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EMPTY THREATS WON'T RESTRAIN IRAN
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
January 18, 2006

Treating the issue of Iran's alleged nuclear ambition as a hot potato, the European trio of Britain, Germany and France, has decided to pass it on to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and thence to the United Nations' Security Council.

"Our talks with Iran have reached a dead end," says Germany's new foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The truth, however, is the trio's talks with Iran, which lasted three years, started at a dead-end. And the Europeans knew that those talks would get nowhere.

The talks began when Iran admitted that it had been lying to the IAEA and violating the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) for 18 years but promised not to do so again.

Legally speaking, Iran should have been referred to the Security Council at that time. The Europeans rejected American demands to that effect and decided to forgive Iran for its past sins.

In exchange they asked Iran, in the words of the then French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, to give them "something with which to silence the Americans".

De Villepin had devised the scheme as a means of exposing what he called "the follies of American policy" as had been manifested in Iraq. He suggested that Iran be dealt with "the French way" which meant negotiations and compromise rather than knuckle-rapping or worse.

The Iranians welcomed the European offer because it did three things for them. First, it removed the threat of military action which, at the time, appeared to be serious. Secondly, the deal isolated the United States. Finally, it gave Iran time to speed up its nuclear programme, whatever its ultimate goals.

Believe it or not the Iranians were honest throughout the talks. They said they were prepared to give that "something" needed "to silence the Americans" in the form of a voluntary and temporary suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment activities. They did not promise a permanent ban and made it clear that they would not relinquish Iran's right, under the NPT, to enrich uranium for fuel.

Interestingly, the European trio, presenting the deal as "a triumph for soft-power diplomacy", never demanded that Iran submit to a permanent end to uranium enrichment. The trio was anxious to be deceived and was deceived by its own illusions rather than any chicanery on the part of Iran. All it was interested in was to score a point against Washington.

Even now the trio is not asking Iran to permanently forgo its right to enrich uranium. It cannot do so because the NPT recognises that right for all nations.

To make matters more complicated the trio is now forced to deal with a much tougher Iranian partner in the person of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose political discourse is based on a dream of Iran as a major power on the global stage.

Having called the Europeans "nothing but corrupt midgets", Ahmadinejad would be the last person to let them dictate to him. He is also convinced that the US, bedevilled by its internal divisions, has missed the opportunity to use the threat of military action against Iran.

As a result Ahmadinejad is actively seeking a diplomatic confrontation with the Europeans plus escalating tension with the US. He believes he can take on both Europe and the US and win. And, if he does, he hopes, he would emerge as the unrivalled master of the Islamic Republic and the de facto leader of the Muslim world.

When Villepin and his British counterpart Jack Straw plus their German colleague, Joshcka Fischer, initiated the talks with Tehran they must have known that Iran had taken the strategic decision to develop a nuclear "surge capacity" as one of the three pillars of its "National Defence Doctrine" enacted in the early 1990s.

The Europeans could not have been as naïve as believing that the Islamic Republic would abandon that pillar in exchange for diplomatic niceties and an invitation to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Incidentally, the so-called "incentive" of inviting Iran into the WTO is no longer relevant because Ahmadinejad regards the WTO as "a club of thieves and plunderers" and preaches "self-sufficiency" rather than trade as the centrepiece of his economic doctrine.

The Europeans are not prepared to acknowledge that the problem is not about uranium enrichment but about the nature of the present Iranian regime. More than 20 countries, from Argentina to Japan, and passing by Germany and Ukraine, enrich uranium without anyone making a fuss.

The Iranian case is causing concern because few are prepared to trust the present leadership in Tehran not to embark upon some tragic mischief in the name of its Khomeinist ideology.

Appeasement

European-style appeasement, partly motivated by a desire to pull faces at Washington, has encouraged the most radical faction in Tehran and helped bring Ahmadinejad to power. All the diplomatic gesticulations that are likely to follow will only compound that effect.

The Islamic republic has had three years in which to prepare for whatever sanctions the Security Council might impose. It has also signed oil and gas contracts worth more than $70 billion (Dh257 billion) with China and arms and industrial contracts with Russia exceeding $30 billion (Dh110 billion) to make sure that at least one if not both would veto any harsh resolution against Iran.

The Khomeinist regime is one of those regimes that will not stop until they hit something hard. Why should they when they can pursue their objectives cost-free? Soft-power may work only if it is backed by hard power. And Europe has, once again, made it clear that, it would oppose even the threat of hard power being used against Iran.

As things stand all those concerned in this carnival of absurdities have reason to be happy: The Europeans get rid of the hot potato, the Bush administration finds a diplomatic fig leaf to cover its lack of an Iran policy, the Russians sell their arms, the Chinese get their oil and gas, and the Islamists in Tehran accelerate whatever mischief they might be up to in the nuclear domain.

But the problem of what to do with an awkward Iran in a new Middle East will remain unresolved. And somewhere down the road the West might well find out it would have to use far more than the mere threat of hard power in order to restrain Tehran's messianic ambitions. And that would mean swallow a much costlier bill than would have been the case three years ago.

Now that Mohammad Al Baradei, the IAEA director has got his Nobel Prize, presumably because of the way he has handled the Iranian dossier, what about nominating Villepin, Straw and Fischer for next year?

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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