Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Will the Rice gambit work in Iran?

Amir Taheri, Gulf News:
"A major coup for Tehran!" This is how some commentators have described the United States decision last week to join the European Union, Russia and China in talks with the Islamic Republic over its alleged plans to build a nuclear arsenal.

But is this really a coup for Tehran and, if yes, would the leadership of the Islamic Republic prove smart enough to recognise it as such? There is no doubt that Washington's decision is the brainchild of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who seems to have based it on her expertise in dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold war. READ MORE

That the Secretary of State should seek a diplomatic solution should surprise no one. After all, it is her job to seek alternatives to the use of force. Rice has modelled her move on the one developed by her Democrat predecessor Madeleine Albright in dealing with North Korea.

We all know that the Clinton administration's North Korean policy failed. The North Koreans received quite a few juicy carrots from the US, Japan and South Korea but continued their nuclear programme.

There is no doubt that Rice knows that. So, why did she make her controversial move?

Fighting for the "downtrodden"

The first reason is that she saw that Tehran was successfully transforming the issue into one of confrontation between a hegemonic America and a plucky little Islamic Republic fighting for the world's "downtrodden". At the same time, President Ahmadinejad had created the impression inside Iran that the US was opposed to any use of nuclear technology by Iran, a claim that inflamed nationalistic passions across the board. Rice's offer rebuts that claim, at least in part. (The fact that the US built Iran's first nuclear reactor, presented as a gift, in 1955, and helped set up the first faculty of nuclear physics in Tehran in 1956 and, later, offered scholarships to train the first generation of Iranian nuclear scientists is never mentioned.)

The second reason is that the EU "troika" plus Russia and China were unwilling to help push Iran's back to the wall for a simple reason: they all assume that the Islamic Republic, if subjected to pressure that really hurts, would make a deal with the only power capable of threatening its regime that is to say the United States. In other words, the EU, Russia and China do not see why they should support a policy whose ultimate outcome could only be Tehran's surrender to Washington. By joining the EU, Russia and China, the US hopes to assuage that fear and reassure its partners that no separate deal will be cut with Tehran.

The third reason is that Ahmadinejad, who is building his presidency on his (mis)understanding of the concept of "clash of civilisations", will, if the Rice formula works, find much of his rhetoric redundant. He may, of course, cry victory and claim that he has humbled the "Great Satan" where his predecessors kowtowed to it. However, locked into a process of negotiations, he might lose the latitude to provoke the short sharp military confrontation with the US that he has been dreaming of.

Ahmadinejad's scenario is simple: provoke the US, preferably in conjunction with Israel, to take some military action against Iran's nuclear sites without, however, going far enough to threaten the existence of the Islamic regime. Such action by the US and Israel would give the regime an excuse to crush its internal opponents more vigorously while conjuring nationalistic propaganda themes.

The Rice formula deprives Ahmadinejad of the opportunity to pursue his dream of a short sharp, but inconsequential, military confrontation that could cast him in the role of a war hero.

Finally, the possible defusing of tension over the nuclear topic could open more space for other crucial political issues inside Iran including labour unrest, ethnic tensions, a deepening economic crisis and a resurgence of religious bigotry within the ruling establishment.

While all the reasons mentioned sound convincing enough some caveats are in order.

The first is that now that the US has made a concession by joining the talks with Tehran it might be pressed by its partners and allies to become even more flexible that, in practical terms, could mean only one thing: allowing the Islamic Republic to pursue its nuclear programme in exchange for meaningless assurances and symbolic inspections.

Don't be surprised if the Europeans, not to mention Russia and China, soon come out blaming Washington for not being "flexible enough" and "not going the extra mile".

No one knows how the Rice gambit might play out. The Islamic Republic is yet to come out with a clear response. We will then have to wait for the G8 summit in Russia next month before the nature of the carrots and the sticks in the Rice package are made public. Even when, and if, negotiations do take place it might take months before their ultimate direction is determined.

Big picture

Ultimately, the nuclear issue is, in itself, only part of the big picture.

The fact is that the Islamic Republic, with or without nuclear weapons, remains a threat to the US and its allies in the Middle East. The US wants to create a new balance of power in the region that the Islamic Republic is determined to sabotage.

There are three options in the region. The first is reform and change under American leadership. The second is Islamicisation and radicalisation under Iranian leadership. The third, a hybrid construct, is an Irano-American condominium.

The fundamental weakness of the Rice formula is that it does not address that central issue. Maybe the Secretary of State has decided to kick that can down the road, leaving it for the next administration.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe and is a member of Benador Associates.