Monday, May 07, 2007

What happens when the military collapses? Iran not so scared

Why Iran spurned a US handshake

By M K Bhadrakumar

"Unfortunately, the wounds of this world are too deep and can't be closed easily, and maybe only one meeting is not enough," former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami reportedly remarked last Friday in Rome as he headed for a meeting in the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI.

Khatami could as well have meant another meeting the same day that almost took place (but didn't) in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh between Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his American counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

According to senior US officials in Rice's entourage, the presence of a female Russian violinist in a red dress in the dining hall where the delegations gathered was too risque for Mottaki's Muslim sensibilities, so that he brusquely left as Rice arrived. So the opportunity of a close encounter between the two gladiators - one representing the lone superpower and the other from the notorious "axis of evil" - was derailed.

Other US officials offered the consoling explanation that Rice was better off that way, since Mottaki lacked personal stature or gravitas in Iran's secretive power structure. As for Rice, she simply chuckled, saying it was a good opportunity lost in Sharm al-Sheikh, but she wasn't used to chasing men. What else could the mirthful lady say about the Persian snub?

But the Iranians had a rational explanation for why Mottaki didn't like being seated across the dining table from Rice. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Tehran on Sunday, "Basically, a meeting between the two foreign ministers was not on our agenda." He explained that Tehran estimated that contrived setups like that at Sharm al-Sheikh didn't serve any purpose.

"The problems between Iran and the US are numerous and with long precedence, and should be examined with patience and tolerance," he said. Therefore, any Iran-US diplomatic negotiations should be prepared well. "Goodwill and a resolve to settle the outstanding issues are among such measures. If the ground is prepared, then the way would be prepared, and there would be the opportunity for resuming and reviving relations," the spokesman said.

It was apparent in the run-up to the international conference on Iraq at Sharm al-Sheikh on Thursday and Friday that Iran was not carried away by all the spin that Washington gave that a Rice-Mottaki meeting on the banks of the Red Sea would be a historic turning point.

Tehran was astute enough to draw the conclusion that the conference was as much about Iraq as about saving US President George W Bush's position politically at home, even as a resurgent US Congress dominated by the Democrats was beginning to question the wisdom of the continuation of the war. More than two-thirds of the American people feel that their president is persisting with the senseless, brutal war more as a vanity fair.

Thus Tehran took the position early enough that the conference in Iraq would be useless unless it touched the essence of the problem rather than turning out to be a US shadow play enacted out of Bush's numerous predicaments.

Even vis-a-vis the pro-American regimes in the region, Tehran had disagreements on this score at Sharm al-Sheikh insofar as its priority as regards the Iraq situation is on reintegrating Iraq into its Arab environment while Tehran pursued several key objectives intrinsic to the Iraq situation. These include the political legitimacy of Iraq's present government, Iraq's security and stability, the US occupation of Iraq, and covert support of the Sunni insurgency by certain Arab regimes.

First and foremost, there is no doubt that an important consideration for Tehran in deciding to participate in the conference was its interest in enhancing the standing of the Iraqi government. Mottaki told his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, at Sharm al-Sheikh, "Your visit to Tehran and our idea that the goals of this conference should be transparent and following Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's contact with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the issue, Iran decided to attend the conference."
From Tehran's point of view, there is no plausible scenario for replacing Maliki, and indeed there are limits on the leverage that Washington exercises on his government. Tehran also appreciates that Maliki operates in a difficult environment where, as Time magazine recently wrote, he is "plainly hedging his bets, acceding to US demands but at the same time cushioning Shi'ite militias from coalition attack".

There are instances galore of Maliki being compelled to hold out pledges to the White House, and then proceeding to ignore them, or simply feeling it expedient to reinterpret them, or at times he even emasculating his own pledges in the downstream.

And all the while, he is at once riding on Shi'ite empowerment and letting the Shi'ite street be led by Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The result is, to quote Time, "Certainly, the Iraqi leaders must assume that the cost in lives and treasure of the US remaining in their country with no prospect of victory will become prohibitive to Washington ... The US can't win in Iraq, in the sense of turning it into a stable country supporting US policies in the region. But nor is it ready to accept the consequences of declaring defeat."

Iran could see beforehand that Washington had no real plan for the Sharm al-Sheikh conference. Therefore, it decided that it must do what it could to focus on the Iraqi file, especially with Saudi Arabia's increasing preoccupation with Iraq, and the United States' increasing preoccupation with the Saudi role. As Zebari put it, both Tehran and the Maliki government were keen that Iraq shouldn't become a "secondary issue" at Sharm al-Sheikh. (Egypt as host country concentrated its energy on using the occasion to refloat the Arab Initiative born out of the Arab League summit in Riyadh in March.)

Iran is carefully watching Saudi Arabia's projection into Iraq as the most assertive Arab power, though Tehran remains confident that Saudi assertiveness is not necessarily tantamount to effectiveness, nor is its muscular diplomacy sustainable. It must remain a matter of anxiety, however, for Tehran that prominent Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia such as Saffar al-Hawali, Nasr al-Omar and Abdullah bin Jibreen have raised the call for anti-Shi'ite violence in Iraq - and the Saudi regime hasn't yet clamped down on them. There has also been a virtual reversal of sectarian patterns within Saudi Arabia itself, with a new line of official anti-Shi'ism, involving, according to a British scholar recently, "suppressing Shi'ite cultural activities, harassing community leaders, interrupting the observance of religious rituals and even arresting activists".

Equally, Tehran apprehended that by angling for a political-level

exchange with Iran, even if a casual exchange, Washington would create misconceptions in the Arab street, especially within the ranks of the resistance, which would be keenly watching. Just in case anyone forgot, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (a close ally of Tehran) drew everyone's attention to the criticality of the Palestine issue. On the eve of the Sharm al-Sheikh conference, Meshaal told the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, "I warn and say that I see the current situation is heading in the direction of the conditions that prevailed in the late 1990s ... that paved the way for the al-Aqsa intifada. I warn, and under 'warn' I put many red lines." (Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, has since broken a five-month Gaza ceasefire.)

Tehran couldn't have overlooked that it was being assiduously courted by Washington at a time when conditions in the Palestinian territories had become virtually intolerable. What is the reality? Washington has no interest in pressuring Israel into making any concessions. On the other hand, during his visit to the West Bank last month, Louis Michel, European commissioner for development and humanitarian assistance, noted that conditions in the Palestinian territories had never been worse.

Some 60% of the population live below poverty line (on 2 euros - about US$2.70 - per day); some 35% of the population is going hungry; more than half of the children suffer from anemia; a quarter has no access to drinking water. As American commentator on Middle Eastern affairs Patrick Seale put it recently, Israeli security has reduced the Palestinian population to a "situation of permanent siege and permanent terror". Michel asked whether Israel's security justified such measures.

But, most important, Iran suspected that the US approach to it signaling an apparent desire to talk was less about a long-term shift and more of a tactic to persuade Iran to attend the regional meeting on Iraq at Sharm al-Sheikh. US Vice President Dick Cheney, who has consistently insisted that "all options are on table" regarding Iran, is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan this week.

Washington indeed understood that without Iran's participation, any international conference on Iraq would look farcical. But no sooner had Iran confirmed its participation, Washington changed its tune and began speaking patronizingly. Bush said on April 30, "Should the foreign minister of Iran bump into Condi Rice, Condi won't be rude. She's not a rude person. I'm sure she'll be polite. But she will also be firm in reminding the representative of the Iranian government that there's a better way forward for the Iranian people than isolation."

Bush further lectured Tehran that "if, in fact, there is a conversation, it'll be one that says, if the Iranian government wants to have a serious conversation with the United States and others, they ought to give up their [uranium] enrichment program in a verifiable fashion. And we will sit down at the table with them along with our European partners and Russia as well. That's what she'll tell him."

In the event, as we know by know, "Condi" couldn't tell the Iranians anything. Clearly, weaned on the culture of Cold War summitry with the Soviet Union, Washington seems to be on shaky ground about how to talk to the Persians. Washington should have realized that the continued detention of Iranian officials kidnapped in Irbil, Iraq, in January didn't serve any purpose.

Tehran had made it clear repeatedly in the recent months that mutual respect was a basic prerequisite for any meaningful dialogue with the US to commence. And it is not as if Washington is entirely incapable of showing mutual respect to an interlocutor it is determined to cultivate - as its dealings with Hanoi in the recent years testify.

The point is, Tehran is acutely conscious of the creeping US strategy of dragging the global community into a large-scale crisis around Iran while professing the desire to "engage" Iran. Tehran might have lowered its rhetoric somewhat in recent days, but it certainly hasn't lowered its guard about what Washington, especially under the present administration, is capable of doing to an indomitable adversary of Israel in the Middle East. Tehran made a subtle point by detaining a high-ranking Iranian official in Tehran on espionage charges on the eve of the Sharm al-Sheikh conference.

The immaculate timing of the arrest of former ambassador Hossein Mousavian, Iran's negotiator on the nuclear issue during the Khatami presidency, by Iranian counterintelligence last Wednesday evening in Tehran is an unmistakable signal to Washington that it is futile for the Bush administration to have an Iran policy of "talk-talk, fight-fight". Bush must make up his mind. Tehran doesn't care, beyond a point, whether the confusing signals from Washington are on account of a policy tangle between Cheney and Rice, as the US media would have it believe. Tehran will demand greater transparency from the Bush administration.

But at the same time, Tehran also realizes that Washington needs better relations with it as much as, and probably more than, Iran needs them at this point. Britain's Independent newspaper put it succinctly, "The result is a complex diplomatic dance in which the US shuffles around offering small come-ons to Tehran through intermediaries, while loudly accusing it of heinous crimes, such as supplying money and technology to Islamic militants and trying to develop a nuclear weapon. When Iran equivocates and then rejects the offers, Washington turns around and blames it for being difficult."

The daily continued, "Washington desperately needs the cooperation of Syria and Iran if it is to have a chance of extracting itself from Iraq with even a shred of dignity. Yet it refuses to countenance any serious concession on Iran's nuclear program. In trying to keep the two issues separate, Washington risks putting itself in the absurd situation of begging Iran to help it out in Iraq, while threatening military force against its nuclear installations. If the US is serious about either issue, it will have to show more flexibility on both. First, though, it will have to accept a link between the two and agree that, in any direct talks with Iran, everything - including diplomatic recognition - will be on the table."
That is also pretty much the message that Mottaki left behind for Rice. The Iranian spokesman confirmed in Tehran on Sunday that if the US officially asks for talks with Iran, "it will be considered". But these should be formal talks - and not an exchange on the sidelines of a diplomatic event where between taking sips out of a champagne glass, "Condi" tells a few facts of life about uranium enrichment to her Iranian counterpart.

Certainly, Iranians are savvy enough not to mind even if Condi were to keep an alluring Russian lady or two by her side all dressed up in red or green, provided, of course, that her narrative is serious and structured, and she conducts herself on an equal footing with mutual respect with regard to her Iranian interlocutor - as is indeed expected of a 200-year-old nation when it talks to a millennia-old civilization.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

Original article posted here.

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