Hamid Ansari

In the final analysis, the exercise is one of intentions: on the Iranian side, of dismantling the cage of isolation; on the Western side, of encaging Iran till its ideology is exorcised.

THERE IS far too much smoke to dispel the suspicion of a simmering fire. The European Union-United States double act is under way: the diplomatic option has been retained but given a new meaning not a negotiated settlement but an acceptance of terms without resort to force. The politicians have set the choice in absolute terms suspension/non-suspension. Negotiators are seeking to soften it. Sequencing thus becomes critical: suspension of enrichment before negotiations, together with negotiations or as a result of negotiations?

Equally relevant is the question of duration: temporary, quasi-permanent, permanent. The Iranians remember their mistake of 2004 when a voluntary act was made an irrevocable commitment that led, eventually, to the inane offer of August 2005. In the final analysis, the exercise is one of intentions: on the Iranian side, of dismantling the cage of isolation; on the Western side, of encaging Iran till its ideology is exorcised.

In the words of a U.S. analyst, "a major source of the pressure for a military strike emanates from the very man who will make the ultimate decision over whether to authorise such a strike the President." He has dubbed Iran the "Central Banker of Terrorism." The campaign thus has an all-encompassing purpose. It is not accidental that Iranian overtures have been ignored and the American red line (development of a nuclear weapon) purposefully shifted towards the Israeli red line (enrichment), nor that hints about war plans and covert commando activities inside Iran have appeared with certain regularity.

Domestic debate in the U.S. is adding a sense of urgency. In an op-ed last week, Gary Hart sought to paint the emerging scenario: a regime change in Tehran to forestall a regime change in Washington in November. The modality is to be a pre-emptive strike; its justification being a carefully induced fear psychosis. Some military analysts have detected signals supportive of it in the immediate future; others feel a strike may be deferred till next spring. Either way, the pressure of "all options" would tell on the behaviour of both sides. Realists such as Henry Kissinger advocate the need to explore "every honourable alternative" but inject a false dichotomy in the debate by insisting on Iran choosing between being a cause and a nation.

The domestic debate in Iran is equally relevant, with the emergence of a new generation of leaders committed simultaneously to the principles of the Revolution and to pragmatism. There too a double act, evident in the styles of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, is in place. The anticipated divide in the political hierarchy, however, is not in evidence and there is a consensus on rejecting suspension as a precondition for talks.

The Iranian polity is not a monolith, within the framework of the Islamic Republic or beyond it. This is evident from the debates on the elections to the Experts Assembly. The same holds for discussions about rights. Dissident Akbar Ganji has offered sane advice: "The best the world can offer is to listen to the different voices of our society" when forming an impression of Iran.

What then is the balance of political and military counters, and their interaction? Western pressure, under the threat of Security Council sanctions, has failed to produce results. A consensus on sanctions is lacking; even if it were to develop, effective implementation would be another matter. The Iranians prevent a crystallising of opinion by keeping the door open; Mr. Ahmadinejad said on September 21 that Iran was prepared to negotiate enrichment suspension "under fair and just conditions."

The military option does not visualise an Iraq-style invasion and occupation. Instead, in the words of Colonel Sam Gardiner of The Century Foundation, it would be "a decapitation-based concept. Kill the leadership and enable the people of Iran to take over their government." This would require an initial aircraft and missile strike capacity to hit "400 aim points" with 75 of these requiring penetrating weapons. The next stage would be follow-on strikes aimed at command and governance assets and "targeted killing" of the leadership.

The indeterminate in this would be the nature, strength, and extent of Iranian retaliation and the disruption it would cause in countries of the region and to the global economy. American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's categories of "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" certainly hold good in this case. Colonel Gardiner concludes his analysis with a set of questions about the efficacy of the military option:

Will the issues with Iran be resolved? No.

Will the region be better off? No.

Is it clear that Iran will abandon its nuclear programme? No.

Will the U.S. force a regime change in Iran? In all probability it will not.

Will the economy of the U.S. suffer? In all probability it will.

Will the U.S. have weakened its position in the Middle East? Yes.

Will the U.S. have reduced its influence in the world? Yes.

The conclusion is categorical: "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. You have to make diplomacy work." This assessment is widely shared.

For diplomacy to work, the parties would do well to remember Cardinal Richelieu's advice "to negotiate continuously, directly as well as in more devious ways, and in all places." An essential requirement for negotiations is a clarification of issues. The stated agenda is the question of Iran's nuclear programme, its rights and obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and its shortfalls as identified in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports and resolutions. The case for punitive measures does not hold water since such punishments were not contemplated for other transgressors like South Korea. The question is simply of political trust in the stated objective of Iran's nuclear programme.

Since trust is a subjective attribute, pragmatists opt for a "trust but verify" formula. Much thought has gone into the mechanics of such an arrangement. Together with it, the idea of assured fuel supplies has been revived. In September 2005, President Ahmadinejad offered in the United Nations General Assembly to "engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of the uranium-enrichment programme in Iran." This was scoffed at by the West. Russia then offered to conduct the enrichment of Iranian uranium on Russian soil. Iran said it made no sense for one country to entrust its energy security to another.

Nuclear fuel bank

The idea of a nuclear fuel bank was first suggested in 1957 but rejected by the nuclear haves. It was revived by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in January 2006 and promptly received a U.S. offer of 17 tonnes of highly enriched uranium that could be blended down to lightly enriched fuel! Russia responded likewise. In February 2005, Mr. ElBaradei suggested specific steps for addressing the nuclear disarmament clauses of the NPT and, in that context, proposed "a permanent security dialogue with the peace process in the Middle East" to commence a process that may eventually lead to a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region. It was ignored.

Last month, Professors Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson of the MIT put forth "the best option in a bad situation." In a paper published on September 5, they proposed "a multilateral enrichment facility on Iranian soil with the capacity to provide material for a virtual fuel bank." This would be done through a treaty between Iran and the EU-3 "to establish a commercial partnership with the governments as shareholders" who would provide the capital and appoint an international company to run day-to-day operations. "Iran would lease all its enrichment-related equipment and facilities to the partnership and would undertake not to enrich and process except through the partnership." The partnership would lease URENCO centrifuges and install them in batches over a seven-year period and also phase out Iranian centrifuges while providing security safeguards for both sets of centrifuges.

Forden-Thomson claim their proposal (a) meets the bottom line of both sides; (b) has built-in safeguards that are "robust and effective and more likely to deter and prevent clandestine operations than any proposed alternatives"; (c) "is the best option in bad circumstances." They claim Iranians "except those fixated on weapons" would find the scheme attractive; so would the great majority of governments since it would resolve the quarrel "without damaging the non-proliferation regime." They admit that "the West has retreated from its unrealistic starting positions."

There is a curious aspect to the 39-page paper. The United States is mentioned but once: "Nor would it [the scheme] necessarily remove U.S. sanctions against Iran." The stated agenda may be resolvable but can progress be made without addressing the un-stated one?

An Iranian judgment on the proposal would thus need to reconcile three aspects of the ground reality: the pronouncement of President Bush that "your [Iranian] leaders are the greatest obstacle to your future"; the military plans based on the "decapitation concept"; a major negotiated concession on its sovereign and treaty rights to which the most powerful power (and its greatest enemy) would not be party.

(The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Iran.)