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Sweet Reasonableness

Sweet Reasonableness Two weeks after the Bush administration in the US dramatically changed track and offered substantive negotiations over Iran

June 17, 2006 E L L WEEKLY
Sweet Reasonableness Two weeks after the Bush administration in the US dramatically changed track and offered substantive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, diplomatic progress remained stymied by conflicting perceptions. Iran believes that the negotiations would be about the conditions under which its nuclear research, and, in particular, its uranium enrichment programme, would be conducted. It does not conceive of any suspension of these activities, whether as a long-term measure or an interim gesture to facilitate negotiations. The US, on the other hand, insists that without uranium enrichment at the minimum being halted, talks could not get off the ground. In this sense, the seeming dilution of the earlier US posture that there was little to talk about, other than Iran’s unconditional compliance, did not set in train a feast of concord. With deliberate intent to prove a point, Iran confirmed shortly after the US offer, that it had stepped up uranium enrichment work and remained on track to multiply its capacity – from 164 to 3,000 gas centrifuges – by March 2007. And though Iran’s top presidential advisor on nuclear issues did concede that the new US attitude embodied some promise, the country’s ultimate authority, supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been almost dismissive. For its part, the US has proclaimed that it expects a credible Iranian response within a specified deadline, failing which it would put every option, including military action, back on the table. The idea is to have a firm statement either way from Iran when foreign ministers from the group of seven industrialised nations and Russia (the G-8), gather in St Petersburg on June 29 in preparation for the summit that will follow in early July. There are numerous uncertainties ahead and it would be premature to conclude that the changed attitude towards Iran signifies a power shift within the Bush administration. The US and Europe remain focused on denying Iran any possibility of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. Europe has, with obvious US assent, offered to build a nuclear power station for Iran using a lightwater reactor, which would effectively consolidate western control over the nuclear fuel cycle. On the face of things, a nuclear power reactor on its soil may not be a major inducement for energy-rich Iran, when it will be divorced from all access to technology and know-how. The western offer, besides, is rather infirmly grounded in international law. As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has identical rights and obligations as other contracting parties. Yet, Brazil, to take just one instance, commissioned a uranium enrichment plant as recently as May, and successfully negotiated a safeguards agreement that would deny the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to parts of the facility housing proprietary and sensitive technologies. Iran, in contrast, has offered the IAEA virtually unhindered access. The fact that little if any material diversion has been detected in two years of inspections by the nuclear watchdog, has not counted for much in western calculations. The unspoken assumption on the part of the European nations – which the US shows little reticence about blaring out loud – is that Iran cannot be trusted with the nuclear fuel cycle. For obvious reasons, there is little likelihood that this would be acceptable. Iran has, since the US offer of talks, insisted on its inalienable right to nuclear technology and obtained a strong positive endorsement from the non-aligned movement too. What is probable rather, is that Iran will continue to use the geo-strategic leverage that US misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have endowed it with, to press for further advantage. The newly-formed Iraqi government that the US sets much store by – which is almost certainly the US’ last chance to extricate itself from a quagmire of its creation – is dominated by the Shia Islamic Da’awa party, a longtime client of the Iranian clergy. And neither is Iranian influence in Afghanistan waning. Recently released documents bear witness to an effort by the Iranian regime in May 2003 to talk terms with

the US. George Bush had just announced from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, against the triumphal background of a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”, that “major combat operations” in Iraq were at an end. In that context of short-lived euphoria, the Iranian overtures, which assured the US of cooperation if Iran’s own interests in the region were protected, were brusquely rebuffed. Three years on, with US combat casualties mounting and Iraq in a brutally advanced state of civil war, the US cannot quite afford the same luxury. Whether the recent slaying of the alleged leader of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, will reignite the dying embers of imperialist hubris though, remains to be seen. m

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

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