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PV Vivekanand: US switches track on Iran
April 19, 2012
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Iranian media on Sunday claimed that the European Union (EU) has started to recognise Iran’s nuclear rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which upholds a country’s right to peaceful atomic energy. Newspapers, press agencies and electronic media outlets gave an impression that Iran’s chief delegate Saeed Jalili had succeeded in defending his country’s position in the talks held in Istanbul on Saturday, and the next round of talks due in Baghdad next month could consolidate its gains.

The claim needs to be verified.

In the meantime, the most important outcome of the talks in Istanbul was a clear affirmation that Washington wants to improve its relations with Tehran and is ready to allow it to continue low-level uranium enrichment but under certain conditions.

The next meeting between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – will take place in Baghdad next month in a symbolic acknowledgment of Iran’s influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Israel, which is itching to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, is frustrated. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had hoped that the US would insist on a proposal that would never be accepted by Iran and the result would have been a deadlock. A collapse of the talks would have allowed him to step up pressure on Washington for military action against Iran. Now, he has to wait until after the May 23 meeting in Baghdad.

On Sunday, Netanyahu asserted that the US and world powers gave Tehran a “freebie” by agreeing to hold more talks.

But Obama countered: “The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

Still, Obama warned Iran, “The clock’s ticking.”

Israeli media reports have suggested that Obama has set up a “secret back channel” for communications with Iran. That should indeed be alarming for the Israelis because an improvement of US-Iranian relations means for them the deprivation of a perpetual source of conflict that they carefully manipulate to suit their interests and ensure continued support from Washington.

The US signalled its wish to improve relations with Iran by asking for a bilateral meeting with the Iranian delegation attending the Istanbul talks. The Iranians promptly snubbed the Americans by turning down the request, perhaps because the head of the US team, Wendy Sherman, an under-secretary of state, was low-ranked in protocol than Jalili, who heads his country’s National Security Council. Of course, there are other reasons for Iranian officials to steer clear of bilateral contacts with the US until their regime finds it fit to do so.

Despite the snub, the Americans made the key concession of accepting Baghdad as the venue for the next meeting in a clear affirmation of their quest to create a better climate in US-Iranian relations.

The seriousness of this approach was seen in the choice of Sherman as the head of the US delegation to Istanbul. Sherman is the closest and most influential adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and she being sent to the Istanbul meeting could be seen as an affirmation that the administration of US President Barack Obama has given priority to improved relations with Iran ahead of working on the nuclear dispute. The absence of any important expert on Iran’s nuclear programme in the US delegation was also seen as another indicator of the shift in track.

Obama is said to have sent a message of rapprochement to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei through Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in late March.

The US president reportedly said that Iranian leaders should drop their hostile rhetoric and stop referring to the United States as their enemy. Tehran could also issue statements crediting Obama’s policy for the improvement in tone.

He is said to have referred to a March 8 remark by Khamenei welcoming Obama’s comments and praising him for “for pushing forward diplomacy and not war as a solution to Tehran’s nuclear ambition.”

It is clear that Obama does not want a military conflagration with Iran, at least not before November when he will be seeking re-election.

As Obama, the Iranians are also stalling for time, knowing that the US is also apprehensive about the unpredictability of the consequences of military action against Iran and is restraining Israel.

Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had wanted the US to present a proposal Tehran would have found humiliating and rejected out of hand.

Under the proposal, Iran would have to scrap its programme to enrich uranium to 20 per cent, close down its nuclear plant at Fordow buried on a mountainside near Qom and exchange whatever stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium is in Iran’s possession in return for foreign-fabricated fuel rods.

The proposal would have allowed Iran to continue with its 3.5 per cent enrichment programme but under strict limits on centrifuges and the level of enriched uranium it could maintain. 

The Obama administration knew well that the proposal did not have the chance of a snowball on fire to secure Iranian acceptance. And therefore the US appeared to have either not presented it all in Istanbul or if it did then it took the expected Iranian rejection in good grace.  Israeli officials say that the US delegation did not present the proposal – or any other – to the Iranians attending the Istanbul meeting.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated before the Istanbul talks that “Iran will not retreat one iota from its nuclear rights.” There is no reason to disbelieve him. Iran will not back down from its nuclear ambitions, whatever they are. And Tehran is willing to risk whatever consequences of its defiance. But its brinkmanship could be disastrous.

Ahmadinejad must be feeling buoyed that Iran’s staunchest Arab ally, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad, seems to have preserved himself in power – for the time being – with explicit backing from Tehran and Moscow and implicit support from Beijing. The way the Syrian civil strife went was also factored into the Iranian approach to the nuclear talks.

As far as one could expect, Iran is unlikely to accept any condition that it would consider as humiliating and insulting, unless of course the US offers to dismantle sanctions and agree that Tehran has a major regional role. It is a process that could be protracted and there is no guarantee that it would produce results satisfactory to both sides.

It is difficult to assess the impact of the sweeping sanctions against Iran imposed by the United Nations Security Council and unilaterally by the US, the European Union and allies. Iran has put up a brave front saying the curbs have increasingly made it self-reliant.

However, it is clear that the sanctions have started to bite.

In the meantime, Israel has to worry about an improvement in US-Iranian relations that will also have broader regional repercussions.

For the moment, the threat of military action against Iran appears to have receded, but there is always the possibility that Israel could precipitate a conflict.

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