13 September 2009

Iran: One cheer for Vlad the Lad

It is not often that I harbour warm feelings towards Vladimir Putin but the news that Russia has effectively ruled out sanctions against Iran means that we can all breathe a little easier (see New York Times, 10 September 2009 here, and The Wall Street Journal, 11 September 2009 here). It also means that the approach to Iran is now on a more sensible path.

In Iran: Sanctions are in the air I gave a number of reasons why sanctions against Iran are a seriously dumb idea, and in Iran: sanctions still on the agenda I gave further reasons derived from a joint opinion piece by Hossein Askari, Professor of International Business and International affairs at the George Washington University, and Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States.

According to the account in The Weekend Australian, 12-13 September, by The Wall Street Journal’s Marc Champion in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that an attack on Iran would be “unacceptable”:

This would be very dangerous, unacceptable, this would lead to an explosion of terrorism, increase the influence of extremists and I doubt very much that such attacks would achieve their stated goal.

We can agree with that.

At the same time, Mr Putin urged Tehran to show restraint in relation to its nuclear program.

Champion comments:

The rebuffs from Tehran and Moscow over the Obama administration’s efforts to persuade Iran through engagement appear to leave the US with few good options to block the country from developing a uranium stockpile. The US and European governments believe a nuclear Iran could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

I think that the latter point – that a nuclear Iran could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East – is exactly what Iranian strategists believe, and that this is one of the reasons why Iran chooses to be ambiguous about its nuclear intentions. I believe that the primary reasons for the nuclear power program are to do with electricity generation and with status as a modern, technologically advanced society. As a secondary benefit it suits Iran, which has since long before the Islamic revolution harboured fears about the intentions of the Sunni Arab world towards the Shi’a Persian world, and which has very reasonable concerns about the intentions of Israel and the United States, to let its antagonists know that it could develop a nuclear deterrent in a relatively short time.

At the same time, the Iranians know that actually proceeding to weaponisation would indeed trigger a Middle East nuclear arms race, which would be a serious backward step for their national security. So they remain uncooperative with the IAEA, and keep us all guessing. That is their intent.

Now that the sanctions option favoured by Mrs Clinton has effectively been scuttled, the Obama Administration has moved promptly to the far more sensible option that has been President Obama’s approach from the start – the US has announced that it will accept Iran’s offer to meet and hold unconditional talks, despite the Iranian Government’s insistence that it would not negotiate over the future of its nuclear program (see New York Times, 11 September 2009, here).

Expectations are low, but mercifully the Administration feels the need to meet with the Iranians and talk to them face to face, for the first substantive talks in the thirty years since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

It is unclear where the discussions will take place, but the most likely American representative is William J. Burns, the Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, who is leading the diplomatic effort.

A further indication that the United States is taking a softer line on Iran came on Friday from the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, who said that the Administration would not impose “artificial deadlines” on Iran. Until now the United States position has been that the Iranians must toe the line on their nuclear program by the end of September or face heightened sanctions.

As for where these talks might lead, it is inconceivable that Iran will give up its indigenous nuclear power program. The only hope of reaching an acceptable settlement is in the context of a grand bargain that brings the whole panoply of Middle East issues to the table and recognises that Iran is a key player in finding a solution to them.

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