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Old Friday, February 10, 2006
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Default Iran: the crisis worsens

Iran: the crisis worsens

BY a vote of 27 to three with five abstentions the International Atomic Energy Agency board has approved a resolution to report Iran’s nuclear programme to the UN Security Council. One Muslim country, Syria, voted against the resolution, three Muslim countries, Indonesia, Algeria and Libya, abstained while Egypt, a prize catch for the US-EU sponsors of the resolution, voted for the resolution.

The resolution was passed in the face of strong opposition from the IAEA’s director-general, Mr ElBaradei, who argued that the proper time for “reporting” or “referring” the Iran dossier to the UN Security Council would be after the scheduled March 6 meeting of the IAEA meeting at which the director-general was to have presented his final report on Iran and the details of the extent to which he had, with Iranian cooperation, been able to clarify the unresolved issues on the nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. So far the IAEA has not said that there is any evidence to establish that Iran’s nuclear programme has a military dimension.

The Americans and the EU have used the issue of restarting the plant in Isfahan for the gasification of uranium and the more recent removal of seals from “research facilities” at the uranium enrichment complex at Natanz to justify their push for laying the ground for Security Council action against Iran. The truth of the matter, however, is that according to the IAEA’s own findings the Iranians have not mastered the technique of converting yellow cake uranium into gas.

The view of IAEA experts is that the product from Isfahan is not of a quality that can be fed into centrifuges for enrichment. On enrichment the IAEA seems fairly clear that the Iranians have yet to acquire anything beyond the basic know-how and are many years away from the capacity to enrich uranium to the 90 per cent required for nuclear weapons.

These findings are in part responsible for the assessment by western intelligence agencies that Iran is a decade away from acquiring nuclear weapon capability. In effect, therefore, the removal of seals from the Natanz facility represent very little in practical terms even while in political terms it could be interpreted as a sign of defiance to the international community by Iran’s new leader whose unfortunate confrontational stance lends grist to the propaganda mills of the West.

The point is that there was no reason why, if a solution were being sought, a more patient approach could not have been adopted. There was certainly no reason to push for an immediate IAEA resolution when the scheduled meeting of the IAEA was only a month away.

President Ahmadinejad’s views on the creation of Israel at the cost of the Palestinian people means nothing in practical terms. Iran by itself (or even with other possible forces) does not pose a threat to Israel. His call for the destruction of Israel would be dismissed by all rational analysts, as no more than bluster and should have been dismissed as such rather than being used as a launching pad for the current campaign.

I would go further and suggest that were there to be a more rational analysis the far more frightening statements are those of US Vice-President Dick Cheney suggesting that Israel with its awesome airpower and advanced weapon platforms could take out Iran’s nuclear facilities and leave the world to clean up the debris. In the same vein, and more recently, was acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s assertion that Iran would pay “a very heavy price” for resuming full-scale uranium enrichment. Israel has the capability to wreak enormous damage on identified Iranian nuclear sites and while it could not, as its raid on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq proved, bring to an end Iran’s nuclear programme it could certainly bring fresh turmoil to a troubled part of the world.

The Iranians have reacted as the world knew they would. The Iranian foreign minister had pointed out earlier that the Iranian Majlis had passed a bill requiring the Iranian government to stop implementing the Additional Protocol that Iran had concluded (but that was not ratified) with the IAEA if the Iran dossier was sent to the UN Security Council. It was, therefore, expected that Iran would throw out the IAEA inspectors who were in Iran doing investigations not covered by the access Iran was bound to provide under the NPT.

This means that ElBaradei will not be able to complete the inquiries he wished to make before submitting his final report on Iran to the board. He will then have to say that he cannot certify that Iran’s nuclear programme is entirely peaceful. The fact that he will not be able to say that there is conclusive evidence of the Iranian programme having a military dimension will not matter.

This, of course, is exactly what the Americans or at least the unreformed neo-conservatives in Washington want. But is this what the EU, and on another plane, the Russians and the Chinese want? Is this what the world wants? Everyone, including those who are justifiably irate about “western double standards”, is in agreement that adding to the number of nuclear weapon capable states is not in the interest of global peace. The question is whether this is the best way of moving towards the goal of ensuring that Iran does not acquire either the know-how or the equipment that could give it this capability. Certainly it is not.

The Iranian people, for whom the American president frequently expresses concern, will rally around the very leaders who are said to be persecuting them and denying them the right to elect their own rulers. The leaders will then have the legitimacy that is now denied to them by some sections of world opinion. They will rally around because they genuinely believe that the Iranian nation, and not President Ahmadinejad or the Ayatollah Khamenei, is being denied its rightful place in the comity of nations.

Outside Iran many in the Third World and thoughtful observers in the more developed nations will ask questions about whether the EU offer of incentives was what it should have been if the West was serious about offering carrots rather than sticks to dissuade Iran from pursuing its alleged nuclear ambitions. They will ask what the Americans — the principal source of Iran’s security concerns — put on the table, and the answer will be “crumbs”.

What is truly remarkable is that the so-called free press in the West has gone along with the notion that it is Iran which broke off the negotiations with the EU, with only a few analysts suggesting that the incentives were meagre and that in any case what Iran quite rightly needed was security assurances from the United States and a release of the Iranian funds that have been frozen by the United States since 1979.

It is, of course, possible to say that the Iranians should have been more patient and should have sought these assurances on the negotiating table while maintaining a freeze on their nuclear activities. But the West knew very well that the new Iranian leader, inexperienced in international affairs and full of revolutionary zeal, could not possibly take that path. If a peaceful outcome was sought this reality should have been taken into account. It was after all a reality created by a democratic election even if the quality of the democracy was questionable.

Let us also not forget that despite the tough rhetoric the Iranians were looking for a way out. If the reports in the Iranian press are to be relied upon it seems, according to the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, that the Iranians submitted a six-point offer which promised to give guarantees for a peaceful nuclear programme; sending the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, which grants the UN further monitoring capabilities, to parliament for ratification; agreeing to uphold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; ending enrichment activities as such; continuing talks with western European powers about Iran’s nuclear programme for two more years; and accepting the Russian plan for uranium enrichment in Russia rather than Iran.

I have not seen anything from the IAEA confirming that such an offer has been received but if the toughest supporter of conservatives in Iran suggests some such offer surely those seeking a peaceful solution should pause and consider whether Iran can be pushed towards formally making such an offer or if it has been made to consider it seriously.

Where do we go now? The Russian proposal under which the Iranians would ship their gasified uranium to Russia for enrichment in plants that the Iranians would pay for is apparently dead. The Iranian foreign office has said that Iranian officials will attend a meeting with the Russians scheduled for February 16 but it was also made clear that the negotiations there must take account of the steps Iran has already taken.

Mr ElBaradei’s report to the IAEA board on March 6 will clearly not be one that offers Iran a clean bill on its nuclear activities. The matter will proceed to the UN Security Council and mild sanctions will be imposed such as a ban on the travel of Iranian representatives or further restrictions on exports to Iran. The Russians and the Chinese may go along with something mild and will push for the resumption of talks with Iran. But will they succeed? This depends on what the American intent is. Currently it appears that the Americans are not prepared to be more accommodating or to take account of the new and unwelcome reality.

The oil markets have reacted already with prices climbing upwards in fearful anticipation of a disruption of supplies from the fourth largest oil exporter. The uncertainties in the Middle East caused by the Hamas victory in Palestine, the turmoil in the Muslim world created by the sacrilegious cartoons first published in September in Denmark and now reproduced in other parts of Europe at this particularly sensitive time makes it almost certain that even if the US feels it has scored a coup by getting the support of Muslim Egypt and non-aligned India there will be support for Iran as a Muslim country under siege, not perhaps at the government level but at the level of the common man in Muslim countries.

It is interesting in this context that the only concession in the resolution to the strongly held sentiment in the Muslim world that the Iran imbroglio was a classic example of western double standards was the inclusion in the resolution, after much debate and wrangling, of a paragraph in the preamble “Recognizing that a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global non-proliferation efforts and to realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery”. Its value was immediately made questionable by a briefing by the US undersecretary of state who maintained “this kind of language has been around for years and the US has agreed to variations of this in many other documents before”. In other words that this would not mean that Israel’s nuclear programme would come under additional scrutiny as a means of persuading Iran or as a sequel to an agreement with Iran.

One can only hope that better sense prevails in both Tehran and Washington. The Muslim world is aflame as the recent and continuing crisis on the cartoon issue shows. It does not need another issue where badly buffeted Muslim governments in a bid to stay on the right side of Washington find themselves totally at odds with the sentiment on the streets. Extremism and its corollary, mindless violence, will find new adherents.

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh
[COLOR=Blue][B]The best way to predict the future is to invent it[/B][/COLOR]
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