Iran on the table
THE world likes mavericks and Iran seems to be enjoying the limelight. Obama's message to the Iranian people in Now Ruz (Iranian New Year) did little to appease the Iranian leaders. They continue being hostile, if not reactionary. How long can this anti-US rhetoric be maintained? Long enough, the evidence suggests but there are unforeseen elements that may make it counter-productive.
US and subsequent Security Council resolutions demanding Iran to stop its uranium enrichment are baseless. Iran has every right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to do so to use as fuel for civil nuclear power. Its activities are under strict inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which claimed to have found no evidence that Iran has diverted material for weapons purposes.
The US National Intelligence Estimate has also admitted that Iran appears "less determined" to develop nuclear weapons than they had previously thought. Moreover, that US spends more on arms than the rest of the world combined, that it turns a blind eye to Israel's nuclear arsenal or that it along with other major powers continue to possess nuclear warheads, unleashes a whole debate on double standards altogether.
In a region where pan-Arabism is a joke, Iran and Syria stand as the only countries which address asymmetric power relations. Surrounded by nuclear-armed Israel and Pakistan and by US invasions in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's muscle-flexing is unsurprising.
US also needs to acknowledge that the root of the grievance lies with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its demand for Iran to stop threatening Israel and funding Hamas and Hezbollah will fall on deaf ears unless it equally demands Israel to end the occupation and return to its 1967 borders. Hamas and Hezbollah are now seen as legitimate resistance movements and their political involvement is crucial for securing regional peace.
Obama's symbolic and conciliatory message was seemingly a 180 degree turn from his predecessor's outright demonisation of Iran. But scratch the surface a bit and there will be alarming events that deem this act as simply a cosmetic change in his Middle East policy.
The right-leaning Dennis Ross has recently been appointed as Hillary Clinton's special advisor for Iran. He has a track record of pushing a carrots-and-sticks approach with Iran, and advocated a renewal of sanctions against the nation. He is publicly on the record for labelling Iran an "extraordinary threat" to US and Israel's security interests.
Consider another man, Charles Freeman, who was asked to head the National Intelligence Council. He withdrew after he was heavily attacked by supporters of Israel and hard-line politicians from both sides of the spectrum for describing Israeli violence against Palestinians as a key barrier to Middle East peace. The Obama administration was silent on the defence of this highly respected diplomat.
Change is what Obama had envisioned but his reluctance to challenge the bipartisan policy of unwavering support for Israel will do nothing in reigning for the Iranians. There is every indication that US foreign policy on the Middle East has become institutionalised, supported by a few neo-conservative ideologues.
These developments signal that Iran has good reasons to continue being a nonconformist for a while. But it would be a mistake to discount the powerful domestic political forces in the US and in Israel that are zealously working to change the status quo.
The sanctions imposed on Iran so far have not choked the country economically. But the US administration is working hard to convince the Europeans and the Russians to cut off their economic lifeline to Iran. Israel is also pressuring the Obama administration to consider tougher sanctions, such as a cutoff of refined gasoline to Iran, and a full inspection of all ships leaving Iran to ensure that they are not carrying weapons.
With the global economy in a recession, the country's oil revenues have taken a toll and its oil and gas installations are aging. If the sanctions do materialise, the Iranian leaders will have to think about "unclenching their fist," in Obama's language. Obama's extended hand of diplomacy can be construed as less a sign of rapprochement and more a lack of the military alternative on the table. With the finances stretched on Iraq and Afghanistan, another pre-emptive war of aggression seems unlikely in the short run.
A threat of war is emanating not out of the US but from Israel. Israeli officials think that possibly by the end of the year, Iran will acquire everything to enable it to develop a nuclear weapon. They have hinted that unilateral action will be taken against Iran if Obama's diplomacy fails to produce results. Israel has a history of blatant disregard for Security Council resolutions and world opinion. Iran should take heed.
If Iran does succumb to these threats to protect national interest, its more global demand for an end to America's "colonialist attitudes" and dogged support for Israel would have been lost; a demand rendered legitimate by many. Distressingly, that would breed more disillusionment and anger at US, ultimately doing little to mend relations with those it wants to engage with.