Iran: is confrontation avoidable?

Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009. Photo: AP  

Before the March 2003 American invasion, military commanders from the United States were fond of saying their ground troops would enter Iraq only after sustained air strikes and covert action had shaped the battlefield. They justified the mammoth aerial bombardment, which preceded the ground offensive, as necessary to not only severely damage Iraq’s military and logistics infrastructure but also psychologically debilitate their foes. It was argued that the battlefield would be shaped to satisfaction and readied for invasion only after the Iraqi will to fight was degraded substantially. It was against this background of intensive military preparation to weaken the enemy in advance that American tanks finally lunged from Kuwait to swiftly grab the southern Iraqi oilfields, heralding what later became an ill-fated invasion.

Contrary to what happened in early combat in Iraq, the Americans, to borrow a military phrase, have not shaped the diplomatic turf to their advantage, ahead of the crucial talks with Iran on October 1. As of now, Iran appears to have the upper hand as it heads for talks, probably in Turkey, with the U.S. and its five global partners — Britain , France, Russia, China and Germany.

The Iranians stand strong because of two reasons. First, the American influence has been declining in the strategic arc stretching from the Hindukush mountains in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea in Lebanon. The area is part of the world’s energy heartland.

Afghanistan is one of the gateways not only to Pakistan and Iran but also to Central Asia’s rich energy resources. Iraq, which borders Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, holds the world’s third largest proven deposits of oil.

Second, the Iranian influence in this very area of enormous geopolitical importance has grown substantially since the Americans invaded Iraq. The Iranians are influential among the sizeable Hazara and Tajik communities in Afghanistan. For the landlocked Afghanistan, Iran is vital for its economic sustenance as trade corridors open across the Iranian mainland towards the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. The importance of these routes has heightened lately as the escalating turmoil in Pakistan enhanced the risks of transiting goods across the country in the direction of the Arabian Sea.

Apart from Afghanistan, Iran is arguably the most influential external player in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — which present a contiguous territorial zone, parts of which were once home to the mighty Phoenician and Achaemenid empires. The danger posed by Israel has powerfully bonded the Lebanese Hizbollah, the Palestinian Hamas and Syria with Iran. Besides, Iran is part of a regional Shia network, which spans Mashhad and Qom in Iran and Najaf and Karbala in Iraq.

Beirut and Southern Lebanon are also part of this fully flourishing system of vigorous religious interaction and energetic political activism.

Given its profound vulnerabilities, the U.S. needs Iran badly to stabilise both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran and Russia are fully aware that a power vacuum, at America’s expense, is fast emerging in large parts of Central Asia, Caucasia and West Asia.

America’s long-term capacity to project unrivalled power has been a topic of intense debate among its rivals. In large measure America’s capacity to sustain expensive military ventures abroad would depend on the amount of wealth it generates in the future, and on the disposable income it has at its command to afford the presence of its military forces abroad over the long haul.

Aware of their limitations to sustain a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan against the so called war on terror, the Americans are already seeking Russian help in Afghanistan. With military supply routes from Pakistan to Afghanistan choking, the Americans have been forced to look at Russia as an alternative. Known for their deft moves on the international chessboard, the Russians are likely to oblige, but only at the cost of degrading American strategic influence in the region.

Fully aware of the big picture, the Iranians are confident of striking a hard bargain with their interlocutors. It is extremely unlikely that the Iranians will compromise on their nuclear programme. Statements coming from Iran that it will not discuss its nuclear programme cannot be dismissed as mere posturing. The Iranian establishment, right from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Saeed Jalili, lead negotiator on the nuclear issue, have spoken in unison on excluding the country’s nuclear programme during the discussions with the global powers. If anything, the Iranians have hardened their position further. In May 2008, the Iranians were ready to consider the formation of an international consortium for enrichment of uranium. A year later they appear unwilling to do so.

Following up on the President’s announcement earlier this year that Iran had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, his adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr in a recent interview with AFP said: “The situation would have been different if we had not mastered this technology. They [the global powers] have to understand that we have made progress in other fields also and our progress has been fast.” Far from hinting at flexibility and compromise, the Iranians have been dismissive of the West, and have derided its moral credentials to discuss their atomic programme. The corrosive tenor adopted by a commentary in the Iranian daily, Kayhan, which supposedly reflects the Supreme Leader’s thinking, illustrated the mood in Tehran. “The thought of official talks with members of a group who have drenched Iraq and Afghanistan in the blood of its citizens and brought misery and hardship on the rest of the world is sickening to Iran’s rank and file. We are going to be ‘graced’ at the talks with the presence of pseudo-humans whose greed has led to dozens of Africa famines and the deaths of millions through starvation. And we have to degrade ourselves further through efforts to listen to their arguments which generally consist of threats, more threats and then acts of terrorism against our country via their intelligence services if we do not give in to their bullying. We even sink to the lows of doing business with mass murderers?On the eve of the talks with the 5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council + Germany), we beg God to give us patience, because the mere thought of proximity with such company, in the absence of so many of our martyred loved ones and friends, abhors us and fills our numbers with apprehension and disgust.”

It is evident that the U.S.and its partners will run into a wall of resistance if they continue to push Iran to halt nuclear enrichment or threaten it with more stringent sanctions, if not worse.

On the contrary, acceptance of enrichment, but under watertight international monitoring, which ensures that enriched uranium produced by Iran is not diverted for military purposes, can pay attractive dividends. For instance, the Iranians will be denied any credible argument against signing the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which provides for surprise inspections of suspect facilities, once it is permitted enrichment under full international surveillance. Iran’s failure to cooperate then will deny it the moral high ground that it is presently inclined to take on all conceivable national and international forums. Besides, its failure to comply would give room for manoeuvring to undercut support for Iran among the large number of nations belonging to the non-aligned group. Iran’s isolation can become comprehensive, and the moral case for additional punitive measures can be made impregnable, if Tehran’s post-enrichment stance falls short of international expectations.

There has been much talk in the West about the imposition of punishing gasoline sanctions to force Iran to amend its stance on the nuclear issue. Despite imports meeting 40 per cent of their petrol demand, the Iranians are unlikely to be sufficiently hurt by an embargo. Russia has already declared that it opposes a gasoline blockade against Iran. It would be hard to impose a petrol embargo on Iran without consensus among the global powers. Even if the West goes ahead with sanctions, minus Russia and in all probability China, it is unlikely to achieve much success.

Russia would still be in a position to sufficiently meet Iranian demand by transiting gasoline along alternative routes.

Air strikes by Israel or the U.S. are not a realistic option either. Aerial bombardment of Iran’s widely dispersed nuclear infrastructure can, at best, delay the progress of Tehran’s atomic programme. But the risks attached to such a military misadventure are enormous. Iran, in all probability, will retaliate by mining the Strait of Hormuz — the principal gateway for transiting global oil supplies. Oil prices following an attack on Iran are bound to surge to unprecedented heights. A recession hit global economy, which is still in the doldrums and is likely to remain so for some more time, will find it hard to withstand such a heavy blow. An attack on Iran is also likely to trigger attacks on Israel by the Hizbollah, leading to a much larger regional conflagration in an area which holds the world’s largest deposits of oil.

The October 1 talks open up a narrow path for progress. If not treaded carefully by the global powers and Iran, there could be disaster on a much larger scale.

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