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WHAT IS THE BEST OPTION TO CHECK IRAN?
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
February 22, 2006

Having resumed uranium enrichment, has the Islamic Republic crossed the Rubicon? The question is dividing commentators and decision-makers both inside and outside Iran.

Some, such as the former US vice-president Al Gore, believe that Iran is a threat to world peace and must be checked, by force if necessary.

Others such as Gore's former boss, ex-president Bill Clinton, are convinced that the best way to deal with Iran is to negotiate. Both, however, may be missing the point.

If military action means a few brief air strikes or missile attacks, it is certain to be counter productive.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might even welcome such attacks in the hope they will lift the uncertainty that is damaging the Iranian economy and undermining his authority.

And he would not be wrong. The ineffective missile attacks that Clinton launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Saddamites in Iraq in the 1990s strengthened both regimes in two ways.

First, the attacks demonstrated that when the American Damocles sword falls, it does only limited damage.

Secondly, the attacks showed that the US did not pursue the broader objective of regime change, the only thing that would have made the Taliban and the Saddamites pay attention.

Today, we face a similar situation with Iran. As long as no regime change is on the agenda the leadership in Tehran would not be swayed by air raids or missile attacks.

The new Tehran leadership is flattered by the fact that the US is treating it as an almost equal adversary rather than a ramshackle Third World regime.

If Gore's idea of a muscular answer to Iran is out, should we adopt Clinton's scenario for negotiations?

Once again the problem is that any diplomatic process that Clinton might imagine would play into the hands of the new leadership in Tehran.

Here is why: to persuade Tehran to negotiate it would be necessary to postpone referring its dossier to the United Nations' Security Council. And that is precisely what Tehran is working hard to achieve.

Tehran would like nothing better than a resumption of talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for postponing any action by the Security Council. To lubricate things along the way Tehran might even offer to introduce another "temporary suspension" of its uranium enrichment programme within a year or two.

At the same time the Tehran leadership wants to keep the focus on the nuclear issue.

This could win the regime a measure of popular support inside Iran where most people do not know what the fuss is about and resent being treated as "less than the Indians" when it comes to having nuclear weapons.

At the same time, exclusive attention to the nuclear issue will push other, potentially more explosive issues, such as violation of human rights, waves of executions and ethnic unrest in many parts of Iran, out of the limelight.

Manuchehr Motakki, the new Islamic foreign minister, has used a Persian proverb to explain Tehran's diplomacy: "There is hope from pillar to pillar!"

This means that Islamic diplomacy is geared to achieve two things: first, to prevent the emergence of a consensus among the major powers on regime change in Iran and, secondly, to keep the major powers engaged in an open-ended talking process. Thus, Clinton's analysis would play right into the hands of Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian analysis is based on the belief that the current American strategy is the product of "a moment of madness under President George W. Bush".

Thus, it is assumed that Bush has been acting out of character for an American president and that, once he is out of office, his successor, whoever it is, will revert to the traditional American policy of "conflict avoidance" and "alliance building" for soft-power action.

All the talk in Tehran, and by extension in Damascus where the Islamic republic has now established itself as the principal supporter of the Syrian regime, is about "the three-year endurance course" that consists of what is left of Bush's second and final term in office.

It is on the basis of that analysis that Tehran will not enter any negotiations that would question its right to develop what Ahmadinejad describes as "a full scientific nuclear cycle".

And it is also on that basis that President Bashar Al Assad of Syria has decided not only to tell the United Nations off but also to reassert Syria's dominance in Lebanon through a new Shiite-Maronite alliance underwritten by Tehran.

Iranian script

The irony of all this is that the Bush administration has played the part assigned to it in the Iranian script. It has thrown its lot with the advocates of diplomacy and soft-power thus giving Ahmadinejad the assurance that there will be no unilateral American action against the Islamic republic.

At the same time, Washington is doing enough sabre-rattling to give credence to Ahmadinejad's claim that a "clash of civilisations" is under way with Iran leading one camp and the US another.

If the resolutions of the Security Council are meant to serve as sticks, it is already clear that they do not perform that function as far as the Islamic republic is concerned. A regime that claims a world leadership in a "clash of civilisations" and promises to "save the world from total Americanisation" will not be swayed by such classical tactics.

When it comes to dealing with Iran neither the Gore scenario nor the Clinton alternative are likely to work.

So, what is to be done? Ah, that requires another column, doesn't it?

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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