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The nuclear swap deal & emerging powers

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, his Brazilian counterpart Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, left, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, talk before signing an agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Tehran on May 17, 2010.   | Photo Credit: Vahid Salemi

Barely had the ink dried on the Tehran declaration, signed after 18 hours of marathon negotiations among Iran, Brazil and Turkey, when the United States tossed the initiative out of the window.

Without taking serious cognisance of a move that promised broad-based diplomacy over coercion, and more importantly, hope over ingrained cynicism, Washington let it be known to the world that it did not much care about the efforts of the Iranian, Turkish and Brazilian diplomats who had burnt the midnight oil in Tehran. The document that bleary-eyed mandarins had prepared by daybreak on May 17 under the watch of the venerable Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and the popular Turkish Premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was, in America's declared perception, simply not good enough to merit serious consideration.

The arrangement

The Tehran declaration is essentially about a quid pro quo arrangement. It calls upon Iran to transfer 1,200 kg of its lightly enriched uranium to Turkey. In return, it would receive within one year from abroad medium enriched nuclear fuel rods required to run the Tehran-based medical reactor. The deal is essentially a confidence-building measure meant to reassure Iran's detractors that the country is not in pursuit of atomic weapons. The logic of the deal is simple. Once Iran ships out large quantities of low enriched uranium, it would be left with much diminished stocks of nuclear material that it could possibly divert for making bombs. The move should reassure those who are worried that Tehran has been working feverishly to terrorise them one day with atomic weapons. The nuclear swap deal, therefore, is a good tension-reduction measure, meant to encourage more detailed and comprehensive negotiations that should guarantee two things: Iran's legitimate right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes; and its inability to make atomic weapons that can threaten international security.

The criticism of the Obama administration that the May 17 arrangement does not halt Iran's ongoing enrichment activity is, therefore, entirely misplaced. The deal was never meant to stop Iranian enrichment. Neither was the October 2009 Vienna proposal, which was fully endorsed by the United States, Russia, France and the IAEA — the so-called Vienna group — about the stoppage of Iran's domestic enrichment. In fact, not very long ago, President Barack Obama was much applauded for successfully differentiating himself from his predecessor. Unlike George Bush. he dropped the halt of enrichment by Iran as a precondition for opening a dialogue with it. Critics of the latest American position are therefore dead on when they accuse President Obama of “shifting the goalposts” in recent weeks.

Striking an unexpectedly hostile note, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed the deal cavalierly within hours of its signing. On the contrary, she announced that a consensus draft on a fourth round of sanctions on Iran was already in circulation at the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China, the two possible holdouts in the drive to punish Iran for its nuclear programme, had apparently been roped in successfully as fellow-travellers on the sanctions bandwagon.

Bigger questions

Throwing a spanner in the works, the Americans have not only energised the debate but also deepened the international divide on ways of tackling the Iranian nuclear crisis. The diverging perceptions on ways of defusing tensions in Iran are beginning to create serious differences among countries that are diplomatically engaged with its nuclear programme.

Some of the bigger questions that these divisions have begun to raise are: Is the Tehran trilateral summit a sign of an emerging order in which the near-monopolisation of power by the U.S. is seriously challenged by a set of new players coalescing around China, Russia, Brazil, Turkey and Iran? In other words, is a new geopolitical order with its centre of gravity shifting towards the east beginning to show up with greater prominence after the Tehran summit? The emergence of at least three scenarios, each reflecting major changes in the existing international pecking order, is possible following the summit.

Among the options awaiting President Obama, adoption of a conciliatory approach towards Iran, will not necessarily mean bad politics. A principled approach grounded in realism aimed at reconciliation is the most coherent and internally consistent position the Obama administration can adopt to promote its interests. A non-confrontationist approach to Iran will be a logical extension of Mr. Obama's highly successful presidential campaign. While re-energising his foot soldiers to face bigger battles at home, it should also yield handsome benefits on the global stage.

A rapprochement with Iran is the most significant step Americans can take to get back on a positive note into West Asia after the 2003 disaster of the Iraq campaign. Once tensions begin to ease with Iran, the Americans can hope for some tangible relief in two areas of their maximum concern — Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Iranians exercise deep influence within Iraq's Shia spectrum, and major non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan fall within the ambit of Persian culture, Iran is uniquely positioned to resolve both these problems. In, fact, Iran holds the key to the possible success of Washington's exit strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An American foothold in Iran, at some stage, can also enable the Americans to improve their chances of facing the challenge posed by both Russia and China, who are now major players in the energy zones of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

On the negative side, the bonding, however nascent, between the U.S. and Iran is bound to upset some of Washington's traditional Arab allies in the Persian Gulf area. More importantly, a U.S. attempt to build bridges with Iran would hit Israel substantially. It is not surprising that the dominantly hawkish sections of the Israeli lobby have already unleashed influence on the U.S to deter President Obama from shoring up ties with Iran.

Exhorted by ideologically driven hawks, the Obama administration can come under domestic pressure to take hostility towards Iran to its maximalist level. In case the Obama administration succumbs to these moves, directed at imposing “crippling sanctions” and possibly war, irrespective of Iran's show of flexibility, it would prove disastrous for American long-term interests in the region. Far from coalescing public opinion under the influence of national chauvinism, the opening of a third front for combat in Iran, after Iraq and Afghanistan, can quickly turn hugely unpopular.

It is unlikely that the American public would for long accept the inevitable surge in casualties such a misadventure in Iran would cause. Opening of a full-blooded military campaign in Iran would also kill President Obama's initiative to promote multilateralism as a tool for coping with global problems. Apart from the expected alienation of Russia and China, major European players who had fallen out with Mr. Bush ahead of the Iraq war in 2003, are unlikely to acquiesce in the American power play in Iran. In any case, “pragmatic hawks” like U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the rest of his ilk would strongly oppose a war.

The third option the Americans appear to have already exercised is raising the level of sanctions incrementally, disregarding the positive overtures from Iran and its newfound allies such as Turkey and Brazil. This approach, irrespective of Ms Clinton's statements, is likely to deepen Russian, Chinese, and possibly in the near future, Turkish and Brazilian, influence in Iran and on its periphery. Soon after Ms Clinton had spoken about the finality of a collective response to Iran sanctions, the Russians and the Chinese made some important clarifications. The Russians pointed out that unlike the American interpretation, they had agreed only in “principle” to the sanctions draft, which was now up for detailed discussions in the Security Council. They also clarified that they were not going to impose an arms embargo on Iran. In fact, a senior lawmaker emphasised that the possibility of Russia transferring to Iran S-300 “game changer” missiles was still on the table. Besides, Moscow reiterated that it was sticking to the timeline of inaugurating this summer the Russian-built atomic power station located in Iran's port city of Bushehr.

Given their high stakes in Iran's energy sector where billions of dollars are being invested, it is unlikely that the Chinese will travel any significant distance to isolate Iran.

Notwithstanding their bluster, it is quite evident, the Americans stand on a poor terrain to advance their confrontation with Iran. Their best chances of protecting their interests lie in the pursuit of dialogue and reconciliation. All other options are essentially non-starters, and will only hasten the unstoppable rise of new emerging powers capable of exercising considerable influence on Iran and in the wider West Asian region.


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