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January 31, 2008
Kaveh L Afrasiabi
The next Iran report by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due in early March, and even though Tehran has fully cooperated and there is no evidence of military diversion from its peaceful nuclear activities, the United Nations is about to impose severe new sanctions on Iran, deemed "punitive" by a US government spokesperson.
According to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, the proposed third round of sanctions is really about "escaping answers to world public opinion" because the US and its allies "are worried about the agency report". Mottaki has hinted at compromise and Iran's willingness to show greater flexibility in nuclear negotiations, by calling on the US to "couch whatever it has to say in the Five plus One framework". This refers to the US, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany, which have been debating Iran's case.
The next IAEA report will raise the question of Tehran's program in public opinion, that is, on what basis and on the proof of what diversions are new sanctions resolutions against Iran proposed?
This is a question asked by a growing number of Third World diplomats. Case in point, South Africa's Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad has cited "good progress" in the process of negotiation between Iran and the UN's atomic agency (the IAEA), adding that "the world community should support this process". Pahad and a number of diplomats from other nations, who are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, have warned the UN Security Council's actions could end up harming "successful" Iran-IAEA cooperation.
Concerning the latter, the IAEA's director general, Mohammad ElBaradei, visited Iran from January 11 to 12 and reached an agreement with Tehran on the timeline for implementation of all the remaining verification issues specified in the August 2007 "workplan" between the IAEA and Iran.
"Iran has nothing to hide and therefore has no fear to answer remaining questions ... to pave the ground for the IAEA to give a transparent report about Iran's program," Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy director of Iran's atomic energy organization, has stated.
Irrespective of both the decent progress in Iran-IAEA cooperation and the recent intelligence report, compiled by 16 US spy agencies, that concludes Iran is not proliferating nuclear weapons, President George W Bush used his final state of the union address on Tuesday to level the traditional charge of proliferation, as well as Iran's troublemaking in Iraq, against Tehran, calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. (The latter is unlikely to happen. Iran has even indicated it could join a proposed international bank for enriched uranium that would provide countries with safe fuel for nuclear power stations - but as a supplier.)
As if intent on obviating any signs of compromise on Iran's part, the US has escalated its demands, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice going on record about the need for Iran "to give up its nuclear fuel program". This surpasses the UN's demands, which go as far as requesting a mere "suspension" as a confidence-building measure, ie, inherently as a time-specific, temporary step.
A third resolution ahead of the IAEA report?
Between now and early March, that is, when the IAEA's governing board meets in Vienna to deliberate on ElBaradei's country report on Iran, we will likely witness a stiff struggle at the UN over the exact content, wording and timing of the third sanctions resolution.
In light of Iran's warning that it will respond negatively to any such resolution, and that the new one will likely call for a range of actions, including travel bans, asset freezes, monitoring of some of Iran's banks, and inspection of suspicious cargo, it is likely to probable that the IAEA's agreement with Iran, and with it the process of Iran's nuclear transparency, will be an immediate and direct casualty of the new UN sanctions.
By the same token, should the Security Council delay action until after ElBaradei's report is out, then, assuming the report will substantiate the peacefulness of Iran's nuclear program, it will be doubly hard for the US and its three European allies (Germany, France and Britain) to seek "additional sanctions" when such sanctions lack the necessary justifications.
Thus, the US's extra effort now to preempt the IAEA report by getting the third UN resolution passed well ahead of the next IAEA meeting, perhaps betting on an instant Iranian backlash against the IAEA. But, in light of China's announcement that it will take "several weeks" for the new resolution to be adopted, the US may not get its wish.
The first two UN resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, first in December 2006 and then in March 2007, called on Tehran to suspend all uranium-enrichment related activities and also banned arms sales and froze Iranian assets in overseas financial institutions.
Third resolution: Tough and dangerous, sold as mild
It is noteworthy that the draft UN resolution for the first time imposes an export ban on all "dual-purpose" nuclear material or technology, the only exception being those under the supervision of the IAEA, for example, material for use in light water reactors, in which case the UN committee monitoring Iran sanctions must authorize its export to Iran.
Moreover, the proposed resolution calls for inspection of suspicious cargoes to and from Iran. Will this mean the US's warships patrolling the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean will be next inspecting Iran's cargo ships looking for banned nuclear material? And what happens if the Iranians resist?
These are questions to ponder at the UN Security Council, especially on the part of those permanent and non-permanent members professing the need for "pacific resolution" of the Iran nuclear crisis, since the draft sanctions resolutions have a distinct potential to cause a violent trigger that could easily spiral out of control.
On paper, the US's intention is to extend to Iran the experience of cargo-ship interdiction under the guise of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which bears the stamp of the Nuclear Supplier Group and has been implemented against North Korea a number of times.
But, the North Korea analogy can only go so far and, in light of Iran's assertive posture in the region, similar PSI interdiction in the Persian Gulf runs the risk of an unwanted warfare that could escalate and grip the entire oil region, thus adding severe new headaches to an already troubled world economy in the throes of (potentially) a coming recession.
Unmindful of the unintended, though fully anticipatory, consequences of the new UN resolution, the US keeps building the momentum for its quick adoption at the Security Council, thus setting the stage both for a let down at the IAEA and a showdown in the Persian Gulf.
The US media toe the line
Meanwhile, the US media have dutifully toed the official Washington line, with various papers such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal backing the proposed third UN resolution, uniformly branding it as a "message to Iran".
Indeed, in addition to wholesale support for tough new actions against Iran, with a New York Times editorial lamenting the lack of "stronger punishments", what is interesting about the US media's reaction is the way in which the importance of the US's recent intelligence finding on Iran is either side-stepped or, better yet, completely ignored, while recycling the old accusations regarding Iran's proliferation and its "nuclear ambitions".
Another key element of the US media campaign, to sell the draft UN resolution to world public opinion, is placing the blame squarely on Iran's political leadership and maintaining that the new sanctions "would send a strong message to Iran's citizens about the folly of their leaders' course", to paraphrase a New York Times editorial titled "Too easy to refuse".
But the proposed new sanctions, adding qualitative new weight to the existing sanctions, are not easy. For instance, Iranian businessmen cannot get letters of credit from foreign banks and have to resort to pre-modern cash transactions, not to mention foreign capital being frightened out of Iran.
Above all, the legal justification for the whole sanctions regime, given Iran's nuclear transparency and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty foundation for its pursuit of an independent nuclear fuel cycle, is lacking. We have yet to see an objective US editorial take this into consideration.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.
Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd.
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