Mar 30, 2007
Iran ahead of the game - for now
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"The US is not escalating tensions with Iran," said a Pentagon
spokesperson in reference to the major US naval exercise in Persian
Gulf "off the coast of Iran", per the wire reports. That is, a hair
stretch beyond Iran's 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.
The Iranians can be excused if they think otherwise - that the purpose
of the massive US maneuver at their doorstep, involving two
aircraft-carrier task forces and some 10,000 troops, is to send a
"strong signal" to them about the price they may have to pay if they
persist in defying the will of US power and its allies. This is not to
mention a French aircraft carrier making a solidarity appearance in
Persian Gulf waters at the same time, thus adding to the overall
Western menace with regard to Iran.
As usual, the US double-speak has continued unabated. Thus, precisely
at a time when the overwhelming weight of US firepower is put on full
display against the Iranians, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has
expressed the his country's readiness to engage in "high-level"
dialogue with Iran, as if to make a small dent in any Iranian paranoia
about the military intentions of the United States.
Gates' small words of comfort have been overshadowed, however, by the
physical assemblage of brute force piled up in the narrow corridors of
the Persian Gulf and, more so, by the dire warning issued by British
Prime Minister Tony Blair in response to the Iranian seizure if 15
Yet no sooner had Blair threatened to take the issue to "the next
phase" than his foreign secretary tried damage control by mollifying
his statement and putting the emphasis on "back-door channels".
The latter, it turns out, includes the Turkish government, which has
jumped at the opportunity to prove Turkey's value to Europe as a
bridge to the Muslim Middle East by offering to mediate in the
standoff and to inspect the seized sailors. Should Turkey achieve a
breakthrough in this unfolding "dangerous" crisis, the ramifications
with respect to its bid to join the European Union will be huge.
Simultaneously, there are other reasons to expect a prominent role for
Turkey, given a growing expressed desire in Iran for a "prisoners'
exchange" and the fact that at least one, and perhaps as many as five,
Iranians apprehended by the US were abducted in Turkey. Others,
including some diplomats, were abducted from Iraq.
As a result, if Turkey is to be instrumental in resolving the
Iran-British crisis, its leadership must do so with an eye toward an
exchange of prisoners. Turkey's failure, on the other hand, will
probably cast a large cloud over an Iraq security summit that is
scheduled to take place in Istanbul in April. Among others,
representatives from the US and Iran are due to meet.
All signs indicate that with the exception of the sole female sailor,
the release of the other 14 captives is not imminent, no matter how
tough Blair's rhetoric or the pressures exerted by the British
government and the EU.
Various Iranian politicians, including a powerful member of parliament
(Majlis), Mohammad Reza Bahonar, have stated that London should not
expect Iran to ignore the violation of Iran's sovereignty lightly.
Iran's embassy in London, contradicting the British claim that the
sailors were in Iraqi waters, has issued a statement that puts the
sailors half a mile inside Iranian territorial waters.
Such categorical statements by both sides invite a lengthy standoff
and tie the hands of those in Iran who may wish a quick end to this
controversy. This is particularly so in light of the economic pinch
caused by the British government's freeze on bilateral trade with Iran
(worth some US$2 billion). Should Iran make good on its threat to
begin legal proceedings against the sailors, the EU may follow suit
and penalize Iran where it hurts most - on the trade and economic
Gains and losses for Iran
According to an Iranian political analyst seasoned in "threat
analysis", Iran's ability to play hardball with Britain serves the
national interest at a time when Western powers manipulate the Middle
East landscape almost at will. "Iran is sending a clear message that
the 'buck stops here'," he told the author.
Apparently, the message is not lost on Iran's neighbors, and at the
opening ceremony of an Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah
warned "foreign powers" to stop meddling in the affairs of the region,
since the days when they could impose their wills on the people of the
region had passed.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was invited to the Arab
summit at the last moment and only after the outbreak of the crisis
over the British sailors. In fact, on the eve of the summit, Libyan
leader Muammar Gaddafi declined to attend and sent a message that he
would refuse to participate in an "anti-Iran" spectacle aimed at
pitting "Sunnis versus Shi'ites". Both Iranian and Arab papers have
reported on the recent meeting of US officials with the intelligence
chiefs of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Saudi Arabia
over forming a new anti-Iran network.
Clearly, Tehran's row with London has had immediate dividends with
respect to Iran's regional clout, causing pro-Iran sympathies in the
Arab world. Arabs now see in Iran's "heroic" standing up to "Western
imperialists" a source of much-needed inspiration and hope, in
contrast to their own feckless leadership. "The Arabs of the Persian
Gulf are now less inclined to join the US and Israel against Iran than
they were a mere week ago," a former Iranian diplomat told the author.
Rising oil prices (more than $65 a barrel) due to the crisis represent
yet another windfall that compensates to some extent for the economic
losses caused by Europe's backlash. Iran's "calculated escalation" has
not only helped lift nationalist spirits in Iran, it has also bridged
the gaps between the nuclear crisis and the Iraq crisis. It has served
as a sort of catalytic convergence of what had hitherto been regarded
as discrete issues, serving notice on their interconnections and thus
putting a premium on the omnibus of punitive measures against Iran.
Simultaneously, the combined US maneuvers and London's fiery rhetoric
against Iran have made Moscow and Beijing realize the explosive nature
of the situation, inducing them to draw a red line on their support
for the United States' designs against Iran.
Thus, in their joint statement in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin and
Chinese President Hu Jintao warned the US against making any military
moves on Iran. The United States' painstakingly assembled
international coalition against Iran at the United Nations has now
been put to severe new tests. It is far from clear that, by the time
the Security Council meets again some two months from now to consider
the Iran nuclear crisis, the coalition will even be intact.
On the negative side, Iran's nuclear diplomacy may suffer as a result
of the current tussle with Britain, by alienating the EU and thus
depriving Iran of an important venue to seek a diplomatic resolution
of the nuclear crisis.
Iran's preference is to re-engage the EU in direct talks and by
indirectly convincing the US that it should give a nod to another
round of Iran-EU nuclear talks. This strategy hinges, however, on
Iran's ability to nuance the dispute with London over the sailors in a
purely legal and procedural channel that would somehow insulate its
nuclear diplomacy (as much as possible).
Whether or not this is likely or, obversely, we will witness the
unintended consequences of a mini-crisis run wild after Blair's
threat, remains to be seen.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs,
Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also
wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International
Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus