There was some sense of relief in the Muslim world in late November, when negotiators representing the Islamic Republic of Iran of succeeded in persuading the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not to report it to the UN Security Council for having a nuclear weapons programme. The US had been pressuring the IAEA to report Iran in order to justify the imposition of international sanctions and other forms of international pressure against the Islamic state. The IAEA’s decision, taken at a meeting of its Board of Governors on November 29, was based on an agreement reached between Iran and the European Union (EU), by which Iran agreed to a temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment programme pending further negotiations.
Some Iranian officials and leaders greeted the agreement as a success, on the basis that they had prevented the IAEA from doing as the US had demanded, despite massive US pressure on the international body. Others in Iran, however, argued that the agreement made with the EU would only give the West further grounds for attacking Iran and justifying their demands that Iran give up its nuclear programme. Within days of the IAEA’s decision, however, there were signs of both the US and the EU exploiting the agreement to pressurise Iran for further concessions on issues unrelated to its nuclear programme. At a meeting between senior Iranian and EU officials in Brussels on December 13, intended to arrange future meetings on nuclear issues, the European foreign ministers introduced other issues including political reform in Iran and its support for the Palestinians.
In itself, the IAEA resolution is not bad for Iran. Crucially, it described the Iranian suspension as a voluntary, confidence-building measure on Iran’s part, rather than a legally binding commitment, meaning that any future resumption of enrichment by Iran will not automatically trigger a referral of the matter to the Security Council. The US had been eager to have the matter referred to the Security Council, where the Americans have disproportionate power, so that they could push for a UN resolution legitimising their attempts to isolate and pressuriseIran. Iran is a prominent part of what the Bush has called an “axis of evil”, and the US fears it because it is a genuinely independent state with the potential to inspire massive support from Muslims elsewhere in the world.
Significantly, however, the EU and other members of the IAEA were equally eager to reach an agreement with Iran and avert Security Council involvement. There is a strong sense even among the US’s traditional allies that the US abused their international dominance to force a war in Iraq, and also continued nervousness about the neo-conservative Bush administration, particularly in these early days of Bush’s second term, when the policy he plans to pursue in this term remains unclear.
Despite western suspicions, Iran insists that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes, intended to enable it to generate electricity for its growing power needs, so that it can protect its oil reserves at a time when the world’s oil reserves are known to be declining and many scientists in the West are again arguing that nuclear power should be developed as a long-term alternative. At the same time, many in Iran argue that if the country does not have a nuclear weapons programme, it should have, as nuclear weaponry would be a useful deterrent at a time when the US has proven its willingness and ability to ignore international opinion and law to attack those that it regards as its enemies in the Muslim world.
Speaking after the agreement, Hujjatul-Islam Hassan Rowhani, a senior and influential member of Iran’s Majlis-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts), and the man responsible – as Chairman of the Supreme National Security Council – for dealing with the West regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, said: “The Islamic republic has not renounced the nuclear fuel cycle, will never renounce it and will use it... We have proved that we are capable of isolating the US within an international institution. And that is a great victory.”
This was not, however, a position shared by all in Iran, with some commentators suggesting that the West had succeeded in making Iran stop its uranium-enrichment programme, albeit only temporarily, which is precisely what it had been trying to achieve for many years. The Jomhouri-ye Islami newspaper said in an editorial on December 1 that “if Iran does not insist on the right to have nuclear fuel cycle technology, it will be deprived of this technology for ever... the Europeans achieved what they wanted and the resolution realised their main objective: depriving Iran of uranium enrichment.”
The editorial also pointed out that, although the suspension is understood, even in the IAEA resolution, to be voluntary and provisional, it is unlikely to be viewed as such by the West in the future, and any Iranian moves to end it will be seen as unacceptable and provocative. “The ‘voluntary suspension’ in this resolution is meaningless and its opposite is understood. They have imprisoned us in a room and will attack us if we try to escape, even though we have supposedly entered the room voluntarily.”
This interpretation was confirmed on December 22, when British prime minister Tony Blair – generally regarded as the US’s man in Europe – addressed the press after a meeting with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. Discussing Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme, he said that the European Union would make sure that Iran was not permitted to resume the uranium-enrichment activities that had been suspended.
The continuing pressure on Iran is part of a broad Western attempt to undo Iran’s efforts to maintain its independence from western hegemony. This is why the Bush administration is maintaining its strident political pressure on Iran, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism by supporting Islamic movements in Palestine and the Hizbullah in Lebanon, being lukewarm in its opposition to al-Qa’ida, and interfering in Iraq. These, however, are merely short-term pretexts for attacking Iran; the US has far deeper reasons for hating and fearing Iran, dating back to the Revolution in 1978-79, when Iran became the first Muslim country to overthrow a modernising pro-American dictator and hand power instead to an popular Islamic movement. Since that time, Iran has been arguably the only Muslim country to maintain an independent stance on international issues, for example by supporting the Palestinian intifada and rejecting the peace process as being hopelessly weighted in favour of Israel, at a time when most Muslim governments have been beholden to Western powers in some way or another.
Although the IAEA resolution was passed despite the US’s pressure, many in the Bush administration are confident that Iran’s respite will not last long, and that the US will be able to find reasons for increasing the pressure on Iran when it wants to. Already, there is evidence of the US using the same sorts of tactics against Iran as it used against Iraq. In the week before the crucial IAEA meeting, the Pentagon announced that it had intelligence proving that Iran was converting long-range missiles to carry nuclear warheads. It was forced to withdraw the claim a few days later, when the Washington Post revealed that the accusation was based on the uncorroborated claims of a single “unverified” source.
At a time when the US is bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, both militarily and politically, many have argued that it is in no position to attack Iran. That is perhaps true, but only in the short term. It should be remembered that the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was preceded by a long campaign of propaganda, demonization, political isolation and economic sanctions, which created a sense of Iraq as a threat. This atmosphere both justified the US maintaining a massive military presence in the Middle East, something for which they will need another reason when (or if) some measure of peace is restored to Iraq; and later made it easier for the US to justify an invasion of Iraq when it decided that the time had come.
Iran may not be facing imminent invasion; the US knows that it would have even greater problems invading Iran than it is having in Iraq. However, it is becoming increasingly clear thatIran will be subjected to the same sort of softening-up process over the next few years that Iraq faced during the 1990s. The US and its European allies will both, perhaps for different reasons, be hoping that Iran can be brought back into the fold of co-operative, pro-Western Muslim regimes without outright invasion being necessary, because they know that any attempt to invade Iran will pose even greater problems than the US’s current entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq.