Friday, June 02, 2006

Tehran Wants More Than Talks

Ehsan Ahrari, Asia Times:
Six major powers, including the United States, have offered carrots to Iran in the form of efforts to assist the country's nuclear industry, including guarantees of long-term fuel assurances. This is a significant shift from the long-standing position of the Bush administration that Iran had no need for nuclear power.

The US is also ready to talk to Iran, on the condition that the latter stop its uranium enrichment program, which Iran was quick to reject. Why this change of heart, and why did Russia and China agree to such a package? More to the point, why does Iran continue to reject the US conditions for starting negotiations? READ MORE

The chief reason for the change of heart appears to be that the Bush administration does not want Iran to take the course of developing nuclear weapons as a result of a prolonged absence of direct negotiations. That is precisely what happened in the case of North Korea.

Early on during President George W Bush's first term, the then-secretary of state, Colin Powell, wanted to start negotiations regarding North Korea's nuclear weapons program, where the Bill Clinton administration had left off. Bush wanted none of that. Kim Jong-il was not to be trusted. The US wanted the communist nation to offer a number of concessions and assurances before negotiations would start.

Bush even decided to ratchet up his condemnation of North Korea during his 2002 state of the union message by lumping it, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an "axis of evil". By October of that year, Kim had a surprise for the US. His government admitted that it had a secret nuclear weapons program. In response, Washington halted oil shipments to Pyongyang. By December, the North Korean dictator expelled international nuclear inspectors and reactivated the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

In October 2003, North Korea announced that it had finished reprocessing 8,000 nuclear fuel rods, obtaining enough material to make up to six nuclear bombs. In February 2005, it declared that it had built nuclear weapons for self-defense.

It appears that at least for now US officials have decided to yield to international pressure and have opted for a multilateral approach toward Iran. The most significant development in this regard is that the "outsourcing" of negotiating with Iran - that is, letting just the three European countries, Britain, France and Germany, carry out negotiations - has come to an end.

The US's diplomatic maneuvering involving Iran, China and Russia is heavily calculated and intricate. Vice President Dick Cheney is playing a leading role in it. Bush, as usual, is relying on the good judgment of his two "mentors", Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice is reported to be the person in charge of putting down on paper all the ideas that are coming out of brainstorming sessions involving her, Cheney and the National Security Council advisor Stephen Hadley. She is reported to have heavily concentrated on achieving concrete results before the end of this year, when Iran is expected to build a 3,000-centrifuge cascade. Earlier this year, Iran announced that it had enriched a small quantity of uranium to 3.5% in its experimental 164-centrifuge test cascade.

Rice appears a bit smug about getting Russia and China to go along with the package agreed on by the six powers - the US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. What is not clear is whether Russia and China will agree to any measures aimed at punishing Iran, even though they have not objected to this vague statement. The important aspect of this statement is that it emphasized the positive, but uses cryptic language regarding taking tough action.

What is even more puzzling is why did Russia and China agree to go along with even vague language of sanctions at a time when their respective ties with Washington are considerably strained? It may be because Moscow does not want to seriously alienate Washington so close to the Group of Eight (G-8) meeting that will be held in Russia in mid-June.

Regarding China, it is difficult to calculate whether it has really changed its mind about sanctions against Iran. There is much at stake for China if Iran is alienated. Its mega-billion oil and gas deals with Iran might be jeopardized in an international oil market that heavily favors sellers. A safe bet is to assume that the Chinese are keeping their cards on the Iran issue very close to their chests, at least for now.

Even the US decision to have direct talks with Iran does not seem genuine in the sense that by attaching conditions to it - that Iran should stop its uranium enrichment program - the US still wants to appear a "tough guy".

From the Iranian side, such toughness is not acceptable because, by negotiating with the US regarding its nuclear program, it is, at least in principle, willing to abandon it. However, there is a huge price for such an abandonment, which can only be negotiated between Tehran and Washington. From the Iranian perspectives, by abandoning it just for the "privilege" of talking to the US is too steep a price, which it is not willing to pay.

What Iran wants is not just direct negotiations with the US. It has a long list of issues that it wants resolved before giving any serious consideration to abandoning its uranium enrichment program.

First and foremost, through direct talks, Iran would want nothing short of ironclad guarantees that the US would not now, or in the future, attempt to destabilize its government. What that means is that the Bush administration will have to agree to nullify some legislation aimed at regime change.

Second, Iran would want a highly comprehensive package of economic incentives, which will also includes substantial transfer of technology, especially in the oil sector.

Third, and a related issue, is that Iran would want the US also to abandon its long-standing opposition to a potential pipeline route to Pakistan and India from Iran.

There is little doubt that, despite its vague language, the six-power agreement to engage Iran in an attempt to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully is a major development. What is urgently needed is that both Washington and Tehran start talks.

If Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons, one can be sure that it only wants to ensure that it does not become a victim of another installment of "regime change". That is a genuine reason for Iran to take all preventive measures.

The best way the US can persuade Iran that it has no offensive designs against the Islamic Republic is by negotiating with it and by providing all the necessary security guarantees under a multilateral forum.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at or His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online.