A win, win, win ending for Tehran
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times
11 April 2007
Even as Iran basks in worldwide praise for its handling of the crisis over the 15 British sailors and marines it seized and then released after two weeks, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has ensured that the focus stays on his country by announcing that Iran has the ability to produce enriched uranium at "industrial scale".
This presses the point that, technologically speaking, Iran has reached a point of no return and henceforth the best the West can hope for is to negotiate over the "objective guarantees" regarding the peaceful use of Iran's nuclear technology.
In a speech at Natanz, Iran's main nuclear site, Ahmadinejad said on Monday that 3,000 centrifuges had been installed in an underground facility, allowing Iran "to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale".
Earlier, The Times of London wrote, "For the first time in his 20- month presidency, Ahmadinejad made a magnanimous gesture to the West," adding that Iran's president had achieved a "huge publicity coup" by his decision to free the 15 captives.
A German leftist daily, Der Tageszeit, has also written about Iran's "PR coup", suggesting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair could learn from Ahmadinejad.
Overnight, from constant vilification, the British and other European media have shifted gears to praise Iran's "gesture of magnanimity" hailing the "triumph of diplomacy over force" in causing an abrupt end to the two-week-long conflict between Iran and Britain.
While we are too close to this event to draw more than tentative conclusions, with crucial facts about the behind-the-scenes negotiations between Tehran and London or the decision-making process inside Iran that culminated in its act of clemency still to be revealed, this much is clear: from the outset, this was a crisis of opportunity for Iran, and the trick was not to get carried away with it, but rather cash in on the immediate gains for the sake of long-term goals and objectives.
Ahmadinejad's position stronger
Without doubt, both domestically and externally, Ahmadinejad's government has been strengthened as a direct result of this crisis. To many experts, both inside and outside Iran, the whole episode showed Iran's statecraft at its best, combining determination, resolve, stamina and deft diplomacy, as a result of which Iran has managed to get more mileage out of this crisis than could have been anticipated when the British sailors were seized by Iran's Revolutionary Guards on March 23.
Tantamount to a new Iranian "charm offensive", Ahmadinejad's maneuvers are bound to have significant ripple effects on nearly all facets of Iran's foreign policy, strengthening its hands in the nuclear standoff, in inter-state relations in the Persian Gulf, and beyond.
By standing up to a Western power, Iran has added new potency to its regional clout at a time when nearly all its Persian Gulf neighbors sheepishly toe the US line. The symbolic importance of Iran's taking on the British forces goes beyond the question of who was right or wrong and is empowering Iranians and their friends in the region.
No matter how Blair seeks to put a positive face on the "firm and resolute" British diplomacy, the basic fact is that his government was badly bruised by an Iranian initiative that set back the Western hegemonic policies in the Persian Gulf region.
Understandably, certain elements of the US and European media are putting the opposite spin on "the lessons", one being how this crisis "tarnished Iran's image". Such self-serving analyses are blind, however, to how this is played out in the Arab, Muslim and Third World streets, adopting instead a Eurocentric interpretation.
As expected, the US media have been rather tongue-in-cheek, to put it mildly, about the ramifications of Iran's behavior. A correspondent for ABC (American Broadcasting Co) News reporting on the release of British service personnel boldly stated, without bothering to elaborate, that this "deepens suspicions of Iran's nuclear intentions".
Another US network, on the other hand, ran a report on how upset the US government has been with the British conduct in Persian Gulf, questioning why Britain did not engage the Iranians, and so on. It failed to mention that the British may have acted wisely by not playing America's game.
At the same time, the US is keen on taking some credit for the diplomatic breakthrough, with some White House officials telling the New York Sun that the highest US officials in the administration of President George W Bush chose to free an apprehended Iranian diplomat in Baghdad.
Promoting the idea of an indirect, or rather "soft", quid pro quo, the paper also claims that Iran's request for a visit to the other Iranians in US custody in Iraq has been part of the deal. If so, that ought to set a positive tone for the US-Iran meeting at the Iraq summit scheduled in Istanbul for this month.
The generally negative inputs by the US media and government are hardly surprising: the United States' coercive approach toward Iran is now put on the defensive, seeing how the British proved that diplomacy can work with Iran, and the US media and politicians are plainly incapable of giving the devil its due, some simply accusing Iran of engaging in "theatrics" with the sailors.
Clearly, the US is now in the danger of appearing as the odd man out, with the likely improvement of the Iran-European Union climate as a direct result of the happy conclusion of this crisis. Not only that, Washington may soon discover that its closest ally in Europe, Britain, is now beholden to the Iranians and can no longer be counted on to lead the march against Tehran in Europe. From Iran's strategic perspective, this may be the most important result of the sailors crisis.
Coinciding with the arrival of sailors in London was the ominous news that four British soldiers had been slain in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, reminding the British public of the exorbitant price it is paying for bandwagoning with the US Middle East policy and the need for a revised, more balanced approach that is more European than American. In this regard, Blair's open support for Israel's disproportionate military response to Hezbollah's raid last summer still haunts him.
Henceforth, Iran's diplomatic machinery is likely to telescope the graceful exit from the sailors crisis to a more nuanced, carefully constructed dialogue with the EU, to the detriment of US policy that continues to show signs of a built-in schizophrenia, pushing the arches of conciliation toward Iran simultaneously.
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki is a major beneficiary of the crisis too. His ministry has been on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, but this may change in light of Mottaki's effective role, equal to that of secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani (and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator), in resolving the dispute with London.
On a related note, Turkey gained a few points too by using its rapport with Iran for a speedy resolution, and this should be a timely plus in its current bid to join the EU. Syria also, it turns out, played a constructive role, which serves to undermine the current US efforts to drive a wedge between Tehran and Damascus.
Iran and the UN Security Council
Another potential windfall of this crisis for Iran may turn out to be with respect the United Nations sanctions diplomacy vis-a-vis Iran. In his press conference announcing the release of British sailors, President Ahmadinejad made a point of trying to put the Security Council on the defensive. His denunciation did not make it into the US and British coverage, for the most part, and is worth quoting at length:
Today, no member state can complain against the US and United Kingdom to the Security Council and expect attention to their complaint ... the structure of Security Council should be reformed ... according to the principle of justice, and that is a necessary requirement. Until then, every state should expect that the rights of their country and their people will be denied by certain powers at the Security Council ... The Security Council, although it did not satisfy all of [the] British demands due to the resistance of some independent states, yet without examining the facts and the key documents passed a resolution. People of the world ask: Why? The question is, where is the Security Council going with this trend?
That is, indeed, an apt question that must be probed by the UN community as to whether or not the unbalanced influence of big powers vividly seen in the Security Council's above-mentioned instant action may have gone too far in undermining the very viability of the world organization.
Over the long run, should the present unhappy trend continue, the developing nations may have no choice but to set up a parallel global organization that would be immune from the rather pathetic state of affairs at the Security Council today.
A fair and impartial Security Council would not have readily dismissed Iran's complaint that there had been an intrusion into its territorial waters by the armed forces of a foreign country. By adopting the British version of facts, subsequently revised by the British Foreign Office itself, reflected in Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's "regret" in her interview with Iranian television last week, the Security Council made a mockery of itself and its pretension to rule of international law.
It is noteworthy that several of the British sailors, while in Iran's custody, freely admitted that they were trespassing in Iranian waters, and their admission would have counted in any court of law, irrespective of the unpleasantness of the video footage. Had this case been examined in an international legal forum, the sailors' admission would have weighed heavily in a final verdict.
But in today's Western-dominated hierarchical global system, very rarely do the world's underdogs win their day when contesting the world's powers that be, and this crisis represents an exception that is bound to make the Western powers redouble their efforts to make sure it does not happen again.
Still, no matter how the anti-Iran spin doctors in the Western media twist the lessons of this crisis in their favor, the fact remains that the UN Security Council has been delivered a black eye over its rush to judgment against Iran, and this is bound to backfire on the US-UK-led campaign at the council for the next round of UN action against Iran.
On the contrary, with the fissures of a new US-EU split on Iran somewhat inevitable as a result of the successful conclusion of the sailors crisis, and London facing great new constraints on its hitherto unreconstructed bandwagoning with the US, chances are that the wind has been taken out of the UN's sails in regard to sanctions on Iran. This depends, of course, on Iran's ability to demonstrate the necessary acumen in terms of new flexibility in nuclear talks with the Europeans in the coming days and weeks.
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.
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