SCO’s enlargement," he said. It appeared that weathering US
opposition, Moscow was pushing

Iran’s pending request for SCO membership. Founded in 2001, the SCO
currently comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan
and Uzbekistan. Iran has observer status.

However, in the event, following the meeting in Dushanbe on Friday,
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that the foreign
ministers did not discuss the enlargement of the SCO, while finalizing
the agenda of the organization’s summit meeting on August 28, and
that Iran wouldn’t be able to get the status of an associate member.

Not only that, Friday’s meeting also decided to set up a "mechanism
for dialogue partnership to establish links with all countries and
international organizations that are interested in the SCO". In other
words, the US may finally be on the verge of establishing links with
the SCO.

Since such issues are invariably decided within the SCO on the basis of
a consensus between Russia and China, it stands to reason that either
Russia didn’t press Iran’s membership case or China disfavored the
idea. On balance, it seems to be a combination of both. Conceivably,
Moscow didn’t press after informally ascertaining Beijing’s lukewarm
attitude. Tajikistan, which hosts the SCO summit in August, has openly
favored Iran’s membership. If the two Big Brothers had given the
green signal, Tajikistan would have asked Iran to come in from the
cold. No doubt, Tehran, which openly canvassed for SCO membership,
has suffered a diplomatic setback.

On the face of it, neither Russia nor China would have any conflict
of interests to keep Iran out of SCO membership. Both countries enjoy
excellent relations with Iran. As The Russian news agency acknowledged,
"Both China and Russia have major commercial interests in Iran. China
wants Iranian oil and gas, and to sell weapons and other goods to
that country, while Moscow hopes to sell more weapons and nuclear
energy technology to Tehran. The Kremlin also needs Iran’s endorsement
for a multinational arrangement to exploit the Caspian Sea’s energy
resources." They have been, arguably, the principal beneficiaries
of the Iran nuclear problem. Their "principled position" on the Iran
problem enabled them to optimally tap business opportunities in Iran so
long as the West continued to boycott Iran and Tehran needed friends.

What emerges is that Moscow and Beijing take great care that their
doublespeak on the Iran problem never quite gets to the point of
antagonizing Washington. As for Tehran, being an experienced player
itself, it let the charade continue and even to try to extract any
advantages out of it as far as possible, until options opened up with
regard to Iran’s relations with the West.

But the endgame may be nearing. It seems neither Beijing nor Moscow
quite expected that to happen so soon. Chinese commentators and
scholars have been confident that short of a war, the US-Iran standoff
would remain on a high pitch during the rest of US President George W
Bush’s term in office. Moscow commentators were relatively outspoken
and speculated on disarray at the leadership level in Tehran, which
all but precluded any progress on the nuclear problem. They wrote
that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was "on his way out". On the whole,
Russian commentaries have become needlessly critical of Tehran. Chinese
commentators have lapsed into silence.

Why is Moscow (and Beijing) edging closer to the West’s stance? The
short answer is, they seem to be apprehensive that Tehran has found
a new interlocutor for communicating with Washington – Turkey. Thus,
soon after talks ended in Geneva on July 19 on Iran’s nuclear program
, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, headed for Ankara,
where Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki joined him. The
two Iranian diplomats briefed Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan,
who flew to Washington immediately thereafter. Tehran has indeed made
a very interesting choice here.

Ankara is currently also mediating between Syria and Israel
– most certainly, with Washington’s acquiescence, if not
encouragement. Besides, Turkey has some unique credentials to aspire
to as a go-between in the US-Iran standoff. Apart from being a leading
country in the Islamic world, it is one of the US’s staunchest regional
allies, while its relations with Iran have been on a steady upswing
in recent years. It is quite capable of acting as a bridge between
the Christian and Muslim worlds. Its strategic location makes it a
kind of bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

Despite its hostility toward Tehran, the US has largely looked away
from Turkey-Iran cooperation in stabilizing northern Iraq. Washington
will not throw a spanner into the Iranian attempt to mediate the
easing of tensions in Turkey-Armenia relations or in bringing Armenia
and Azerbaijan to a path of dialogue and negotiations. Such Iranian
efforts would even serve the interests of US regional policies in the
Caucasus. Most important, Iran can be the key to the realization of the
Nabucco gas pipeline project, which would go a long way in reducing
Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Turkey, in turn, would be the
transportation corridor for any Iranian gas to be pumped to Europe.

All in all, therefore, a fascinating pattern of interlocking diplomatic
moves is forming on the regional chessboard in which Turkey, Syria
and Israel are already openly engaged as protagonists with Iran
now appearing on the scene. (Mottaki visited Damascus en route to
Ankara.) The very fact that Turkey has extended an invitation to
Ahmadinejad to pay a visit to Ankara and the alacrity with which the
visit is being scheduled for late August surely indicates that the
diplomatic tempo is expected to pick up in the coming period. For the
beleaguered Islamist government in Ankara, any diplomatic breakthrough
on this front would be a feather in its cap, enhancing its prestige and
prospects of survival while at the same time underscoring Turkey’s
immense importance as a regional power for both the US and the
European Union.

Overarching everything is the reality that the clock is ticking for the
finalization of a US-Iraq security pact. (Turkish President Abdullah
Gul is scheduling a visit to Baghdad.) In the absence of a security
pact, a further extension beyond December of the United Nations
mandate on the international forces in Iraq becomes necessary, which
in effect means that the US troops have to stay in Iraq. Washington
is desperately keen to wrap up the security pact, though it is clear
that the end-July deadline cannot be met. Tehran opposes the pact
and has influence on the Iraqi ulema, government and Iraqi groups to
block the pact.

Tehran has the capacity to ratchet up tensions in Iraq, but it
is also in a position to play a significant role in bringing down
tensions. Indeed, the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki cannot afford to cross swords with Tehran. Clearly, no matter
what Moscow commentators seem to think, if Washington were to press
ahead in September with a tough UN sanctions resolution against Iran,
it must be prepared for the fallout on the Iraq situation.

In a fundamental sense, the Iranian stance remains highly pragmatic,
notwithstanding its matching rhetoric against the US or Israel. The
Iranian reaction to the deal between Hezbollah and Israel on
a prisoner exchange was restrained. Iranian Majlis (parliament)
speaker Ali Larijani complimented Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah
for the latter’s "wise diplomatic efforts that guaranteed calm in the
region", even while sending a "strong message to Zionists that they
are facing a strategic deadlock in the region". Tehran is manifestly
helping to calm the situation in Lebanon. It didn’t disapprove of the
deal between Hamas and Israel either. Again, it has allowed the US to
finesse the Shi’ite Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. And it has
signaled its welcome to the establishment of a US diplomatic presence
in Tehran and has reiterated its own interest in establishing direct
flights between the countries.

Significantly, at such a critical turning point when issues of peace
and war are hanging by a thread, it was more than a coincidence
that former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was chosen to
deliver the customary Friday prayer sermon at the Tehran University
campus. The main thrust of his speech, addressed unmistakably to the
Western audience, was that the Israeli lobby in the US is once again
working hard to torpedo nuclear talks by harping on a "deadline"
and an "ultimatum" to Iran.

After taking a well-trodden route peppered with the familiar rhetoric
of the Islamic revolution of 1979, Rafsanjani came to the point. The
senior cleric who has seen many ups and downs in US-Iran relations
over the past three decades, urged, "With patience and perseverance,
let us give this negotiation a chance. Every time the situation is
about to improve, these Western hardliners and radicals begin their
diversionary ploys, which only shows some powers cannot bear to see
peace in the region."

Rafsanjani summed up, "Iran is ready to negotiate. The aim of the talks
is also clear … Staging military maneuvers and holding talks from
a distance cannot resolve issues. Do not try to invent pretexts. Be
patient and let wise people sit down and talk to resolve the problems."

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri
Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.