Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Iran’s Four Aces

Joseph Klein,
Iran will not budge an inch on its nuclear enrichment ambitions, even though the matter is now before the United Nations Security Council. Iran had precipitated the current crisis with its decision earlier this year to go back on its word and break the seals placed on its nuclear facilities by UN inspectors in order to resume an active nuclear fuel enrichment program. We do not hinge our nuclear activities on a negotiation that is not dignified and will not attain our rights,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was quoted as saying by Iran’s state news agency IRNA on March 17, 2006. “We are ready for negotiation, but a negotiation which does not intend to dissuade Iran from having nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. If so we will not accept it.”

Though with good reason the West challenges Iran’s veracity concerning its peaceful intentions, Iran believes it has nothing to lose and everything to gain from its intransigent stand. In fact, Iran has four aces in its hand to avoid any meaningful action by the UN Security Council, where lack of consensus is the rule on critical issues and paralysis of action is the result. READ MORE

First, Iran is counting on its Russian and Chinese friends to block a stern rebuke, much less any kind of decision by the Security Council to impose economic sanctions. China will do just about anything to ensure a steady supply of oil and has signed a multibillion dollar energy deal with Iran to that end. Russia, while getting impatient with Iran’s off again, on again diplomatic shenanigans, does major business with the Iranian regime which it will not jeopardize. For example, Russia has supplied expertise and manpower to help Iran build its Bushehr nuclear reactor near the Persian Gulf and is supplying modern air defense systems for use in protecting Iran’s nuclear facilities.

These two veto-bearing members of the Security Council will use the veto threat to keep the Security Council in the background, perhaps allowing it to issue a milk toast reminder to Iran of its international obligations while returning primary responsibility for the matter to the toothless International Atomic Energy Agency. This will allow Iran to continue playing cat-and-mouse with UN nuclear inspectors and buy more time to advance on its path towards nuclear weapons development. Iran has been following this tactic for years with great success. Why expect it to suddenly change course now? According to a March 5, 2006 report in the UK Telegraph, Hassan Rowhani (Iran's lead nuclear negotiator with Britain, France and Germany) boasted that “while talks were taking place in Teheran, Iran was able to complete the installation of equipment for conversion of yellowcake - a key stage in the nuclear fuel process - at its Isfahan plant but at the same time convince European diplomats that nothing was afoot.”

China and Russia are feeding right into this delay tactic when they give cover to Iran. None of this should be any surprise to UN watchers. China and Russia just recently had a dress rehearsal for their blocking actions at the Security Council in connection with Sudan. Last month they opposed any action on proposals to punish certain listed individuals, including Sudan’s President and its interior and defense ministers, who were believed to be undermining peace in Sudan's Darfur region where tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been slaughtered and millions displaced from their homes. All that was being talked about among the United States and Western European countries supporting sanctions were freezes on travel and assets of these targeted individuals. Yet the deadlock has continued. It is no coincidence that China opposes any sanctions – just like the case with Iran, China relies on Sudan for oil and has major economic investments there. With much more at stake economically in Iran, China and Russia are simply replaying their Sudan script.

Second, Iran knows that it can count on the powerful bloc of Islamic countries to divert attention of the Security Council to Israel, as they always do. The Gulf Arab state of Qatar, which commenced a two year term on the UN Security Council on January 1, 2006, is leading this charge. Qatar helped the United States against Saddam Hussein’s regime but its Emir sees Iran differently, saying last October during a visit by Iran’s Foreign Minister that the two countries' relations are age-old and based on strong bonds. Now claiming to represent on the Security Council “the Asian, Arab and Islamic groups which have concerns at the core of international events," according to its former minister of information Hamad al-Kawari, Qatar has used its Security Council platform to denounce Israel. In the last few days Qatar has sought Security Council action to condemn Israel for seizing an Israeli cabinet minister's killers from an insecure Jericho prison where the terrorists were being held and liable to escape unless Israel intervened. This familiar tactic moved the Security Council’s spotlight off of Iran at least temporarily and targeted the UN’s favorite scapegoat – Israel.

Ironically, Israel decided last year to back Qatar in its bid for an open Security Council seat in response to Qatar’s specific request for support. Israel should have said no to Qatar’s request, since there were no diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel and no quid pro quo promise by Qatar to recognize Israel. But Israel extended its hand and now has been repaid with Qatar’s gratuitous attacks. Of course, the other Islamic countries are rallying around this tactic. They have the backing of Venezuela, whom Iran may help to develop nuclear technology for ‘peaceful purposes’, and a host of undeveloped countries hostile to Israel and the United States who are now running the show in the General Assembly and the new Human Rights Council.

Third, Kofi Annan continues to give Iran the international respect it clearly does not deserve. He has remained in the shadows in the current nuclear controversy. Iran is still interested in "serious and constructive negotiations" with the European Union on its nuclear program, Kofi Annan said last January, and he has urged Iran to continue on that course. That is basically all that Annan has done, failing to use his bully pulpit to place the blame for the current standoff where it truly belongs.

Annan has even rewarded Iran with coveted representation on special UN forums. This only encourages yet more outrageous behavior and demands from the rogue dictatorship. Annan, for example, gave Iran a seat on the UN Working Group for Internet Governance, tasked to come up with policy recommendations for international rules on Internet governance. For years, Iran has censored Internet communications within its borders, using advanced technology to filter out access to any sites suspected of fostering political dissent. More recently, the regime has cracked down on Iranian citizens whom the government accuses of having “illegal Internet sites” and of “disturbing the public mind and insulting sanctities.” Laws were enacted in October 2004 covering “cyber crimes” under which “anyone who disseminates information aimed at disturbing the public mind through computer systems or telecommunications…would be punished in accordance with the crime of disseminating lies.” Annan never should have rewarded the repressive Iranian regime with a seat on the Working Group for Internet Governance in the first place. Yet Annan kept Iran’s representative on the Working Group even after Iran’s passage of the “cyber crimes’ legislation, allowing Iran to actively participate in the planning of the World Summit on Information Society held in Tunis in November 2005. Meanwhile, a truly functioning democracy in the Middle East committed to freedom of expression - Israel - was not represented on the Working Group.

Annan also selected a representative from Iran to participate in one of Annan’s pet projects – the Alliance of Civilizations - which is supposed to promote a peaceful dialogue between the Islamic world and the West. Israel again is not represented on this forum. It is true that the Iranian representative Annan chose, its former President Mohammad Khatami, is more moderate than Iran’s current megalomaniac President Mah­moud Ahmadinejad. However, Khatami is only ‘moderate’ by the standards of the extreme Iranian theocratic state. As President, Khatami had declared that Iran “would not bargain on its right to enrich uranium during talks with Europe on its nuclear activities” and blamed the controversy over Iran's nuclear program on “the moral corruption and hypocrisy that characterizes today's global community and the desire of a few to realize their hegemonic ambitions". This was much the same rhetoric as we are hearing today from Khatami’s successor Ahmadinejad and from the ruling mullahs. Iran’s financial support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, under Khatami as well as under Ahmadinejad, certainly belies its claims of peaceful intentions.

Even after Ahmadinejad said last October that “Israel must be wiped off the map”, Kofi Annan did little except to express his “dismay.” He was still willing to go ahead with his planned trip to Tehran. At minimum, Annan should have insisted on a complete retraction and apology to Israel as a condition for allowing Iran to continue participating in any UN forums for which Annan has the power to select the participants. Even better, after threatening a fellow member state with elimination, Iran’s right to continue as a member of the United Nations altogether should have been challenged. Instead, Ahmadinejad has continued his fiery anti-Israel rants and Iran continues its support for terrorist organizations, while the country’s former ‘moderate’ President continues his charade at the Alliance of Civilization meetings to promote understanding of Islam’s peaceful intentions. In fact, Khatami is in a complete state of denial about the link between his own country and terrorism, actually telling a closed session of more than 20 representatives of the United Nations' High Level Group on the Alliance of Civilizations last November that "terrorism not only has nothing to do with Islam, but is opposed to the fundamental principles of that religion.” If that is true, why hasn’t Kofi Annan demanded that Khatami denounce President Ahmadinejad’s threat to wipe the Jewish state of Israel off the map as totally contrary to these “fundamental principles” and to the whole purpose of the Alliance of Civilizations?

In short, Kofi Annan is pandering to Tehran, much as he did to Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s reign.

Iran knows that he will do little to rally world opinion against Iran’s aggressive designs. In order to protect its interests after Annan’s term expires at the end of 2006, Iran indicated as far back as 2004 that it planned to propose Khatami as a candidate to succeed Annan, according to a report by the news agency IRNA. This suggestion was welcomed by most Asian participants at a political forum in China where it was first raised.

While Khatami’s candidacy is not likely to get any traction today, the idea does shed light on how Iran intends to operate behind the scenes to push for someone even more favorable to its position than weak-kneed Annan has proven to be.

The fourth ace in Iran’s hand is what appears to be the lack of any good options for the United States to follow if it cannot bring the rest of the world around to its more muscular brand of diplomacy. Iran has made it clear that it will use its leverage over oil supplies to drive up oil prices and thereby hurt the world’s economy if it has to, hoping to scare off enough countries and isolate the U.S. It is also counting on the American public’s war fatigue, President Bush’s low political standing compared to the period leading up to the Iraq war and America’s unpopularity around the world – including Europe – to further hamstring any U.S. action outside of the feckless Security Council.

Despite all of its calculations, Iran may well be overplaying its hand. This is not the 1930’s all over again, no matter how much Ahmadinejad tries to imitate Hitler. Much of the world may cower as before, but the United States and the United Kingdom are not likely to embrace the appeasement policies that allowed Hitler to begin his bloody conquests. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have already proven their mettle once in this regard, and domestic politics will not hold them back from acting together again if they have to.

Indeed, the U.S. in particular has its own economic cards to play against Iran, working with its allies to freeze Iranian financial assets outside of Iranian territory and barring any multinational oil, manufacturing or banking companies doing business with Iran from doing business in the United States. Gulf oil can be shipped via alternative channels in order to bypass Iranian interference in the Straits of Hormuz. Our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our naval forces in and around the Persian Gulf, give us the wherewithal to potentially squeeze Iran from multiple vantages.

If Iran provokes a fight through missile attacks or suicidal bombings against our forces or shipping in the Straits, for example, it will suffer enormous consequences from a strong counter-attack. Shiite Iran does not have many friends in its Sunni Arab neighborhood who would come to its side in an outright confrontation with the West. Nor would the Russians be likely to put all of their eggs in Iran’s basket and risk complete alienation from the West. Finally, despite all of the Iranian government’s efforts to quell internal dissent, reform-minded Iranian citizens are becoming more vocal as they experience escalating daily repression with no improvement in their economic condition. If we stay resolute and increase our support for the dissidents, they will become more emboldened and may ultimately begin the kind of massive civil disobedience that brought the Soviet Union’s Eastern European empire down.

Iran is no doubt counting on the UN Security Council to once again succumb to the parochial economic self-interest and cowardice of its members. It will take years before the Council is able to muster the consensus necessary to impose and enforce meaningful sanctions if indeed it ever can, by which time Iran will be well on its way to producing enough highly enriched uranium to enable the regime to make nuclear weapons. As envisioned by Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, the United Nations Charter provides not only the legal right, but the moral duty, for the United States and the United Kingdom as UN charter members to take such collective action as necessary to maintain international peace and security. This may mean assembling another “coalition of the willing” to challenge the current regime in Iran militarily if need be, even without formal Security Council authorization, if Iran persists on its current course. This may have to happen in order to protect the world from a nuclear conflagration.