Risky equilibrium in Iran nuclear crisis

by Kaveh L Afrasiabi (source: Asia Times)
Saturday, February 16, 2013

NEW YORK - The Iran nuclear crisis has now reached a new and potentially dangerous equilibrium between stiff Western sanctions on the one hand and the rapid progress of Iran's nuclear program on the other.

Avoiding escalation will require careful nuclear diplomacy by both sides. It is hoped this will been seen in Kazakhstan on February 26 when an Iranian delegation with meet with representatives of the five permanent UN Security Council members - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - and Germany, known as the Iran 5+1.

The equilibrium has been generated by the confluence of several
inter-related factors, including the US's decision to escalate the pressures on Iran through new unilateral sanctions targeting Tehran's heavy reliance on petrodollars.

These new sanctions, which came into effect last week, ban all cash-based trade of Iranian oil, and restrict Iranian purchases of goods from energy partners. India in particular has been affected as this sinks an agreement it made with Tehran for oil through a Turkish bank.

That only certain goods can now be sold to Iran represents a giant leap towards what some Tehran analysts have interpreted as a slow "Iraqization" of the nuclear crisis, in reference to the oil-for-food UN deal that preceded US's invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Iraqization of Iran
Certainly, there are significant similarities between the two scenarios that warrant a healthy pause for reflection, recalling the disastrous Iraq war and the tragic implications, such as the some 4.5 million Iraqi orphans created and the lengthy mayhem which still continues today.

The longer the Iran nuclear crisis lasts, the more dangerous it becomes. This this raises important policy questions, primarily for Washington, which is in the driver's seat for the "5+1" talks.

Assuming that President Barack Obama, who is planning a much-anticipated trip to Israel in the near future, opts to vigorously enforce the new unilateral sanctions, this will be interpreted as yet more evidence of hostile US intent and is nearly tantamount to imposing a trade blockade.

Much as this may hurt Iran's purchasing power, such sanctions will likely fall short of their desired objective - killing the Iranian nuclear program. This is because Iran has a unique geographical location, access to the open sea and can depend on a lack of cooperation by certain states.

This is not to mention the fact that Iran even under the new sanctions will continue to have access to foreign markets, albeit within a restricted framework that denies it the normal use of petrodollars.

These factors suggest any US and Israeli plan to turn Iran into a pre-invasion Iraq faces significant hurdles and is unlikely to materialize, despite the similarity between the two scenarios.

Another important difference is Iran's ability to reflect on the Iraq scenario and draw the necessary lessons, one of which is that Saddam Hussein's compliance with the foreign demands to scrap his nuclear program simply resulted in his eventual downfall and his country's strangulation by Western military powers.

Iraq knows the dangers, which is why today we witness Tehran's counter-strategy of accelerating its uranium enrichment program, which was showcased to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who visited Tehran on Wednesday.

The net effect of Iran's installation of new centrifuges is the improvement of Iran's latent nuclear capability. This has been confirmed by various US experts who have estimated that Iran has sufficient uranium stockfeed for several nuclear weapons, should Iran opt to march toward "breakout threshold" by engaging in weapons-grade enrichment.

Not only does the counter-productive nature of US sanctions seem clear, the punitive measures also contradict the recent de-listing of two Iranian banks (Mellat and Saderat) from the sanctions list by the order of a European court.

The fact that these measures are hardening Tehran's nuclear resolve suggest a drastic adjustment in Washington's Iran policy is urgently called for.

An important prerequisite for such a policy adjustment is a realization that threats are not the way to deal with Iran. The White House must reject the advice, given by some George W Bush administration leftovers such as Nicholas Burns, the US and Israel "need to make the threat of [military] force more credible to Tehran".

What Burns and other conservative US pundits fail to realize is the negative correlation between such threats and Iran's national insecurity. Iran's latent capability serves as a potential shield of deterrence against external threats, irrespective of the civilian nature of the nuclear program and Iran's leaders' stated aversion toward nuclear weapons. The hawkish US policy advisers also fail to consider the negative ramifications of their policy approach with respect to Iran-IAEA cooperation.

A glass half full
As expected, the mainstream Western and Israeli press have wasted little time in painting a negative picture of the Iran-IAEA talks held in Tehran this week, with some predicting that this casts a giant shadow over in the coming talks in 10 days in Almaty.

The media cynicism underestimates the extent of progress made through bilateral talks between Iran and the atomic agency over the past year or so. The two sides have now managed to tackle most of the disputed issues, though there are "remaining differences" that will need to be resolved in the future rounds, to paraphrase the IAEA Deputy Director, Herman Nackaerts, who headed the IAEA delegation to Tehran.

In other words, the glass is half full rather than half-empty, and, hypothetically speaking, the negotiations can yield a major breakthrough in the near future, depending on the Western strategy for the approaching talks in Kazakhstan.

If the US and its Western allies decide to continue with an inflexible approach devoid of a realistic "bargain" between easing sanctions and Iran's nuclear cooperation, then Tehran will most likely refuse to reach a deal with the IAEA and, in fact, may move in the opposite direction of reducing its present cooperation.

On the other hand, with Iran's nuclear capability so vividly demonstrated by the installation of new and more efficient centrifuges, if the US chooses the path of meaningful negotiation and put serious offers on the table, with respect to sanctions, regional security, etc., then we are apt to see a more accommodating Iranian behavior that would translate into greater nuclear transparency and intrusive inspections.

Expectations for the Almaty round may be low, in light of Iran's coming presidential elections in June, yet it is definitely clear by now that the talks have reached a fork in the road and much depends on the mix of policy choices by the US-led Western coalition.

A close scrutiny of the new equilibrium between sanctions and Iran's nuclear capability is desperately needed on the part of Western policy-makers who have until now have been too invested in their belief that coercive sanctions will halt Iran's nuclear program.

Tehran's counter-actions should make it clear that this is an illusory hope and that there is an inverse relation between sanctions and the "Iran nuclear threat". Ultimately, the threat of "crippling sanctions" is driving Iran towards nuclear weapons. The sooner Western policy-makers wake up to this reality, the better.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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