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IRAN-US: Deal with the Elephant in the Room!

Analysis by Farideh Farhi*

WASHINGTON, Apr 7 2009 (IPS) - Despite recent overtures and the establishment of areas of common interest, Iran’s nuclear programme remains central to its goals in dealing with the U.S.

President Barack Obama’s Nowruz message to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran – although not wholly free of the usual accusations regarding Tehran’s support for terrorism and pursuit of arms – reflected a dramatic shift in tone and initiated a direct conversation between two countries that have been long at odds and accustomed to interaction through intermediaries.

The immediate response by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in turn, reflected Tehran’s openness to improved relations if Washington changes its heavy-handed approach towards Iran.

At the same time, it showed that, despite all the optimistic talk about possible cooperation between the U.S. and Iran – regarding, for instance, the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism in Afghanistan – being used as a stepping-stone for improved relations, Tehran’s main concern remains the trajectory of nuclear talks.

The question that occupies Tehran’s mind is whether Obama’s verbal overtures are preludes to a substantive change of direction in U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear programme or mere rhetorical cover for the initiation of a more robust effort to pressure Iran.

Tehran’s insistence on seeing changed policy on the nuclear front was confirmed when it chose to send Deputy Foreign Minister for Asia and Pacific Mohammad Mehdi Akhunzadeh to lead the Iranian delegation to the U.N.- backed conference on Afghanistan in Hague last week.

Considering the high-powered make-up of the U.S. delegation – which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and “Af-Pak” (Afghanistan and Pakistan) Envoy Richard Holbrooke – the choice of Akhunzadeh, a career diplomat currently in charge of Iran’s Afghanistan portfolio, was clearly intended to convey the message that Iran can and will pursue its security interests in Afghanistan. These include combating drug trafficking and terrorism, as well as rebuilding Afghanistan – irrespective of cooperation with the U.S. or NATO forces.

The choice of coordination with Iran on the basis of mutual interest was hence squarely placed on the Obama Administration, and its ability not to treat Iran as a foe that needs to be either confronted or economically and politically contained.

It is significant that any direct cooperation between the U.S. and Iran or NATO forces and Iran will ultimately have to circumvent some of the financial and economic sanctions that the U.S. and its allies have placed on Iran in the past few years because of the latter’s nuclear programme.

In his response to Obama, Khamenei did not make direct reference to Iran’s nuclear programme. His focus on the economic and political pressures that have been imposed on Iran in recent years and the direct reference to what he called Washington’s policy of “threat and inducement” were meant to make clear that, unless Obama finds a way to change the general direction of past policies and settle the nuclear issue in a mutually satisfactory way, Tehran will continue to ignore demands placed on it and go about its business as it had during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Clearly, in Khamenei’s view, engagement in nuclear talks must be accompanied by concrete steps that demonstrate to Iran that Washington is interested in a process of give-and-take rather than one, in Khamenei’s words, based on “either deception or intimidation.”

By deception, he was apparently referring to the belief that, despite the softer language, Washington’s goal remains the same. By intimidation, he was referring to Washington’s intention to increase economic and other forms of pressure on Iran, even while engaging it diplomatically.

He left no doubt that further pressure on Iran leading up to and during talks will be taken as a sign that Obama’s rhetoric of change is insincere.

As such, Khamenei’s response should be counter-posed against the threat issued a few days later by the leader of Israel’s new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that, unless the U.S. succeeds in persuading Tehran to dismantle its entire enrichment programme, the Jewish state will take matters in its own hands.

Clearly, despite the potential for cooperation between Iran and the U.S. regarding Afghanistan and elsewhere, the avoidance of the nuclear issue is neither acceptable to Iran nor to its foes.

At the centre of the controversy is the question of whether, in the upcoming nuclear talks with Iran, the U.S. and its partners – China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK – should continue to insist on the indefinite suspension of Iran’s enrichment programme, or the so-called “zero option.”

From Tehran’s point of view, the zero option – whether demanded of Iran as a pre-condition for talks as the Bush Administration demanded, or as a goal of such talks as contemplated by Obama – is a recipe for deadlock. Khamenei’s response to Obama was intended to relay this message in no uncertain terms.

This point was reiterated in the Iranian New Year’s first Friday prayer led by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is widely seen as an advocate of diplomatic engagement, but who noted that Obama’s call in his Nowruz message for Tehran to give up its alleged support for terrorism and nuclear-weapons ambitions showed that Washington’s attitude had not much changed.

“These issues must be discussed in talks and not judged before talks,” he declared, adding that Tehran has “no need for hostility with the government of the United States if it acts justly and on the basis of international principles.” This is a reference to Iran’s position that the demand that it suspend uranium enrichment is unjust because it goes beyond obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But perhaps the clearest statement of Tehran’s position came this week from Iran’s former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mussavi, who in all likelihood will be incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s principal challenger in June’s presidential elections.

While criticising Ahmadinejad for politicising what is an essentially scientific and technological breakthrough, Mussavi explained why Iran cannot back down on its right to enrich uranium under the NPT.

“The progress we have regarding nuclear technology can be a prelude to our entry into a new and modern environment and our backing down will not be a temporary backing down and in relation to one instance; rather, we will be forced to back down completely in many projects,” he said.

“Having peaceful energy without threatening the global environment is among our strategic desires, and I do not think any [Iranian] administration will dare to take a step back in this regard since it will be faced with people’s questions. Attention to long-term interest makes it necessary not to back down at all on these issues and similar ones.”

As the U.S. and its allies prepare to meet in the coming week, the message coming from Tehran is clear. The nuclear issue is Iran’s focal point, and the real marker of a change of direction in U.S. foreign policy. Unless the U.S. finds a way to negotiate rather than dictate, hope for qualitative change in U.S.-Iran relations should not be pinned on cooperation elsewhere.

*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate, Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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