Friday, November 5, 2010
Six Characters And Five Conflicting Texts
By Amir Taheri
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 5/11/2010
It is that time of the year again: time for 'negotiations' between Iran and the so-called international community. The exercise has become part of the diplomatic calendar since 2005 when the United Nations' Security Council called on the Islamic Republic in Iran, suspected of developing nuclear weapons, to stop uranium enrichment.
Tehran has responded with a classic smoke and mirrors number. It says it does not accept the UN's five resolutions but is, nevertheless, prepared to discuss them with the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany in 'a wider effort' to reshape the international system. In other words, Tehran is proposing to transform the 5+1 group into a 5+1+1 group with the Islamic Republic as the new member of a global leadership team.
President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad has called for a new global system in which the Islamic Republic, acknowledged as a 'great power', would lead the way for a 'fundamental transformation' of the world order.
Needless to say, the 5+1 is not interested in that. It claims that the Islamic Republic is violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it remains a signatory, and should stop doing so or face sanctions. The problem is that, despite private assertions that Tehran is playing tricks to buy time, the 5+1 group has remained ready, not to say indecently keen, to talk to the Islamic Republic.
Although they all voted for the Security Council resolutions, members of the 5+1 remain divided on their analysis of the problem.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States has adopted an analysis based on two assumptions.
The first is that the Islamic Republic is behaving badly because it has legitimate grievances that ought to be addressed. In other words, if the Islamic Republic is developing a nuclear arsenal it is the fault of the United States and its Western allies.
The second assumption is that, if those unspecified grievances are remedied, Tehran will stop its nuclear programme.
Both assumptions are wrong. The Islamic Republic has no specific grievances. It just wants to replace the US as the principal power in the Middle East and Western Asia. To that end, it has developed a number of alliances across the region, and acquired client states, notably Syria and, very soon perhaps, Lebanon and Iraq.
The second assumption is equally wrong. Iran started its nuclear programme in 1972 when it was an ally of the United States. The US knew from the start that, in the mid to long term, the Iranian programme would include a military dimension. This is why, in a major arms deal that gave Iran unique access to the full range lf American weapons, President Richard Nixon explicitly excluded any help in the nuclear domain. In 1974, President Gerald Ford when further by effectively vetoing contracts o build nuclear power stations in Iran, forcing the Shah to switch to German and France.
The British under their new Prime Minister David Cameron are equally on the wrong track. They believe that it was Ahmadinejad who ordered uranium enrichment and gave the Iranian programme a military dimension.
To that end, London is trying to help develop a 'moderate' alternative to Ahmadinejad. In recent weeks, British officials have been in 'fruitful contact' with individuals close to former presidents of the Islamic Republic Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami. Some experts close to the new coalition government in London are trying to promote other 'potential leadership figures' within the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran.
The truth is that it was Rafsanjani who, in 1989, revived Iran's nuclear programme, which had been scrapped by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. As for uranium enrichment, it was Khatami who pressed the 'go' button shortly before leaving office in 2005. The German analysis is also questionable. It is based on the assumption that Iran under the Khomeinists suffers from economic 'under-achievement' and could be brought back into the global system through trade.
According to this analysis, at least a part of the ruling clique, especially within the growingly influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is more interested in getting rich than developing a nuclear bomb.
Not long ago, in a conversation with a senior German official, I was surprised at the naiveté of his approach. 'If they see that they could make more and more money they would not want to risk losing everything,' he said with a chuckle. After all, Chancellor Helmut Kohl bought back East German with his chequebook!
China, a trading superpower but lacking a credible political profile, shares at least part of the German analysis. This is why companies directly owned by the IRGC have emerged as China's principal trading partners in Iran. Last year China became Ira's number one trading partner with $30 billion in exports ahead of Germany with $10 billion.
However, the German analysis is equally wrong. The part of the establishment, especially in the IRGC, on which the German analysis depends, is already making lots of money. According to a recent study by the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, companies owned by the IRGC are the principal beneficiaries of sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations since 2005. IRGC billionaires believe that they could both build a bomb and make more money.
The Russian analysis is not quite clear at the time of this writing. Vladimir Putin, sometimes regarded as the power-behind-the-throne in Moscow, tried to play the Islamic Republic as a card against the United States in the context Cold War-style of big power rivalries.
Moscow's ambiguous position has been a major encouragement for radicals within the Khomeinist establishment. In recent weeks, with Putin's power apparently diminishing, if not fading, Moscow has taken a tougher line against the Khomeinist regime. President Dmitry Medvedev, apparently liberating himself from the chains imposed by Putin's patronage, has signalled a new approach in Moscow. He has cancelled a contract to sell Tehran the S-300 air-defence system and ended a programme under which Russia trained Iranian military and security personnel. Judging by his public statements, Medvedev appears to be moving closer to the French analysis under President Nicolas Sarkozy.
This analysis is based on the assumption that the only way to force Tehran to comply with UN resolutions is to tighten the screws on the Islamic Republic until its bones begin to crack. Sarkozy advocates a determined, not to say aggressive, enforcement of UN resolutions including stop-and-search operations against Iranian ships and aircraft. Sarkozy's advisors even advocate ' proximity pressure' measures to increase the cost of defiance for Tehran.
The French analysis, now partly shared by Russia, is equally flawed. The faction in control in Tehran will not be moved by anything that does not threaten the survival of the regime.
Here, the G+1 is faced with what Iranians call ' the carpet-weavers' mentality'. Weaving a carpet is a long and arduous task. A good carpet could take up to three years to weave. Many events could slow down the process or stop it temporarily. But the weaver is not deterred, returning to in 1989 the loom, at the first opportunity.
The result of the analytical confusion within the G+1 group is the annual talks that have given Tehran five more years to advance its nuclear programme. Two years ago, the Islamic Republic had 800 functioning centrifuges to enrich uranium. Today, it claims more than 12000 with promises of 50,000, including new 'designer' ones, by 2012.