Iran’s Opportunity

 If Tehran plays correctly the valuable card in its hand, it has the opportunity to weaken U.S. control over the international political system at the same time that it enhances both its security and its prestige.

The unseemly haste of the Obama Administration–after Turkey and Brazil persuaded Iran to compromise–to reaffirm Washington’s “neo-con-light” policy of pressuring Iran into a humiliating submission rather than incrementally negotiating a new arrangement allowing both sides to claim partial success has given rise to the sense that America’s superpower status is being upset. With America’s claim to moral leadership shattered on the rocks of its post-9/11 hostility toward Muslims and its coddling of right-wing Israeli expansionists, its enduring military superiority nevertheless proving to be a crude and ineffective tool for achieving anything beyond destruction, and its policy-making process on all fronts (security, finance, health care, and environment) unimaginative if not self-defeating, the door is clearly open for a restructuring of the international political system.

But no obvious candidate for new leader stands waiting on the edge of the stage. No country in the world has the combination of leadership and power to replace the U.S. The question that remains, then, is whether or not a new coalition of states can overcome the obvious obstacles to stable leadership inherent in any coalition and emerge as the driving force of new thinking.
The only obvious set of candidates is a group of states with gross differences of ideology and goals who nevertheless share common concerns about the threat of a nuclear conflict against Iran. Despite their dedication, Erdogan and Lula can hardly constitute a viable coalition by themselves, and Iran remains more a problem to be resolved than a helpful partner. But if Ankara and Brazilia can persuade Tehran to follow a conciliatory line, might Moscow and Beijing decide this was a bandwagon worth riding?
So far, Tehran has shown little willingness to offer Moscow and Beijing anything in return for their help, making it hard for either capital to resist American persuasion. But Tehran could get much for compromising only a little bit more. Having already agreed to trade low- for medium-enriched uranium, it could surely agree to give up further domestic enrichment to the medical (medium) grade once it was provided with a foreign source. Tehran could also surely take some steps to persuade the IAEA that it was being fully transparent. This would in turn provide cover for Moscow and Beijing to call for a compromise solution and put their money where their mouth is by:
  1. flatly stating that they will veto any further sanctions as long as Iran meets its obligations;
  2. providing Iran with defensive missiles;
  3. urging the IAEA to lay out precise conditions Iran would have to meet to be considered fully compliant with demands for nuclear transparency;
  4. calling for the cancellation of all anti-Iranian sanctions as soon as the IAEA states it is so satisfied;
  5. focusing attention on the new plans to pursue the vision of a nuclear-free Mideast adopted by the NPT Conference.
Such a deal would require no concessions of anything Iran already has while enhancing Iran’s national security. This deal would also enhance the security of Israel by making it more difficult for Iran to move further in the direction of militarization. The deal would enhance the security of the U.S., not just by the obvious reduction in the likelihood of war, but also by facilitating bilateral talks with Iran on other issues of interest to the U.S., such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington could certainly recognize a good thing and make this policy its own, but if instead it remained insistent on opposing such a compromise, the result could be the emergence of a bloc with sufficient diplomatic, military, and financial clout to redesign Mideast politics.
Is there any evidence that Beijing or Moscow might be interested?
Writing in Xinhua (“Iran deserves a break“) on 5/2910, Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary general of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, hinted that Beijing may indeed be thinking along these lines:
The recent tripartite agreement on nuclear-material swapping among Iran, Turkey and Brazil shows that influential countries other than major Western powers have started helping resolve sensitive global issues.
Such efforts should be applauded and encouraged, especially because last year, US President Barack Obama said that instead of depending on America alone, other countries, too, should try and resolve world issues.
Continuing from this delicate description of a non-American but not anti-American initiative, Zhai turned to the specifics of the situation at the moment:
Since the situation has changed, pre-planned punitive actions, too, should be altered accordingly, meaning there is no longer any rationality in imposing further sanctions on Iran“.

Non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and blocking their channels of delivery is our common objective, but we should achieve it through justice, legality, equality and rationality.

The very next day, Xinhua reported extensively on remarks made by Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani in an article which ended by quoting Larijani saying that when policy does not work, “The logical solution is to find a new way.” A report of a new Chinese loan to Iran the same day (May 29) furthers the impression that China will oppose a new round of sanctions at this time.
Tehran seems to have a real opportunity to enhance its position, but trying to have its cake and eat it too by trading for medium-grade uranium from the West even while it continues enriching more domestically may be biting off more than it can chew. Such Iranian behavior does indeed give the impression, as Secretary Clinton has stressed, that Tehran is trying to trick Ankara and Brasilia. A new global center of moderate, flexible policy leadership could be emerging that would leave Iran in a far better position even while calming tensions and lessening the chance of war in a way that would be good for the West as well. But Iran can easily throw away its opportunity. Indeed, the public recriminations now unfolding between Tehran and Moscow are already revealing the delicacy of the current situation.
As in certain other countries, some Iranian politicians seem to relish the global stage they stride more than their own country’s national security. To the degree that Iranians genuinely want to reform the international political system, they now have a chance to be part of a broad movement with hope of achieving such reforms. But Iran will have to place the common interests of the emerging reform coalition ahead of certain specifically Iranian goals that may not resonate with their new prospective partners in order for this glimmer of a joint movement to take form and accomplish something.
The agreement with Turkey and Brazil gives Iran an honorable route to compromise…without kowtowing to the U.S. or Israel. Before, Iran was offered only humiliating, one-sided submission to Washington, but now it can play the role of peace-maker by cooperating with the spirit of its new agreement.
Iran has no hope of catching up to Israel in nuclear terms, so the possession of nuclear weapons will only undermine Iranian security. But Iranian nuclear ambiguity is a valuable card that can now be traded for real enhancement in its national security and international prestige, not to mention gaining it significant economic and technological benefits. Iran’s road to regional leadership lies not through worrying those from Saudi Arabia to Israel who are concerned about their own national security; it lies not through baiting all the West’s extremists, who have repeatedly shown in recent years what they are capable of.
The road to Iranian national security lies through giving up its policy of nuclear ambiguity and its program to enrich uranium past the low levels required for electricity generation in return for membership in a broad coalition of disparate states, all of whom agree that A) members of the NPT have the right to refine uranium and B) nuclear war is something to be avoided. Beyond the numerous immediate benefits to Iran of such a course, it would launch a process of reforming the rigid international political system by spurring the emergence of a moderate middle group of countries that want to replace the hierarchical structure of the global political system under Washington’s leadership with a more networked system that facilitates foreign policy independence. This is an outcome Tehran should be able to live with.

Mideast Nuclear Transparency

Medical-grade uranium is yesterday’s issue; it is time for the Mideast to focus on nuclear transparency.
It is not clear that Washington wants to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran. The sour grapes from Administration spokespeople in response to the efforts of Ankara and Brasilia to save us from our own shortsightedness indeed suggests that Washington has considerable affection for the nuclear dispute, which is no doubt seen in some corners as a very convenient cover for efforts to subordinate Iran once again to the U.S./Israeli empire.
However, giving the benefit of the doubt to an Obama Administration still clearly confused about what is actually happening in the big world it aspires to lead, here is a Washington-style plan (i.e., talking points that will fit on one Powerpoint slide) for resolving the Iranian-American nuclear dispute:
  1. accept the breakthrough and honor it by suspending all action on sanctions until the date that Iran is due to deliver its uranium to Turkey;
  2. rush to respond by delivering medical-grade uranium to Iran ahead of schedule;
  3. applaud Iran’s good faith
  4. call for full nuclear transparency from all Mideast states and request that the IAEA lead a campaign to achieve that goal.
Only an idiot could imagine that the agreement achieved this week solves “all issues” related to the nuclear dispute. No one ever claimed that it would; pointing out that it does not only makes the speaker sound insincere. This agreement merely corrects an injustice against Iran, for medical-grade uranium should never have been denied Iran in the first place…and opens the door to actually discussing real problems. The core of these real problems is nuclear transparency.
If Israel feels disturbed by Iranian nuclear ambiguity, it is only reaping what it sowed by introducing the policy of nuclear ambiguity to the region. That policy is classic negative-sum behavior: it harms the security of everyone. The transparent fig leaf of Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity only accomplishes two things: it holds Israel up to ridicule as a pathetically hypocritical state and it encourages others to copy the policy, but perhaps more skillfully (i.e., dangerously). The result is that everyone feels less secure and reacts by preparing for war, raising tensions and, in the end, actually making everyone less secure. It is time for the Mideast to focus on nuclear transparency.

A Tiny but Critical Step toward Resolving Washington’s Nuclear Dispute with Tehran

 Rational world leaders must recognize that the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian nuclear agreement is a tiny but essential first step toward overcoming the paranoia and making a place in the world for Iran.
Ankara and Brasilia have achieved with Tehran a tiny agreement on a technical detail about the normal provision of medical grade uranium to Iran, something that, outside of the current atmosphere of paranoia would never have been noticed by the world media. But there is an atmosphere of paranoia, and medical-grade uranium has become entangled with the whole issue of whether or not the Washington-based international political system can incorporate Iranian demands for foreign policy independence. In between those two extremes, Washington sees the exchange of electricity-grade Iranian uranium for medical-grade Western uranium as a means of postponing the day when Tehran will have managed to accumulate sufficient military-grade uranium (of which it presumably has none whatsoever) to build a single test bomb (the testing of which would destroy the uranium, putting Iran theoretically in the nuclear camp but in practice still weaponless until it could refine more. So the tiny agreement about a tiny exchange becomes in fact major news, offering the first substantive ray of hope that the world will be able to step back from paranoia.
Rather than criticizing Ankara, Israelis should rejoice over a deal that has the potential to enhance Israeli security, reduce the likelihood that Iran will build the bomb, and further integrate Iran into a somewhat reformed international political system. Tel Aviv’s shoot-from-the-hip attack on the agreement [Ynet News 5/17/10] appears to be a classic example of the paranoia that bedevils all efforts to resolve this dispute but would perhaps be more accurately interpreted as admission that Tel Aviv recognizes its warmongering game is up.
All the above points are complicated and tenuous; the road to success is replete with pot-holes. By a hostile reaction, the West could destroy the agreement; domestic factionalism in Iran could also destroy it. And the overall nuclear dispute with Iran is far deeper than this issue of medical-grade uranium. Nevertheless, on its face, the agreement represents the most substantive step toward resolution of the dispute made so far. Even if Tehran turns out, as Tel Aviv alleges, to be cheating, the agreement will have the advantage of quickly exposing such intent. If the agreement is implemented, it will in and of itself of course not stop militarization, but the best chance for that is the creation of an international environment in which Iran sees benefits more from cooperation than from hostility to the international system. For that to happen, the international system needs to be reformed sufficiently so Iran can find a secure and welcome place in it while retaining foreign policy independence. No more than Brazil does Iran want to be an American colony; no more than Syria or Palestine does it want to be an Israeli colony. The West should applaud the agrement, put sanctions talk on the shelf, and facilitate the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the agreement’s implementation. Once the injustice of denying Iran medical-grade uranium has been redressed, attention can be refocused on Iranian…and Israeli nuclear transparency.

Uranium Enrichment: Test of Foreign Policy Independence?

Washington should be careful not to turn domestic uranium enrichment into the test, in the eyes of emerging world powers, of independence. That would be a defeat for the security of the world far more dangerous than Iranian acquisition of the bomb.
The lack of flexibility on Washington’s part regarding its dispute with Iran about nuclear behavior is raising the likelihood that Tehran will succeed in shifting the focus of the international debate over its nuclear program from the question of militarization to the question of rights to uranium enrichment for civilian purposes. Since NPT members already have that legal right, if Iran can make that issue the focus, its position will become far stronger.
Ominously for Washington, Brazilian Foreign Minister Amorim said [ 3/3/10]:

I acted as ambassador to Turkey before critical decisions were made on Iraq. And that’s very much what I heard back in 1998, 1999. I mean, smoke and mirrors – were playing smoke and mirrors.

And what we saw, in fact, was the major charge against Iraq never did materialize. I mean, I’m not saying that in the past, they did not have any programs on weapons of mass destruction; they did have. However, the fact is that the destruction caused and the losses that the war had incurred were huge.

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu has made the same point [Today’s Zaman 5/16/10]:

We know how we suffered because of sanctions against Iraq at the time. After going through such an experience, it is obvious that a sanction package regarding Iran or any of our neighbors will not be in compliance with our foreign policy.
Brazil, following closely the Iranian nuclear policy, opened its own uranium enrichment plant 2006. Like Iran, Brazil claims its enrichment is intended for civilian purposes, and like Iran, Brazil’s enrichment program is steadily expanding [World Nuclear News 1/14/10]. According to a study by Belkis Cabrera-Palmer and Geoffrey Rothwell, Brazil’s Resende enrichment plant is unlikely to be economically competitive with international sources of refined uranium, suggesting that ensuring a secure source of fuel is the real reason for domestic enrichment, a reason that Iranian leaders would surely find understandable.

The U.S., weakened not just by its lack of creativity and obvious bias but also by the bitter memory throughout the world of the Iraq escapade that many fear is the model for Washington’s current Iran policy, risks creating a situation in which Iran not only succeeds in constructing a solid enrichment industry but does so in defiance of Washington and as the leader of a new global bloc of middle-ranking powers observing the letter of the NPT law but in practice implementing a highly unstable and therefore dangerous policy of nuclear ambiguity.

One might, following Khamenei in a meeting with Lula, call this a “global anti-totalitarian front,” {создания “единого всемирного антитоталитарного фронта”} [MIGNews 3/16/10] exactly the outcome Washington is presumably trying to avoid.

Khamenei baldly laid out Tehran’s ambitious goal of a foreign policy not just independent of but directly challenging Washington’s global leadership:

Единственный способ изменить существующий ныне репрессивный мировой порядок – это формирование более близких связей между независимыми государствами. Сверхдержавы построили вертикальный миропорядок, и водрузили себя наверх этой пирамиды. Подобного рода отношения могут быть изменены и мы их изменим

Lula’s mere presence was message enough, but he responded with a phrase that is easy to read as clear endorsement of Khomenei’s ambition to establish foreign policy independence:

Бразилия верит в то, что у Ирана есть все права на защиту независимости и технологический прогресс.

It is not hard to understand why “Brasilia believes that Iran is entirely within its rights to defend its independence and technical progress.”

In a wonderful little book on the U.S. relationship with Latin American, En el Patio de Atras [In the Backyard – my trans.], Latin American social scientist Amira Armenta has much to say about the Latin view of the world that is directly relevant to Lula’s decision to put his personal prestige on the line in the Washington-Tehran nuclear dispute:

Despues de la formulacion de la Doctrina Monroe no ha habido una stola decada en la historia del continente que no haya estado marcada por un hecho de intervencion de fuerza de EEUU en alguno do los paises [in Latin America]. A la vez que EEUU fue tomando cada vez mas posicion como poder economico y politico decisor en la region….[p.12]

Lo que hoy dia se explica como un clash of civilizations, no seria otra cosa que una manifestacion de la asimetria del desarrollo de las sociedades, que ahora se nota mas, dada la globalizacion, la velocidad de las comunicaciones, la facilidad con que la poblacion se desplaza por el mundo. [.13]

Washington has not been able to isolate Iran because Iran has a message of defiance for the whole “global South,” a message that links basic legal rights regarding high technology and, unfortunately, specifically to exercising the legal right to uranium enrichment, to independence.

If Washington creates a situation in which nuclear ambiguity is equated throughout the world with foreign policy independence (precisely Iran’s current position and not so far from the positions of Ankara, Brasilia, and Tokyo), this will be a huge step backwards for global good governance.

New Evidence on Nuclear-Free Mideast Debate

Three new pieces of evidence support the hypothesis that the more Washington stonewalls on Israel’s nuclear stockpile, the more Washington will lose the initiative to Israel’s opponents.
First, Russian President Medvedev is in Syria [Haaretz 5/11/10] proclaiming Moscow’s interest in supporting both a nuclear-free Mideast (referring of course to nuclear arms) and the development of a Syrian civilian nuclear industry, which, he reminds forgetful Americans, is a “right” of all states.
Second, the placing of Israel’s nuclear armaments on the IAEA agenda for its upcoming June 7 meeting puts the official spotlight squarely on the issue that Washington and Tel Aviv have for decades tried to keep in the background.

Third, in the context of U.S. support for India’s nuclear program in recent years and Russia’s support for Iran’s, China is now raising its support for Pakistan’s nuclear program.

On 5/7/10, I discussed the possibility that initiative on efforts to combat nuclear proliferation might be slipping out of Washington’s hands. Medvedev’s remarks provide a bit of confirmatory evidence. The IAEA decision provides further evidence, effectively “certifying” Third World condemnation of the Western hypocrisy over Israel’s nuclear stockpile as a legimate global concern. Once the taboo against discussion of the topic is eliminated, change becomes possible, so this tiny crack in Israel’s shield of secrecy may have significant implications.

Tehran: Champion of Nuclear Non-proliferation?

Is Washington ceding the diplomatic initiative on nuclear proliferation to…Tehran?!?
The issue of Israel’s rogue nuclear status (i.e., possessing the weapons but rejecting the NPT) has officially been on the IAEA’s plate since a majority of its members so voted last year and is now being actively pursued by Amano in the form of an official letter to world governments requesting comment. Amano’s timing seems designed to raise the level of attention; in the context of Ahmadinejad’s reasonable call at the U.N. for a nuclear-free Mideast—an idea now also being championed by Cairo—and Washington’s rather inept murmuring of theoretical agreement but only after finding a solution to the Palestinian issue, which Washington’s Tel Aviv partner is conveniently blocking (!), global diplomatic initiative on nuclear proliferation is passing to Iran.
For Iran to emerge from the U.N. NPT review conference as the innovator and moral leader on the issue of nuclear proliferation would be not just ironic but a major blow to the prestige and influence of the U.S. This is exactly the outcome predicted by the hypothesis that if Ahmadinejad presented a moderate face at the conference, he would “win big.” For Iran clearly to gain the moral high ground on the nuclear issue would underscore the harm that American subordination to the Israeli right wing does to U.S. national security. It would, perhaps quite dangerously over the long run, empower militarist circles in Iran. It would also seem likely to undermine pro-American moderates that have been trying to find a solution to the nuclear impasse with Tehran. Ceding the initiative to Tehran, which is on a crusade to redesign the international political system, is quite different than ceding it to the likes of Ankara and Brasilia, which are relatively comfortable in the Western-led international political system, albeit desiring certain rather reasonable reforms.
Washington needs to find a way to evade a completely negative position as a roadblock to global progress on nuclear proliferation. Tel Aviv’s militarists are pulling Washington into a dangerously reactive position that only undermines Obama’s professed interest in making progress on this issue. It is bad enough for Washington to fail to offer a reasoned response to Ahmadinejad; but when Washington falls so far behind even the IAEA, it looks like a very tired superpower.

Ahmadinejad has slapped down the gauntlet to Washington on the fundamental issue of nuclear equality.
It matters little whether or not Westerners pay heed to Ahmadinejad’s message. It matters little even if the non-Western global majority trusts Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad posed a fundamental question:

whether granting extraordinary authority in the IAEA to the nuclear weapon States and entrusting them with the critical issue of nuclear disarmament is appropriate
Summarizing the issue neatly as “a knife never cuts its own handle,” Ahmadinejad issued to the West a fundamental challenge to its right to lead the world. What matters is whether or not this challenge will strike home in the minds of world decision-makers.
To the extent that Ahmadinejad’s message rings a bell in the minds of Cairo and Ankara and Brasilia and perhaps even Tokyo officials, not to mention the broad masses of the non-Western world, Washington will have lost stature and, consequently, power. This is not about Ahmadinejad. It does not matter if you do not like him. This is about ideas, and the question is the degree to which this idea stands on its own.

Failure of Imagination about the Mideast: Pt. 1. Nuclear Transparency

U.S. freedom of maneuver toward the Mideast is crippled by failure of imagination. What would happen if American decision-makers actually starting considering “all options?”

As the world’s only superpower in an environment of great instability but no overwhelming immediate threat, the U.S. has, in principle, enormous freedom of action to implement an effective Mideast policy. Yet, its Mideast policy is an unmitigated disaster, a constant drain on U.S. blood and treasure and a humiliating demonstration of American incompetence that leaves even its favored client Israel feeling insecure and moving steadily away from democracy toward racism and authoritarianism. American weakness derives from Washington’s failure of imagination. American leaders simply do not see the selections on the vast buffet table of policy options.

To address this failure of imagination, some fundamental questions that Washington decision-makers appear not to have even asked will be considered in a series of essays. The first question concerns nuclear transparency:

What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency? 

The most immediate change would be to demonstrate that the world’s most powerful country was now thinking creatively and taking charge. That in and of itself would enhance Washington’s influence by giving it the leadership position that it has increasingly been ceding to Ankara. The whole rest of the world would immediately start playing catch-up.

Such a policy announcement would also enhance Washington’s tattered reputation as the world’s moral leader. 
A call for nuclear transparency would surely be attacked by Israeli rightwingers but would also empower Israeli liberals, both those concerned about proliferation and those concerned about the state of Israeli democracy. The result would probably be a healthy domestic Israeli debate about the merits of its nuclear policy. It would be difficult for Israeli rightwingers to make a serious case that Israel was being harmed since calling for transparency would have no immediate or obvious impact on actual power relationships: no change would occur in the possession of actual military hardware.
In Iran as well a debate over nuclear strategy would probably be stimulated, though it would perhaps be closely held within the national security community. Calling on both Iran and Israel to accept the same standard would surely open the door to the argument that Iran could benefit by cooperating more with the international community.
Transparency should in the end be easy for Israel to accept since it would retain its nuclear monopoly. Transparency should also be easy in the end for Iran to accept since it already claims to support such a policy and would now see a benefit to adhering more carefully to the spirit of that policy. With the US in the lead, promotion of nuclear transparency would give momentum to Obama’s anti-proliferation policy. Transparency would serve as an easy first step toward the much more challenging goals of preventing proliferation, cutting back stockpiles of nuclear arms, but the mere fact of the international community taking a first step that applied to all would at least minimally reassure everyone, thus cutting tensions somewhat and thereby facilitating the next step. It could thus, at little if any cost, turn into an historic opening.