Monday, March 13, 2006

In Iran, Conciliation Falls by the Wayside

Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times:
After years of trying to prevent its nuclear program from being judged in the Security Council, Iran has decided to shift course and confront the United Nations head-on. Tehran is gambling that the 15-member Council, which plans to take up Iran's nuclear dossier for the first time this week, will be too divided to inflict meaningful punishment.

Economic sanctions against Iran, the second- largest oil producer in OPEC, could send the price of oil soaring. Military force, for the time being at least, is seen as unlikely with U.S. troops stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So Iran's leaders have abandoned a strategy of trying to woo the world and are now saying the Security Council process can take its course.

"Let the Security Council review the dossier directly," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a news conference in January, defending his nation's decision to re-open its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz for what Tehran says are research purposes. "Since we have a clear logic and we act according to the law, we are not worried."

In Tehran on Monday, Ahmadinejad portrayed that position not as obstinate or rigid but as a reflection of strength.

"We know well that a country's backing down one iota on its undeniable rights is the same as losing everything," state television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. READ MORE

He added: "We will not bend to a few countries' threats, as their demands for giving up our nation's rights are unfair and cruel."

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader who once stood before the United Nations and branded it "a paper factory for issuing worthless and ineffective orders," has endorsed the strategy. Addressing leading clerics in Tehran on Thursday, he vowed to "resist any pressure and threat," adding: "If Iran quits now, the case will not be over."

Other Iranian officials have unleashed a steady stream of threats in recent days - to stop selling oil, to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to stop negotiating a deal with Russia on enriching uranium on Russian soil, to inflict unspecified "harm and pain" on the United States. None of them are designed to build international confidence, a key component of Iran's previous negotiating strategy.

But then, with few exceptions, the Islamic Republic has never had much use for the Security Council.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, the Council did not even call for a cease-fire or the withdrawal of Iraqi troops. When Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers later in the decade - the first verified use of chemical weapons since World War I - the council refused to impose sanctions.

Iran had only itself to blame, the Security Council seemed to say. It was seen as a renegade state that could not be trusted. It had violated international law when protesters seized the American Embassy in 1979 and held diplomats hostage for 444 days. It had continued the war against Saddam for years after he brought his soldiers home.

But for almost three years, Iran had taken whatever small conciliatory measures were necessary to keep its nuclear program off the United Nations' agenda.

Avoiding action in that forum was at the heart of Tehran's decision to open negotiations with France, Britain and Germany in 2003 and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency access to its nuclear sites, said Hassan Rowhani, who was replaced as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator after Ahmadinejad took office last year.

"At that time, the United States was at the height of its arrogance and our country also was not yet ready to go to the UN Security Council," Rowhani said in September to Iran's Supreme Cultural Revolution Council as he was leaving his post.

Consideration of Iran's case by the Security Council would give the United States more power over Iran's fate, reduce the influence of the Europeans and open up Iran's missile program to new scrutiny, Rowhani said.

So "the most important promise" the Europeans gave Iran "was that they would stand firm against attempts to take this case to the UN Security Council," he said.

The speech, essentially a personal defense of Rowhani's negotiating strategy after he had been fired, was published later in the autumn in his Persian-language journal, Rahbord.

Iran's strategy had been based on keeping its nuclear program secret, Rowhani said, and once that secrecy was broken by the discovery of clandestine sites in 2002, Iran became vulnerable to outside pressure and had to negotiate.

Tehran, he said in the speech, had "no choice" except to enter into an agreement with the Europeans to suspend all uranium-enrichment activities and open its nuclear facilities to inspectors.

Under an agreement forged with the Europeans in November 2004, Tehran pledged to freeze activities to make enriched uranium as long as the two sides were negotiating a long-term package of economic, political, technological and security rewards for the country.

But in a remarkable admission, Rowhani suggested in the speech that Iran had used the negotiations with the Europeans to dupe them. He boasted that while negotiations were continuing, Iran managed to master a key stage in the nuclear fuel process - the conversion of yellowcake at its plant in Isfahan.

"While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan, but we still had a long way to go to complete the project," he said. "In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan." As a result of the negotiations with the Europeans, he added, "We are in fact much more prepared to go to the UN Security Council."

The view that Iran is ready to take on the council is not universally shared inside Iran. While Iran's decision to continue its uranium enrichment activities is broadly defended, some Iranians have strongly criticized Tehran's confrontational line in facing down the council.

The Security Council has the authority to impose sanctions and authorize military action. But it is starting slowly.

The most that is expected - and even then the outcome is not certain - is a nonbinding statement that lists Iran's multiple failures to meet its international commitments, including its refusal to stop enriching uranium.

Still, simply being targeted by the Security Council is enough to erode international confidence in Iran, some analysts say.

"Even if political measures are not taken against us, the country's political prestige will be jeopardized," Ahmad Shirzad, a reformist politician and a former deputy told Iran's Labor News Agency last month. He added: "There will also be major effects in the economy. Investors will move their capital to safe places and there will be a brain drain from the country."

Particularly striking has been the criticism by the former president, Mohammad Khatami.

"There will be bad consequences if our case is sent to the Security Council," Khatami said last month. He added: "It will not only affect our economy. Our right to nuclear energy might also be affected." But Khatami spent his eight years as president trying to woo the world, including the United Nations.

In his first address to the United Nations' General Assembly, in 1988, Khatami quoted from the New Testament, the Koran and 13th-century Iranian poetry in proposing that the United Nations devote a year to "dialogue among civilizations."