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New Era of US-Iranian Relations? Maybe, But…

October 20, 2009

Strange Prelude To Peace Talks..

It was an odd way to prepare for `peace talks’, a strange prelude. `Revelations’, none of them new…or true, of Iran’s yet-to-be proven and currently non-exist nuclear weapons program, exploded in the media world wide. These allegations came just before formal talks opened between the five permanent members of the Security Council (US, UK, Russia, China, France) plus Germany (The `Five Plus One’ Group) and Iran in Geneva earlier this month.

It felt more like the prelude to a military strike, an invasion of Iran, than the leadup to peace talks. Weird example of `confidence building measures’ – those over-rated rituals – that usually precede talks between adversaries. For a brief moment, the nuts, temporarily subdued since Obama’s election, came back out of the woodwork, repeating worn and untrue accusations of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, renewed hints or threats of war from America’s neo-cons (John Bolton and Co). Joining the `war chorale’ were assorted right wing wackos rooting for the post-Middle-East-triggered nuclear war and its much-anticipated-resulting-second-coming-of-Christ as well as Israeli government officials and the usual assortment of AIPAC types, who put Israel’s interests before those of US foreign policy, now more than ever, were also active.

Claims of a `secret’ nuclear processing plant near the Iranian holy city of Qum provoked the accusation – the much repeated and unverified mantra – that Iran is secretly producing nuclear weapons despite that country’s persistent denial of any such program. The NY Times – whose pages helped wipe up the war atmosphere before the 2003 invasion of Iraq – got into the spirit with a front page `expose’ of the Iranian program.

Israel Chips In…

The Netanyahu government was especially interested in de-railing the Five Plus One process. Netanyahu might have succeeded in freezing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations by getting Obama not to pressure Israel on settlements, but when it came to undermining Obama’s plans to move towards normalization with Iran, he has had less success. The success – albeit modest at this point – of the talks is a setback in Tel Aviv.

Although the concrete evidence to prove it is non-existent – Ahmadinejad’s bigoted statements about the holocaust to the contrary – Israel continues to claim that Iran represents `an existential’ threat to Israel’s existence. `Existential’? – An interesting word harking back to French leftist philophers like Sartre and Camus. The term’s ambivalence is hard to define but suggests that which it is not – imminent.

Let us remember the balance of military power in Israel’s favor, its substantial nuclear arsenal and delivery systems, US political and military backing. Add to that Iran’s tiny military budget compared to both the US and Israel and the oft overlooked fact, that regardless of its government, that other than a foray by the Shah into neighboring Oman in the 1970s at US encouragement and with Israeli support that Iran has not invaded or threatened anyone for several hundred years and is not about to now.

Rather what is at play here is something quite different: Israel views Iran much as it did Egypt and Iraq in the past, as a challenge to its regional hegemony; likely the Israelis will continue to try to undermine the process. Just as the United States has a policy to neutralize any challenges to its somewhat humbled, yet still hobbling global hegemony, Israel fears potential regional rivals who might challenge it either economically or eventually militarily. Israel’s concerns about Iran as a regional competitor dovetail nicely with the US strategy openly articulated several times since 1992 when it was first proposed by Paul Wolfowitz, not to permit the emergence of a new global or regional hegemonic power to challenge US power, especially in a region so floating on a sea of oil and a cloud of national gas

Certainly, the Israelis – at least the Israeli government and mainstream media – were not happy campers with the outcome at Geneva. The Israelis were so upset that the Jerusalem Post ran a story essentially arguing that Iran should be bombed. Reports circulated – which were later denied by the Saudis – that Riyahd would permit Israel use of its air space to bomb Iran. Israel, whose vilification of Iran long ago reached something approaching hysterical proportions, has spent a good deal of its political energy trying to divert the world’s attention from the Goldstone Report to trying to shore up the flagging `anti-Iran coalition’ (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the US and the Europeans).

But When The Dust Cleared…

But in the end, the neo-cons and Israel’s leadership – trying to take advantage of the great democratic upsurge in Iran following the presidential elections there – had failed in their efforts to tighten sanctions and undermine the talks. When the dust cleared a week later, for the first time in years, a small step towards `normalization’ of US-Iranian relations seemed to have transpired, in spite of John Bolton, Binjiman Netanyahu et al.

Under the surface were hints that both the United States and Iran want, at least to pull back `from the brink’. The unspoken reasons included

– Iran has been hurt more deeply by sanctions against its energy sector than it would like to admit and is in trouble economically and want some breathing room

– After the massive demonstrations against the May presidential elections results, Iran feared further international isolation and punitive actions – it needed to offer the US and its European allies something concrete to soften the blow. In a strange way, the demonstrations in June and July with the pressure on the regime that followed, probably forced Teheran to be more flexible in its dealings with the United States on its nuclear policy. The demonstrators did not win their goal of new elections, but their militancy did put the leadership of the Islamic Republic on the defensive internationally. One probable result is a more serious and actually `creative’ Iranian response to the nuclear issues.

– Although there are still powerful political forces in the United States who would like to see things continue as before (military interests, oil and gas interests who want US security interests in the Middle East tightened, neo-conservatives, AIPAC, Christian fundamentalists),the US policy of labeling Iran as a member of an `axis of evil’ has failed. It was a wreckless policy in the first place that could have escalated into regional if not world war and could have reeked havoc on a global economy already reeling from the financial crisis. The US finally concluded, more pressure, concessions can be exacted from Iran through negotiations than saber rattling.

– the US had failed to persuade Russia and China to vote in the UN Security Council for tighter sanctions against Iran. Any effort to do so would have led to an embarrassing political failure for the Obama Administration

– the plans – apparently highly developed if Seymour Hersh is correct – for some kind of major military strike against Iran to overthrow its government by massive bombing and or a major special forces operation – have been shelved. With Afghanistan and Pakistan spiraling out of control, with the situation in Iraq far from satisfactory in the sense that Washington would like it, and with Israel smarting from growing international condemnation as a result of its December 08-Jan 08 Gaza invasion, the United States cannot afford another major military confrontation in the region

– the United States can maintain its goal of `full spectrum dominance’ of the Middle East and S. Asia to protect its oil and gas interests in the region by a combination of a regional military build up (all those bases and floating arsenals) and political negotiations. The goal of controlling oil and gas flows hasn’t changed, just the means.

And so for different reason, and for others not mentioned – they need each other to `normalize’ the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq – both Iran and the United States have begun shift gears, tone down their rhetoric and begin serious talks. It’s all at a fragile stage and could be undone, but it seems to be heading in `the right direction’ .


1. There was still no new evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program
2. Suggestions that either Russia or China were leaning in the direction of imposing tougher sanctions against Iran – which circulated in the US press – proved, once again, spurious. The Russian leadership found it necessary to publicly deny its support for tighter Iranian sanctions in an embarrassing affront to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was recently in Moscow
3. Iran announced that it would permit inspections of the Qum site by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and that they had not violated any of the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it adheres. The facility was not a `secret’ and Iran had informed the IAEA 18 months before it was required.
4. A proposal is being considered by the Iranians to either export its 5% enriched uranium to France or Russia for further enrichment and then returned to Teheran. An alternative proposal that the Iranians are suggesting would entail Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program, maintaining its 5% enriched stockpiles without further processing and buying 20% enriched uranium on the open market from any country willing to sell them such.

Just how much uranium is enriched essentially determines its use. Uranium enriched to the leves of 4-5% pure is enough to run a nuclear power plant. Iran has a fair amount of that. But what is called `weapons-grade’ uranium is enriched and purified to greater than 90% levels. The difference in processing and the technology to get there is significant and often lost to people unfamiliar with nuclear processes. At the same time, uranium enriched to 20% purity is used for medical purposes, especially to fight cancer. Iran wants to increased some of its enriched uranium supply from the 5% to the 20% purity level for that reason. This frightens the `Five Plus One’ Group who fear that such a development, while legal under IAEA guidelines, would be a step toward Iranian development of weapons’ grade uranium at that 90+ purity level. Iran intends to proceed – one way or another – to develop medically useful enriched uranium. But Teheran is willing to ship out a portion of its enriched uranium to Russia,, perhaps France, for further processing for which the Iranians will pay. Then the 20% enriched uranium would be re-shipped back to Iran, but the Iranians themselves would not be involved in this phase of the enrichment process.

Just how far foreign enrichment should go is being actively debated in Iran and will be taken up again at the next `Five Plus One’ meeting, which has just opened in Vienna. Iran’s tabling this issue (the proposal came from Teheran) represented a possible breakthrough in the stalemate and increasingly hostile relations between the United States and Iran over the latter’s plans to develop its nuclear energy program..

And so, a bit of hope that a turn in US-Iranian relations is possible? There are other issues on the table – Iraq, Afghanistan among them – where cooperation would be helpful.

The talks will reconvene. The process should be encouraged

A Few Points To Keep In Mind

In light of these developments a number of a number of salient points missing from the approach of both the Bush and Obama Administration’s Iran policy need to be underscore:

– First among them is that while there is no evidence to date – despite all the accusations – that Iran has violated any of the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 9NNPT), the same cannot be said of the United States which continues to modernize its nuclear weapons arsenal in open and flagrant violation of the treaty. US failure to uphold its part of the treaty is often cited as one of the main reasons for global nuclear weapons proliferation. Why should countries `follow the rules’ for which past US administrations have shown something close to open contempt?

– The discussion of Iran possibly – developing nuclear weapons, despite its repeated denials – fails to take into consideration regional nuclear realities. The Middle East and South Asia is already loaded with nukes. India, Israel and Pakistan have nuclear weapons arsenals; all three refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If we widen the circle a bit, Russia and China, both abutting the region, are Middle East-South Asia nuclear weapons powers as is, unbeknownst to many, the United States, whose navy and air force ply the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean with nuclear-tipped missiles.

It is especially hypocritical of Israel to oppose Iran’s nuclear energy program when it possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal estimated to be of from 200-300 weapons. Not only does it refuse to sign the nuclear non-proliferation, but its position on no first strike use of nuclear weapons remains sufficiently ambivalent to be meaningless. Recent Arab calls that Israel admit its nuclear weapons arsenal and sign the NNPT have been rejected by Israel. Recent news reports are circulating that the Obama Administration has renewed a commitment maintained by every US president since Eisenhower not to raise Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal as an issue for negotiation

– In the same light both Israel and the United States have refused to consider seriously making the Middle East and South Asia a nuclear free zone or to begin a process of multi-lateral regional nuclear weapons disarmament. Such initiatives have been supported by Iran and many Arab countries. Such a proposal would more formerly commit Iran not to develop nuclear weapons and begin a needed process of de-militarizing the region.

Not likely to happen in the region that still, despite other discoveries, contains the bulk of the world’ oil and gas. Effective control of these resources is one of the key elements in US strategic plans to maintain its flagging dominance in the world. What is needed is a new US Middle East policy, not likely to happen, but certainly worth the effort work for.

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