by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 6, Rajab, 1429)
Speculation abounds about why, after years of threatening to attack Iran, the US suddenly decided to send William J. Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, the third-highest-ranking US state department official, to Geneva to attend a meeting with Iran over its nuclear program. The meeting on July 19 occurred against the backdrop of another surprising announcement from Washington: the US is considering opening an “interest section” in Tehran, where it has had no diplomatic presence since severing diplomatic relations at the end of 1979. When asked about the US’s desire to open an interest section in Tehran, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said that Iran would welcome such a diplomatic gesture.
The meeting in Geneva, attended by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, was preceded by intense military and diplomatic activity that included threats on both sides. In June Israel held highly publicised air war-games over the Mediterranean Sea, amid threats that it would attack Iran’s nuclear installations should Tehran not give up enriching uranium. For more than six years Israel’s rulers have made wild allegations that Tehran would acquire a nuclear bomb “in a year”. US president George Bush has also made repeated threats against Iran: “All options are on the table” has been his favourite mantra for several years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no evidence thatIran has diverted any enriched uranium from its peaceful power programme for military purposes. Last December the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released a report, concluding that Iran had abandoned its nuclear military programme as early as 2003. Neither of these facts seems to be able to persuade the neo-conservatives, especially US vice president Dick Cheney and the vultures hovering around his office, to give up their wild allegations against Tehran; this is probably because they are determined to bomb Iran before the Bush presidency ends. Saner voices in Washington have cautioned against such a venture, which would have disastrous consequences not only for the US but also for the world economy.
Unlike the subservient Muslim regimes, Islamic Iran does not take such threats lightly. It has stood its ground on the nuclear issue, insisting that the West (led by US) has no right to demand it suspend what is its right under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); Tehran has also made a robust military response. After the Israeli military manoeuvres, Iran test-fired a number of missiles with ranges of more than 2,000 km. This was followed within a few days by a strong statement from Ali Shirazi, Imam Seyyed Khamenei’s representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to the effect that those who are thinking of harming Iran will get a fitting response. Washington took immediate notice of this statement and hurriedly withdrew the aircraft-carrier Abraham Lincoln from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. How many Muslim rulers have the courage or the conviction to talk to the US in this manner, and how many of them does the US take seriously?
It is such steadfastness that has enabled Iran to achieve the near-impossible: teach the US some badly-needed lessons in diplomacy. On July 19 Burns slipped quietly into Geneva City Hallfor a meeting attended by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Washington had repeatedly said that it would not meet Iranian officials unlessTehran gave up enriching uranium, something the latter has pointedly refused to do. Iran insists that this would amount to a unilateral abrogation of its rights as a signatory to NPT. TheUS’s threats against Iran have had the opposite effect in Tehran to those the US intended.
Although there were no direct talks between Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, and Burns, the fact that a senior US diplomat went to Geneva to attend the talks is a major climbdown for Washington. The talks did not achieve any immediate breakthrough; it would have been unrealistic to have expected any. A senior American official attending such a meeting does not mean that Iran should surrender its rights. Jalili emphasized that at the next meeting Iran would not discuss the demand to freeze its nuclear activities. In fact, on July 25 President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad announced that Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges in operation to 6,000.
Two days after the Geneva meeting, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said that Iran faces more sanctions if it defies a two-week deadline to agree to curb its nuclear programme. “I think we have done enough to demonstrate that the United States is serious and to assure our partners that we are serious and to show the Iranians that we are serious. I think we have done enough,” she said while visiting Ireland. Rice was referring to the threat of further sanctions, which Tehran has dismissed as illegal. Such threats have not worked in the past and will not work in the future, because Iran’s position is entirely principled and just. Commenting on Rice’s threat, Alireza Sheikh-Attar, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said on July 21 thatWashington was “indecisive about whether to lean on diplomacy or the military option”. Iran, however, has made clear that it is not prepared to jeopardise its future by abandoning its rights for nebulous promises from the duplicitous West. Nor are other members of the group of six going along with the US’s threats. Russia, Germany and China have said that the negotiations with Iran should be given more time and explored in more detail.
The US refuses to supply spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft that were manufactured in the US. Tehran is forced to purchase these on the open market at exorbitant prices. If the USwill not honour its obligations even for civilian aircraft, why should Iran trust it or any other part of the West on such a sensitive issue as nuclear energy? US duplicity vis-a-vis Iran is longstanding and well-established. In January 1981, when Iran released the American spies (otherwise known as diplomats) it had held in Tehran, the US signed an agreement that it would not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, directly or indirectly, nor take any steps to undermine the Islamic government. Virtually from day one the US has reneged on this agreement. The US sponsors such terrorist outfits as the Baluchi Jundullah and the Mujahideen Khalq Organization to undermine the Islamic State. Washington also finances a number of television-stations that broadcast hostile propaganda into Iran, all in complete violation of the Algiers Accords of January 1981. Further, the US still refuses to release more than $40 billion in Iranian assets that under the accords it was supposed to have released.
The US’s demand that Iran abandon its nuclear enrichment programme flies in the face of the NPT itself. The whole point of the treaty was that if non-nuclear states pledged not to pursue the military nuclear option, the nuclear powers would help them to benefit from the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In addition, the nuclear powers themselves undertook nuclear disarmament to rid the world of the risk of nuclear annihilation. The US and its Western allies have failed on both counts; not one nuclear state has moved toward disarmament. Further,Israel, the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, has faced no condemnation or criticism for its nuclear vandalism. It is such hypocrisy that has enraged the rest of the world and stiffened Iran’s resolve not to give up its NPT rights.
Despite vast oil and gas reserves, Tehran is forced to import refined fuel for domestic consumption because it does not have enough refining capacity of its own. Besides, fossil fuels are a non-renewable source of energy; Iran cannot remain dependent on a single source for power and electricity generation. Nuclear energy provides an attractive alternative, but Iran cannot allow this to be dependent on the West’s non-existent goodwill. After all, for eight years in the nineteen-eighties, when Iran was invaded by Iraq, far from condemning the aggressor virtually the entire Western world sided with Iraq. Self-reliance thus became a fundamental article of Iran’s state policy.
There is also a commercial factor involved. In 1974, Iran lent $1 billion to the French Atomic Energy Commission to build its Eurodif enrichment facility, and acquired a 10 percent indirect interest in Eurodif, a stake that still exists. It paid an additional $180 million for future enrichment services. After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the new Revolutionary government cancelled the nuclear agreement with France and sought a refund of Iran’s investment. Far from fulfilling this straightforward request, the French dragged Iran into a decade-long litigation that ultimately resulted in Iran being reimbursed $1.6 billion for its loan, but the episode left it extremely bitter. It remains an indirect shareholder in Eurodif, but under a settlement made in 1991 it is denied access to technology and enriched uranium. Furthermore, though it retains its right to dividends, financial sanctions prevent it from receiving these dividends.
There is hardly a Western country that has not betrayed Iran in one way or another. Even the Russians, though they are much better than the Americans when dealing with Iran, are dragging their feet in completing the Bushehr nuclear power-plant, for which Iran has diligently paid its dues. There are now suggestions that Iran’s enrichment activity be done on Russian soil. Nobody has offered a plausible explanation of why Iran should forgo a right that no other state in the world, signatory or non-signatory to the NPT alike, has been asked to forgo.
Whether much will come out of the parleys in Geneva or elsewhere between Islamic Iran and the group of six is irrelevant. What is certain is that by standing firm on principle, Iran has forced the biggest bully in the world to back down. The rules of international diplomacy are changing. The era of gunboat diplomacy died a long time ago; the era of cruise-missile diplomacy is also nearing its end, as is the much-trumpeted “American century”, which lasted a grand total of ten years.