Crisis of Opportunity for Iran and the US

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has stated his determination to turn "the present threats into opportunities" for Iran and, by all indications, the brewing crisis between Turkey and Iraq represents precisely such a scenario, in light of Iran's excellent relations with all the parties involved and its ability to play an effective crisis-prevention role.

On the eve of the much-anticipated high-level summit on Iraq and its neighbors in Istanbul, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was due in Ankara on Friday, coinciding with the visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveled to Syria and Iraq. And while on a stopover in Baghdad, he was urged by the Iraqi leadership to mediate the "border crisis" with Turkey.

The Istanbul summit, which includes the foreign ministers of Iraq and its neighbors, plus the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the Group of Eight, is due to start on Friday night and continue into Saturday.

A litmus test of Iranian diplomacy, Mottaki's ability to deliver the goods on this front will undoubtedly help Iran's own crisis with the US and Israel on the nuclear issue. The big question is, of course, whether or not the US, which has reportedly sent signals to Tehran regarding a fourth round of bilateral Iran-US dialogue on Iraq's security [1], will tolerate Iran's mediation in the Kurdish crisis. More importantly, can anyone prevent the outbreak of the present Kurdish crisis from developing into a full-blown crisis, given the admission by various top Turkish government officials and experts that Turkey's invasion of northern Iraq, to deal with the menace of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), is irreversible.

Indeed, so much rides on the flurry of diplomatic transactions, ie, the Istanbul meeting bound to be dominated by the growing tensions between Turkey and Iraq and the November 5 White House visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has stated, "I will only tell him [President George W Bush] that we expect concrete, immediate steps against the terrorists," and the PKK itself, one of whose leaders, Abdulrahman Alchaderchi, has asked Ankara to come up with a "peace proposal".

According to Alchaderchi, the Turkish military has recently conducted 24 military operations inside Iraq and Turkey is known to have massed more than 100,000 troops and several mechanized divisions consisting of tanks and armored vehicles at the border with Iraq. Depending on the outcome of the Istanbul meeting and the US visit of Erdogan, by mid-November we may be witnessing a whole new chapter in Iraq. This could destabilize not only Iraq but also the larger region, given Iran's opposition to any violation of Iraq's territorial integrity and the likely negative impact on hitherto amicable Iran-Turkish relations.

Consequently, a number of security experts in the region have concluded that the US is playing "both sides of the fence" and that it is not in the US interest to cap the Kurdish crisis, especially through any Iranian effort that would enhance Iran's regional influence and may come at the US's cost.

The meager steps on the part of the US, which from the Turkish point of view has ignored the evolving problem for several years, may be a remedy too late and a Turkish invasion and (indefinite occupation of) parts of northern Iraq may be a fait accompli.

Again, much depends on the US's approach, presently wanting in logic, except in the context of US-Iran competition in Iraq. This is reflected in a statement by US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, not only rebuffing Baghdad's bid to get the US military directly involved in patrolling the troubled borders with Turkey, but also adding salt to the wound by hurling the responsibility on the weak shoulders of Iraqi government.

He stated, "We are looking to the Iraqi government to act, to act to prevent terrorist attacks, and ultimately to dismantle that terror group that is operating on their territory." Clearly, the Kurdish crisis is also a crisis of opportunity not only for Iran, but also for the US, which can fish in the muddied waters, with calculated risk no doubt, since this crisis could easily get out of hand and facilitate Iraq's disintegration, much to the chagrin of Iran and its allies controlling the central government in Baghdad today.

Thus while there are opportunities, the inherent danger remains that of a full-scale regional conflagration that will further complicate the US mission in Iraq. And the very mix of incentives and disincentives connected to the multi-dimensional aspects and side-effects of the Kurdish crisis may result in politics of ambiguity in Washington and Tehran that, in the end, fuel this crisis.

Kurdish crisis and Iran's nuclear crisis

The timing of the Kurdish crisis with the escalating Iran crisis over its nuclear program is a complicating factor. But Tehran is pleased with the widening gap between Ankara, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conduit for the Middle East, and Washington as it represents a national security plus for Iran. Indeed, so much can be garnered from a two-day international conference on NATO held in Tehran this week. Its concluding statement reiterated Iran's opposition to any NATO expansion in the region as "foreign to the region's environment".

However, as former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani has warned, the "regional environment is polluted" and the Iranian government must act prudently to neutralize the threats against it. A number of Iranian pundits, such as Mohsen Aminzadeh, affiliated with the pro-reform moderates, has written an article on Iran's foreign policy and threats to national (security) interests, accusing the Ahmadinejad government of "adventurist" and "provocative" actions benefiting Iran's enemies. But, Aminzadeh may be overstating his case and, looking back at the Iran moderates' overall record on national-security issues, it leaves a lot to be desired.

With the Iranian debate on nuclear diplomacy on-going, several developments have made it likely that the month of November will be filled with newsbreaking stories, not only with respect to the crisis over northern Iraq but also on the Iran nuclear standoff, in light of the mid-November report due by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) chief, Mohamad ElBaradei.

This week, ElBaradei's deputy, Olli Heinonen, was in Tehran finalizing the Iran-IAEA recent agreement with respect to "outstanding questions" and nuclear transparency. For all practical purposes, Iran considers the nuclear issue "closed" and ripe for being treated as "normal", away from the United Nations Security Council and in the hands of the IAEA, its proper format.

Yet, given the new "Five plus One" meeting in London on Friday, discussing further sanctions on Iran, the prospects of new UN actions against Iran as a result of Iran's defiance of the resolutions calling for a suspension of uranium-enrichment activities, can hardly be discounted by Tehran. (The Five plus One includes the Security Council's permanent five - the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom - plus Germany).

Nor can Iran count on Russia and China's veto of further sanctions, irrespective of China's official rebuffing of Israeli lobbying, or Moscow's stated opposition to new sanctions, reiterated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his surprise visit to Tehran this week. Reports from Tehran indicate that Lavrov in his meeting with Ahmadinejad pushed for Iran's acceptance of a proposal by President Vladimir Putin, which he submitted recently to Iran's spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Although the details of Putin's proposal are undisclosed, various unofficial reports from Tehran suggest that Putin has called on Iran to agree to the "time-out" proposal by ElBaradei. Regarding the latter, in a recent interview, ElBaradei was more time-specific and stated that a "six-month suspension" by Iran to give diplomacy a chance is what he means by 'time-out".

Time-out or not?

This is, indeed, the million-dollar question pondered by Iranian officials, some of whom rightly argue that Iran complied with a prior "time-out" when it agreed to suspend for nearly two years the nuclear fuel cycle, per the terms of the October 2004 Paris Agreement.

What then? That is the key question posed by various Iranian officials, who openly wonder what the time-out option will achieve, other than a stop-gap measure that is bound to raise the crisis anew once the window of time closes and Iran restarts enrichment-related activities.

This is a question that needs to be addressed now. After all, the Security Council resolutions are not time-specific, nor do those resolutions call for the termination of Iran's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty right to produce nuclear fuel, instead of relying on foreign sources.

Therefore, as this author has repeatedly stated, a temporary suspension, no matter how long, will likely appease the UN and expedite Iran's nuclear diplomacy. Iran's new ambassador to the UN, Dr Mohammad Khazaee, has recently written a letter of complaint to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, complaining of the US's "unilateral and illegal" steps against Iran. This is all the more reason for the Iranian government to show more respect toward the UN and its various institutions.

In fact, the Iranian statement at the above-mentioned conference on NATO begins by confirming the role of the UN in global peace and security. Deflecting the US-Israeli war drive against Iran, this may be the biggest advantage of Iran's compliance with the time-out proposal by the IAEA chief.

In the most recent US presidential debate, Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton, under much pressure from her colleagues for voting for an anti-Iran congressional measure, stated that it is no longer a question of "if but when and with what weapons" the Bush administration will attack Iran.

This is ominous news not only for Iran, but also for the world facing record oil prices approaching US$100 a barrel without even one bullet being fired on the Iran-US front, and enough warning for all sides to put in overdrive their efforts at war-prevention. The irony, however, is that the prospects of a regional flareup in the Kurdish crisis may prove to be the fire extinguisher on the other war.

1. For more on the need for US and Iran to broaden their dialogue, see the author's Time to broaden the dialogue San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 2007.

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 Fiction.


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