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by Praful Bidwai

Iran and U.S. Locked Into Spiral Conflict -- Last Refuge of Weak Leaders

(IPS) TEHRAN -- As the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to halt uranium enrichment descends upon Iran, the already narrow window of opportunity to resolve the crisis over Tehran's nuclear program diplomatically may soon slam shut.

If the Western powers, led by the United States, adopt a tough posture and demand that sanctions be imposed on Iran, or worse, launch a military attack on its nuclear facilities, they will strengthen the hands of the nuclear hawks who at present constitute a minority in the Tehran regime.

A military attack on Iran could have catastrophic consequences for the entire Middle East, the world's most volatile region. The effects will be even more disastrous if the U.S. uses tactical nuclear weapons, which reports say, it is considering.

If the West explores the route of diplomacy and negotiation, it could be rewarded with rich dividends, including effective oversight over Iran's nuclear activities and improvement in relations with its government, which is keen on being accepted as a "normal," "responsible" and a status quoist power.

At this extraordinarily delicate make-or-break moment, Iran has fashioned a three-pronged approach to deal with the nuclear crisis which has steadily escalated since the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors passed two resolutions against it in September and February, and sent its case to the UNSC.

First, Tehran remains defiant that it will not sacrifice its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to engage in peaceful activities, including uranium enrichment for power generation. It has threatened to "hide" its atomic program, transfer nuclear technology to other countries, and cease cooperation with the IAEA, if the West takes "harsh measures." (The IAEA is due to submit a report on Iran's nuclear activities on Apr. 28.)

These threats have emanated not just from cabinet ministers and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often credited with harsh utterances, but from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who only rarely makes pronouncements on such issues.

Second, the Iranian government is sending out signals that it is keen to reach a deal or compromise on the nuclear issue. Dr Hasan Rowhani, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, and Khamenei's nominee on it, has said that Iran is prepared to suspend its uranium enrichment for a short time.

Iranian officials are also working diplomatic channels to let it be known that Tehran wants talks which will lead to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue.

The third prong of Iran's strategy is to reach out to its neighbors, including some pro-American states in the Persian Gulf, and to try to persuade them not to support a U.S. military attack on Iran. Recently, former President Rafsanjani and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani were in Kuwait and Bahrain respectively.

"Iran's current position is based on a strong domestic consensus in favour of a civilian nuclear program and of acquiring a degree of mastery over nuclear technology, not in favour of developing nuclear weapons or even a weapons capability," Prof. Nasser Hadian-Jazy, an international relations and security affairs specialist at the University of Tehran told IPS.

"Most Iranian policy-makers believe that the gap between what Tehran wants and what pragmatists in the West will concede on the nuclear issue is not very wide, certainly not unbridgeable. They would certainly like to avoid a confrontation. Both sides know that the costs of a confrontation would be unaffordably high. Therefore, they can be realistically expected to try to negotiate a compromise. One can only hope the negotiations succeed," added Hadian-Jazy.

A likely compromise, say insiders who insist on anonymity, would involve temporary suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran and a possible joint venture with Russia (and some other states like South Africa) to take Iran's uranium hexafluoride gas out of the country and enrich it elsewhere. Iranian scientists would have access to the relevant facilities and technologies in the joint effort. Iran would stick to its NPT commitments and ratify the tough IAEA ‘additional protocol.'

In return, the West would recognize Iran as a ‘normal' state, and give it security guarantees and a ‘package' of economic incentives, including access to enhanced gas and oil production technologies.

Numerous governmental and non-governmental experts, told IPS that there is fairly broad agreement that such a compromise proposal could be negotiated. It is however hard to verify this through public statements. Media debate on the nuclear issue is banned..

There seems to be very little support for the idea that Iran should become a nuclear weapons-state like India or Pakistan. The much-publicized picture of some young Iranians dancing with joy following the official Apr. 11 announcement that Iran has successfully enriched uranium to 3.5 percent is "highly misleading," said a member of the board of editors of a dissident publication. "That sentiment is not widely shared. There was no significant jubilation over Iran's claimed nuclear prowess."

Many Iranians are also skeptical of the claim that Iran has achieved technological sophistication as regards uranium enrichment. They believe that the Isfahan and Natanz facilities are rudimentary. But not much is independently known about them thanks to the media ban.

No tension or apprehension is detectable in the streets of Iran on the eve of the UNSC deadline. People go about their business in bustling cities as if unaware of the huge nuclear crisis.

Yet, Iranian policy-makers seem to be acutely conscious of what is at stake. "It would be fair to say that they think Iran has much to lose from an overt pursuit of nuclear weapons," says Ramin Jehanbegloo, a political theorist in Tehran. "Contrary to Western stereotypes, they are sober, hard-nosed pragmatists, not ideologically driven. They know that nuclear weapons will make Iran more vulnerable and insecure, not more secure."

Among the factors that weigh with policy-makers is the likely loss of Iran's conventional superiority vis-ą-vis potential adversaries, and the "rebound" effect. Iran's bomb will invite Israel's active hostility and push the neighborhood's smaller states towards Washington. And it will increase the likelihood of nuclear proliferation to non-state actors like al-Qaeda, which views Iran with suspicion.

Iranian policy-makers believe Iran has a strong hand, legally and politically, without nuclear weapons. It is not in breach of any international treaty or law. Iran hopes to win a measure of international public sympathy if it is unfairly targeted and cornered by the U.S. and its close allies. Therefore, Tehran is unlikely to alter the status quo radically.

If Washington does so by exercising the military option, it will invite serious trouble in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and in the entire Muslim world. As the Iran situation is delicately poized, sobriety and wisdom are at a premium.

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Albion Monitor   April 27, 2006   (

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