20 March 2009

Iran: Obama, Brown and Rudd

President Obama’s video message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year marks a much more constructive and less confrontationist approach to Iran than we have seen in many a long year, and is to be welcomed for that alone.

The President refers in a firm but low key way to the United States’ core agenda with Iran (continuing the enrichment program and the support for Hamas and Hezbollah), but these issues are not expressed in such a way as to suggest that their abandonment is a precondition to U.S. efforts to establish a more productive relationship with Iran. Acknowledging Iran’s right to take its place in the world, President Obama said that Iran should use its “true greatness” to create not to destroy.

You have that right (Iran to take its place in the world) - but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.

This is a far cry from the type of statement that we have seen over many years from the previous Administration, to the effect that Iran must give up its enrichment program and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah before face to face discussion can even commence (a stance from which the Bush Administration began to distance itself somewhat in the last couple of years). In presenting his message this way, President Obama maximises his chances of a positive response from Iran, to which it is to be hoped that the Iranians will respond in kind.

He also maximises his own freedom of manoeuvre, because he has not publicly nailed his colours to a tough and uncompromising stance which could potentially hem him in. He preserves both the opportunity to go where any U.S.-Iranian engagement might take him, and the capacity to draw whatever lines he wants, at any point, on any issue.

In order to prosecute this lower key approach successfully he will need to stare down Israel’s partisans in the United States, and also the Likud-led Israeli Government that is likely to be put together by Mr Netanyahu. Indeed people from the America Israel Public Affairs Institute (AIPAC) have long been explaining Obama’s willingness to negotiate without pre-conditions as merely a first step before taking a harder line - a step which will enable the world to see that the U.S. has tried everything, but the Iranians are recalcitrant. For example, in this article in the Jerusalem Post of 13 March 2008, former Congressman Mel Levine, one of Obama’s Middle East advisers during the election campaign and a former member of the AIPAC Board, was quoted as saying of Obama during a visit to Jerusalem:

He believes that if you use carrots and sticks, and engage in multilateral, aggressive diplomacy, then if you need to use the military option or do anything that needs to be done, you are much more likely to get support of allies, more international support, and broader American support.

He also said that Obama would be better able than US President George W. Bush to get allies to support sanctions against Iran.

So what are we seeing in this video – the start of the multilateral aggressive diplomacy that will help to get the allies on board and enable tougher sanctions to be organised, or the start of real engagement, a real attempt to move away from the rocky ground on which U.S.-Iranian relations have been bumping along for the last thirty years? The tone of the video gives me some cautious optimism that it is the latter.

I am not sure that Hillary Clinton takes such a progressive approach. For the reasons set out in More of the same on Iran and Hillary’s envoy: not everyone is cheering, I do not think the Secretary of State has moved much beyond the previous Administration in her own thinking about Iran. But the fact that, as described in the latter piece, Dennis Ross is an adviser to her rather than a special envoy of the President, in spite of having been one of Obama’s Middle East advisers during the election campaign, suggests to me the possibility that the President and the Secretary of State might not be quite on the same page when it comes to Iran – which means they are not on the same page when it comes to Israel either.

Someone else who seems not quite up with this emerging story is U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown. On 17 March, in the course of a speech on nuclear energy and proliferation, Mr Brown to his credit at least acknowledged the grand bargain of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that all states have a right to develop civil nuclear power, but as a corollary must not develop or deploy nuclear weapons. But later in the speech he launches into a “new philosophy” (ie one which is not enshrined in the NPT that Iran signed) that involves “tougher sanctions” on those that “break the rules” regarding multilateral verification, and unilaterally appoints Iran as the test case in this new approach.

Acknowledging again that Iran has every right to a civil nuclear program, Mr Brown asserts that the U.K. and the international community stand ready to help Iran achieve it. This is just the latest of a series of statements by Western leaders suggesting that Iran does not need to enrich uranium itself, it can import all the enriched uranium it needs from an existing supplier.

But let us examine that proposition. In Time to rethink our approach to Iran I outlined the reasons why Iran would have a deep distrust of any proposal that it rely on other countries for its fuel supply, and why in my view they will never sign up for it.

The commercial backdrop is that in 1974 Iran lent $US 1 billion to the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to build its Eurodif enrichment facility, and acquired a 10 per cent indirect interest in Eurodif through the Franco-Iranian company Sofidif – a stake that still exists. Iran paid another $180 million for future enrichment services to fuel its nuclear power plants.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Khomeini regime cancelled the Shah’s nuclear program and sought refund of this investment. There followed a decade of bitter litigation, as a result of which Iran was reimbursed a total of $1.6 billion for its 1974 loan plus interest. It remains an indirect shareholder in Sofidif, but under the 1991 agreement which settled the litigation it has no access to technology and no right to take enriched uranium. It has the shareholder’s right to dividends, but financial sanctions against Iran mean that it cannot receive these dividends.

Iran also has a 15% stake in the Rossing uranium mine in Namibia, the world’s fifth largest uranium mine, of which the main other owners are Rio Tinto (68%) and the Government of Namibia (10%). This 2005 Reuter's report indicates that the Iranians regularly attend Directors’ meetings but do have not contracts for the purchase of uranium. It is ironic that a company partly owned by Iran, which sells uranium to the United States, would not, according to this report, sell uranium to Iran.

So a country which has for thirty years had a stake in one of the world’s largest uranium mines and in a uranium enrichment plant, but has seen those stakes effectively frozen all that time, is being asked to believe that it can “trust us” to look after its civil nuclear power needs.

This leads me to wonder what is really going on when Western leaders speechify about Iran relying on others for their fuel. Is Mr Brown, for example, with all of the intelligence and advisory processes of the British Government at his disposal, unaware of this background that can readily be pulled down from the web? As one who is not unfamiliar with the professional standards expected of people who brief Prime Ministers, I would be surprised. But if he or his speechwriters are aware of the background, as they should be, why aren’t they being straight about it, why aren’t they sharing it with the rest of us?

And where does all this leave Kevin Rudd? In Persian nightmares haunting Rudd, The Weekend Australian, 14-15 March 2009, Greg Sheridan gives us the standard AIPAC version of the U.S. agenda – basically “good faith” negotiations with Iran to start with, but if that doesn’t work by September-October, “the US will pursue very tough sanctions in the UN Security Council”.

Assuming sanctions fail, the Israelis believe Iran will cross the red line around the end of the year. It will be on the brink of an ability to manufacture nuclear weapons...

The world will then have three options: surrender to Iran on nuclear weapons, a US-led strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, or an Israeli strike.

One reason Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister-designate, so badly wanted a broad centrist coalition behind him was that it would be easier to deal with Iran with such a coalition government than with a more narrowly right-wing government. The broader coalition government would have greater credibility in convincing the world there was no option but a strike at Iran’s nuclear installations.

Sheridan says that Australians would be surprised how much time Rudd spends on Iran and how gravely he regards its nuclear weapons ambitions; also, that Rudd has followed the coalition negotiations in Israel very closely.

But I detect no appetite in the United States for military action against Iran, and I doubt that the Chinese would be prepared to lend them the money to pay for it. The whole agenda described by Sheridan, which he implies Rudd is part of and will play an important role in, sounds very much like the agenda of a past regime. If I am correct in my surmise that there is a little daylight between the positions of Obama and his Secretary of State on this one, it may be that our Prime Minister is in danger of being left behind. It would not be the first time an enthusiastic junior ally has found itself in this position.

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