Friday, May 12, 2006

What is the Starting Point for Diplomacy With Iran Leaders?

Amir Taheri, Arab News:
"The key is diplomacy" - this is the phrase that is increasingly heard with regard to the crisis over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions. Some commentators have seen the letter that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to his US counterpart George w. Bush as a strong signal that Tehran is ready for a diplomatic settlement.

The latest peddler of the idea of a "diplomatic solution" is Muhammad El-Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who says the nuclear crisis is just part of a package of issues that need to be negotiated with Iran. El-baradei's change of tack is interesting because it was on the basis of his report about Iran's policy of "cheat-and retreat" that the dossier was referred to the UN Security Council in the first place. And, as things stand, it seems unlikely that the veto-holding powers at the Security Council will manage to agree on a common position before the G-8 summit to be hosted by Russia in July.

Call it the "Blix moment" if you like, but the fact is that we are facing a situation similar to that concerning Iraq in the autumn of 2002. At that time Hans Blix, then the UN's disarmament inspector for Iraq, was doing what El-Baradei is doing today: Refusing to say that Iraq had a clandestine program of weapons of mass destruction while insisting that no action be taken against Saddam Hussein.

At that time Blix was asking the international community to believe what he himself refused to believe. Today, it is El-Baradei's turn to say that while he cannot rule out the possibility that Iran has a secret nuclear project, he wants the rest of the world to believe that it does not.

Those who, like El-Baradei, call for a "diplomatic solution", however, have so far failed to suggest the starting point for any putative negotiations.

Can talks begin with the assumption that the Islamic republic, which according to IAEA has been lying and cheating about its nuclear program for 20 years, is suddenly telling the truth? If this is the case then El-Baradei has a moral, not to mention legal and political, duty to say so without ifs and buts.

If, on the contrary, the talks start with the assumption that the Islamic republic continues to lie and cheat, those who recommend a diplomatic solution must suggest a mechanism for dealing with that fact.

Theoretically, the whole issue could be settled in an afternoon. READ MORE

El-Baradei goes to Tehran, talks to whomever the Iranian leaders assign to talk to him and is convinced that the Islamic republic is no longer violating the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. He then returns to Vienna, convenes the board of governors of the IAEA, and reports the good news. The board of governors then writes to the Security Council inviting it to share the joy of these glad tidings and stop looking for "imaginative ways" to deal with the Islamic republic.

The crucial question that must be answered therefore is simple: Can we trust the Islamic republic?

If the answer is yes, then the Islamic republic, with or without nuclear weapons, instantly ceases to be a threat to anyone, including its neighbors.

If, on the other hand, the Islamic republic is seen as untrustworthy then no amount of diplomatic jugglery could reassure those who might feel threatened by it
, again with or without nuclear weapons.

Interestingly, not even those who, for a wide range of reasons, back the Islamic republic in the current crisis are prepared to provide it with the needed certificate of trustworthiness.

Until last month the Iranian diplomatic game plan was to defuse the situation by announcing a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment, first for three months and then extended to two years in the context of negotiations covering Tehran's specific concerns. At least one faction in Tehran was even prepared to offer a 10-year suspension of the enrichment program.

That game plan changed for two reasons. First, the European Union trio rejected the idea of a temporary suspension from the start. It insisted that the enrichment program be terminated permanently. Secondly, Tehran soon realized that the EU trio, backed by the US, would not be able to secure a "resolution with some credible dentition" in the Security Council. That realization helped Ahmadinejad to argue that there was no need for offering any concessions and that all Iran needed to do was to wait until the crisis blew over.

According to information from Tehran, the issue of what strategy to adopt was widely discussed at an informal meeting with the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi and attended by Ahmadinejad along with top military commanders. Ahmadinejad succeeded in convincing the decision-makers that there was no need to retreat when no one was sure whether or not any meaningful move would or, indeed, could be made against Iran.

"We could always announce a termination of enrichment if and when we face real action against us," he reportedly told the meeting.

So far, of course, Ahmadinejad has proved right. It is still Tehran that largely controls the momentum of events.

It could, for example, cool things down by phasing out the mass production of centrifuges that could be used for enriching uranium to weapons' grade specifications. It could also decree a temporary end to all work at the plutonium plant in Arak. Last but not least, it could submit the NPT's additional protocols for consideration by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Islamic republic could raise the temperature by embarking on a mass production of centrifuges, speeding up production at its newly discovered uranium mines, put the NPT protocols on the backburner, and suspend, or even terminate, its membership of the NPT.

President Ahmadinejad has the immense merit of being open and honest about his ambitions. He is determined to prevent the US and its regional allies from reshaping the Middle East they way they like. He believes that Iran is the natural "regional power" and, in that capacity, has the right and the duty to decide what the Middle East should look like once the Americans have been driven out or decide to run away.

Ahmadinejad's letter was an invitation to Bush to acknowledge that fact and prepare for handing the future of the Middle East over to the Islamic republic. This is the real issue either for negotiations or for a showdown at the end of which we shall all know who will set the tune in this sensitive region for the foreseeable future. The nuclear issue, therefore, is an effect of a deeper cause.