[March 29, 2006]

Why is the heat cooling off on Iran's nuclear issue?

(Gulf News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Having crossed another false crescendo the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions seems to be calming down somewhat. The UN Security Council has danced its way away from the issue at least for the time being. And the United States, having subcontracted its Iran policy to the European Union trio, shows no sign of wanting to keep the issue under the limelight.


The assumption in both Tehran and Washington is that nothing much be done at least until June when the G-8 summit is held in Moscow. The idea is that Russia, as the host of the G-8, will not provoke a split with the US and the EU over Iran during the Moscow summit.

There may be yet another reason why all parties to this dispute may want to cool things down at least for a few months.

Iran will be holding elections for the Assembly of Experts, the clergy-dominated organ that selects the "supreme guide", later this year amid speculation that the current majority which backed the incumbent, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, may be on the way out.

And if that happens, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be able to control the assembly and promote his spiritual guru, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi as the new "supreme leader". Such a development would, in turn, dash all hopes that a more pragmatic wing of the Khomeinist establishment might return to power and prevent the "clash of civilisations" that Ahmadinejad has promised to provoke.

Decisive elections

But this year there will also be elections in the US. If, as many expect, President George W. Bush loses control of the Congress he would lose virtually all possibility of pushing Iran back to the wall. He may then decide to leave the problem for his successor rather than try to fight both Iran and a hostile Congress.

On the contrary, if Bush manages to keep control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives he may well be encouraged to take Tehran head on, exploiting its current dissensions, diplomatic isolation and economic difficulties.

It is against such a background that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw talks of an "incremental" approach, promising that if and when the UN decides to tighten the screws on Iran this will not be done in a way as to crush any bones in Tehran.

All this, however, may well be hiding a paradox. By doing nothing against the Islamic republic in medium-term, the EU and the US may be strengthening the position of the more radical wing of the Khomeinist establishment led by Ahmadinejad.

The failure of the UN Security Council to agree even on a presidential statement has already enabled Ahmadinejad to claim victory in the nuclear dispute. Receiving the Syrian Vice-President Farouq Al Shara'a in Tehran the other day, Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had not only won the latest round against the "Zionist-Crusader" powers but was confident of establishing the rule of Islam throughout the world. He ordered the Syrian to return home and prepare for "Islam's victory feast".

The fact that Ahmadinejad's policy of deliberate provocation has been cost free so far has made it impossible for the more pragmatic elements of the Khomeinist regime to develop an alternative to his quest for a "clash of civilisations". Most Iranians, including those opposed to the Khomeinist regime as a whole, do not see why Iran should change any aspect of its nuclear programme when there is no risk in pursuing it.

No one quite knows where the idea of slow motion diplomacy towards Iran originated. But its principal defender over the past three years has been Jack Straw, who has, as already mentioned, also fathered the phrase "incremental measures".

Before Ahmadinejad's election, Straw's approach to Iran appeared promising.

The British, and the EU in general, had established close ties with a number of Tehran mullahs including the then president Mohammad Khatami, the all-round wheeler-dealer Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani, who conducted the nuclear negotiations on behalf of the Islamic republic. At one point the British were even quietly promoting Rouhani as a successor to Khatami as president.

There is no doubt that the British still maintain close contacts with sections of the Tehran establishment. But the idea that a pro-British faction might win power in Tehran anytime soon is fanciful since Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani have no popular base of their own.

Thus incrementalism a la Straw could only encourage Ahmadinejad in his defiance and convince the Iranian people that their new radical leadership is correct in dismissing the Western powers as part of a "sunset civilisation" (ofuli). The US decision to associate Iran in deciding the future of Iraq has already enhanced Ahmadinejad's prestige even among the opponents of the regime.

Hardening of position

One sign that Tehran believes that the storm has already blown over came last week when Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki committed Iran to a "no compromise" policy on the nuclear issue. Another sign came in the sudden hardening of the positions of both Russia and China which do not see why they should pick a quarrel with Iran when the US and the EU do not appear to be prepared to stand up to Tehran.

There can always be a strong argument in favour of doing nothing when all other options imagine appear to be dangerous or counter productive. But it is important to remember than doing nothing is in itself a form of doing something.

Right now, this "something" that the Western powers are doing, amounts to a clear encouragement of the most radical factions in Tehran. And that means that the coming "clash", regarded by many as inevitable, will, when it comes, be that much harder for both sides.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

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