Today, SIngapore, 11/07/2006
Ever since Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy czar hand-delivered the international community’s “best and final” proposal to prevent UN Security Council action, to the Western World’s enfant terrible, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, on June 6th, the world is in suspended animation on how the Islamic nation will react although the North Korean missile launches have temporarily overshadowed events. Will Iran suspend Uranium enrichment in return for a number of undisclosed but apparently very valuable “carrots” put together by the Europeans in a rare display of agreement with the US, Russia and China ? Will Ahmadinejad, yet again, try to extend a deadline that (just in case) hasn’t really been fixed ? Will Iran decide, before the not-yet-fixed deadline runs out that there really isn’t anything to talk about as its supreme leader Khamenei suggested recently ? Stay tuned for an interesting ride.
While the major powers in Europe the US, Russia and China, possibly for the first time, are working in what appears to be harmony on an issue of major concern to the whole world (preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons), that by itself is not enough to assure success. Russia and China are in on the “carrot” part of the proposal but it is far from certain that they will smoothly join the “stick” part, should that turn out to be necessary. Iran is keenly aware of these differences and still has quite a bit of leeway to maneuver. Even if Europe and the US want it to look that way, they presently cannot guarantee a UN Security Council vote in favor of sanctions in case Iran continues to play for time.
Iran’s main aim is to advance its nuclear program as fast as possible to reach the point of no-return, the production of enriched Uranium, preferably weapons-grade. Once this goal has been attained, Iran can confidently join negotiations over an agreement with the international community while the enrichment centrifuges are humming. These negotiations will have ups and downs, crises and resolutions, time-outs and summits, but mainly they will take time. And even if international pressure will force the issue and negotiations will start before the Iranians have reached their goal, there still will be plenty of time to enrich Uranium.
The second Iranian aim is probably to leverage the nuclear issue to demand more evenhanded treatment by the international community. Iran may insist that other ME countries join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or be subjected to limitations, or some other arrangement which would prevent the appearance that Iran is being discriminated against, which off-course it is.
Since Iran has apparently run into technical difficulties with the enrichment process, it will continue to draw out any negotiations to the best of its ability. Western negotiators meanwhile will try to speed things up and struggle to keep the issues limited to “carrots” in turn for cessation of Uranium enrichment.
And the “stick”? Whoever believes that an upstart country like the US with a short history of 230 years, powerful and accomplished as it may be, will be able to browbeat a nation belonging to a culture that has been around for 5,000 years, should readjust his or her expectations. President Bush may huff and puff, the Europeans may roll their eyes and the Russians and Chinese can express grave concern but even if Iran needlessly ups the ante and provokes the international community, little more than tough talk will result. The outrageous appointment of notorious chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi as Iran’s delegate to the UN human rights council and President Ahmadinejad’s continued outbursts against Israel indicate that provocation is a possibility. Will there be sanctions ? Maybe. Really painful sanctions ? Unlikely, unless Iran goes over the top. Incidentally, Iran’s “trump card”, stopping oil deliveries, is essentially a bluff. There is not much Iran can do with its oil, other than put it on the market.
Judging by its total failure to deal with a similarly recalcitrant North Korea, the international community will have to face the fact that Iran is likely to have nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. Forceful diplomacy and sanctions may delay this development by a couple of years but will not be able to prevent it while serious military options appear just not feasible. Efforts must therefore be directed at engaging Iran in a long-term dialogue to ensure that by the time it does obtain nuclear weapons, it will have internalized that owning them entails the responsibility never to use them.