Friday, April 14, 2006

Iran: The other side of the enrichment bombshell

Amir Taheri, Asharq Alawsat:
Was Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad inspired by a Tehrani folk tale to try and lead the Islamic Republic out of what looks like the most serious foreign policy crisis in its history?

The question arose the other day as Iranians watched the firebrand president announce Iran’s “full entry into the nuclear club.”

The announcement was carefully choreographed for maximum effect.

It took place in Mash’had, Iran’s second largest city and the site of the nation’s holiest Shiite shrine. The announcement was also made on the eve of the arrival in Tehran of a negotiating team headed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Muhammad El-Baradei. Ahmadinejad, with a giant Iranian flag in the background, also described the announcement a “special present” on the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The show was punctuated by songs and dances performed by men and women dressed in folkloric gears, thus adding to the North-Korean style of the exercise.

All in all it was a clever mixture of Islam, nationalism, science, political braggadocio, and diplomatic flexibility.

The announcement that Iran now masters the full nuclear fuel cycle and that it has enriched uranium to a minimum acceptable level in laboratory conditions, may be no big deal to better informed citizen. In fact, Iran had the scientific and technological capacity to do so in 1977. It lost that capacity when the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, who seized power in 1979, shut the nuclear programme as “satanic, had some scientists executed, and forced others into exile.

Spoil sports may even claim that the knowledge needed to do what Iran claims to have done is available on the internet, and that, provided the money is there, even private citizens could process uranium to such low levels of enrichment.

But the spoil sports would be wrong.

The issue here is not uranium enrichment but the finding of a way for the Islamic Republic to walk out of a high-risk confrontation with the United Nations without losing face.

On that score, Ahmadinejad should get high marks. But he may owe all that to the Tehrani folk tale we mentioned above. That tale is woven around its hero Ali Golabi (Pear-shaped Ali) who is a small chap with big ambitions.


The bigger chaps in the neighborhood dismiss him as a midget, bully him whenever they can, and never offer him a seat at the table in the teahouse which is their haunt. So what does Ali Golabi do? He goes around waving a big knife, making a big noise, breaking a window here and there, and, occasionally, even strangling a street cat to show his strength. His agitations annoy the big chaps who want to sip their tea, puff their hookahs and play a game of backgammon in peace.

Nevertheless, Ali knows where and when to stop. As soon as the big chaps come out of the teahouse to confront him, he declares that he has already done whatever he had wanted to do and is now ready not to do it again. This helps ease the tension and gets Ali off the hook- until the next showdown.

So, if our analysis is right the next step for the Islamic Republic would be to announce that, having done what it wanted to do, it has now decided to stop doing it for a while as a gesture of goodwill.

Tehran has less than two weeks to do that before the 28 April deadline set by the United Nations Security Council.

I may be wrong but I think that the Ahmadinejad announcement provides the first opportunity to stop the crisis from spiraling out of control. The Iranian climb-down, if it has not already happened by the time this column is published, is sure to come soon.

The reason is that Ahmadinejad has achieved his tactical goals and has no reason to provoke a confrontation at this point.

His first goal was to discredit his two predecessors, the mullahs Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, by portraying them as weaklings who had given in to pressure and agreed to stop uranium enrichment in the first place.

Ahamdinejad has succeeded in developing a macho image, built around the myth of his ”austerity and purity”. His claim is that Rafsanjani was vulnerable to pressure by foreign powers because of his business interests, while Khatami craved attention from Western leaders and media. Ahmadinejad, however, is proud of being poor, and demands attention from no one but the “ Hidden Imam.”

Ahmadinejad’s second goal was to appear to be acting from a position of strength, and, once again, he has succeeded.

The Mash’had announcement came as the denouement of a series of dramatic events. These started in February with the biggest ever show of military power that Tehran has seen. Then followed the military manoevures conducted in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. Next came the testing of what was claimed to be “ the world’s fastest underground anti-submarine missile”. In between something called “ the flying boat” was thrown in and presented as “ a miracle in military technology.” Ahmadinejad also highlighted his radical credentials by promising to “ wipe Israel off the map.” It would be hard for anyone to accuse him either of weakness or a lack of revolutionary zeal.

Having developed its image as a major military power that cannot be bullied by anyone, the Islamic Republic is now in a position to show “magnanimity in the service of peace and understanding.

This would not be the first time that Pear-shaped Ali has helped get the Islamic Republic of the hook. In August 1988 the Islamic Republic launched its biggest ever military operation in the eight-year long war against Iraq as a prelude to announcing that it has accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire which it had rejected for years. Thus what was a humiliating retreat was presented as a great triumph for “ Islam and the Revolution.”

If the US and its European Union allies play the roles assigned to them in the Ahamdinejad script the current crisis is likely to be defused soon. Tehran will announce a new moratorium on uranium enrichment, probably for period of two years that could later be extended to 10 years. It would also agree to submit the additional protocols of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to the Islamic Majlis for approval at an unspecified date, and invite the IAEA to resume inspections in Iran. Since enriching uranium is not illegal under the NPT, there is nothing that the US and its allies could do in response to what Pear-shaped Ali says he has already done but won’t do again.

But while all this might provide yet another respite the crisis generated by Iran’s refusal to accept the new emerging status quo in the Middle East will not be dissipated. The outside world will never be sure that the Islamic Republic is not developing a nuclear bomb. Nor can anyone be sure that the Islamic Republic, casting itself in the role of the leader of a new “ Islamic superpower” in a global “ Clash of Civilisations” will always retain Pear-shaped Ali’s proverbial prudence.