Originally Published 2005-03-28 09:45:07 Published on Mar 28, 2005
Modalities of statecraft have abiding relevance. In a celebrated letter to Moghul Emperor Akbar, Shah Abbas the Great commented on a predecessor's misrule and said that "internal diversity of opinions made the foreigner covetous and caused anarchy in the country."
Iran: stirring the pot?
Modalities of statecraft have abiding relevance. In a celebrated letter to Moghul Emperor Akbar, Shah Abbas the Great commented on a predecessor's misrule and said that "internal diversity of opinions made the foreigner covetous and caused anarchy in the country." Some today may be seeking such a development in Iran in the expectation that the domestic and external impulses may converge and bring forth a qualitative transformation in the government and the governance of the country. How realistic is the expectation? 

Rhetoric about regime change has been around Washington for many years. Apart from the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (1996), Congressional pressure has been added in the shape of the proposed Iran Freedom Act, and indulgence shown to members of terrorist groups such as the MEK on the plea that "a member of a terrorist organisation is not necessarily a terrorist!"

Talk of a resort to force by the United States (supported by a national opinion poll in January indicating a 42 per cent support for an invasion) prompted a large number of Iranian academics in American universities last month to appeal to the American people cautioning against direct or indirect military action. Another group - Unity for Democracy and Secular Republic in Iran - based in Virginia published a statement claiming to be signed by 565 students and teachers in the lesser-known Iranian educational institutions accusing the government of failure on all fronts and seeking a change in power structures. It sought to develop a focus on failures in foreign policy and attempted to arouse jingoistic feelings amongst its readers. (Its allegations run counter to known facts). 

These ventures need to be viewed in a wider context. Over the past few years a war game named NAIR, aimed at invading a target country, has been conducted in the U.S. War College in Pennsylvania. On February 6, the Iran Policy Committee in Washington drew up a list of Iranian sins, considered a set of policy options, and recommended "regime change based on support to Iranian opposition." An Iran Action Committee consisting of former monarchists has also surfaced aiming to persecute old revolutionary figures such as former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi for crimes against humanity committed in 1979. 

It is easy to misread a complex society involved in a complicated exercise of signalling assertion and change simultaneously. One set of facts about Iran are evident: the reform process initiated in 1997 has stalled; the polarisation of opinions witnessed at the time of the Majlis elections last year persists; reformists have suffered setbacks and conservatives have gained ground; the system will be put to another test in the Presidential elections in June; public disenchantment with the failure of the system to deliver on economic performance, to attract FDI, equipment and technology is increasingly evident; also evident is the U.S. intention to lay siege politically and psychologically. 

On the other hand, observers of the Iranian scene also agree on another set of facts: there is "continuous change from within" accompanied by vigorous public debate; there is growing pluralism under the façade of political and theological uniformity; an elected though constrained executive and legislature reflective of democratic functioning; the system is under strain but not on the brink of a crisis; discontent is localised and sporadic rather than general; the increase in oil prices has provided the much needed financial cushion; the population has no stomach for violent change; neither the MEK nor the monarchists has support within Iran; external pressure for change of policy or of rulers is resented; the public has supported the Government in the nuclear technology debate. 

It is also evident that in external relations, pragmatism rather than ideology has been the policy determinant for many years, is reflected in improved relations with most states, and that post-9/11 stylistic alterations were introduced to signal, in the words of an Iranian academic, "calculated adjustments to a new regional and international environment." 

The U.S. focus is on the nuclear question, with terrorism, reforms and human rights included for added effect. On February 21 in Brussels, U.S. President George W. Bush called on Iran to forego support to terrorism and development of nuclear weapons, and to "deliver on promised reforms," "listen to the Iranian people and respect their rights." He did not rule out the military option but, in the absence of EU support, sought to give diplomacy a chance. On March 11, the U.S. announced it would relent on Iranian entry into the WTO, and on the purchase of spares for civilian aircraft. Two days later Vice-President Dick Cheney said Iran would face "stronger action" if it failed to respond. The same day National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley highlighted the significance of the unified trans-Atlantic position that had emerged. Around the same time, news leaks in Israel indicated an "initial authorisation" by Prime Minster Ariel Sharon of an Israeli attack on the Natanz uranium enrichment plant if diplomacy failed to stop Iran's nuclear programme. 

Teheran rejected the Bush offer: "no pressure, bribe or threat can make Iran give up its legitimate right." It offered instead a truckload of pistachio nuts to President Bush if he agreed to dismantle the U.S. nuclear arsenal! It urged the U.S. to change its policies and recognise Iran as an effective regional power. The rhetoric of rejection made no mention of enrichment, perhaps leaving room for negotiations over the offer made by the European Union troika. Iran, seeking to negotiate "with a fisted hand" in an approach that combines chess with poker, wants the question resolved within the framework of its obligations and rights under the NPT. In an effort to save its enrichment programme, Iran proposed to the EU last week that it be allowed to run a limited capacity pilot project under close IAEA monitoring. 

None of this satisfies the U.S. American policy since 1979 has stumbled from fault to folly, unable to comprehend the impulses of a revolutionary era. In March 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologised for the Mosaddeq episode of 1953 (as another U.S. administration had done for engineering the overthrow of Whitlam in Australia in 1975) but undid the gesture through an avoidable aside aimed at Ayatollah Khamenei. In 2001 the Bush administration closed the door with Condoleezza Rice's remark that "changes in U.S. policy would require changes in Iranian behaviour." This, however, did not prevent practical cooperation on Afghanistan and Iraq through the device of Geneva talks that continued till March 2003. In July 2004 the Council for Foreign Relations considered various options, advised against either a military confrontation or a grand bargain, and suggested "a policy of cautious, selected, probing, national interest-oriented engagement." Others have done so too. 

The contours of national interest have been articulated with some care on the Iranian side. The current issue of Foreign Policy, published from Washington, carries an article by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi stressing that Iran's national security is defined through the imperative of regional stability and a new, cooperative, paradigm for it. 

Mr. Kharrazi asserts the nuclear programme cannot be addressed in isolation, without due attention to the broad concept of national security: "the predominant view among Iranian decision-makers is that possession or pursuit of nuclear weapons would only undermine Iranian security." On Iran's need for nuclear energy, he cites in support a 1978 U.S. memo sustaining the argument for diversification of energy sources and including nuclear energy in it. 

Mr. Kharrazi is candid about the purpose of his article: "I have made an effort to identify the areas in which Iran's potential and capabilities can be utilised in the interest of the regional as well as global peace and security." Will the offer succeed in denting entrenched U.S. positions? What impact would movement towards an American-Iranian détente have on the region? 

The upcoming presidential election adds to political intangibles. The reformists are clearly on the defensive and the operative slogan is "reforms without the reformists." An opinion poll published by the Iranian News Agency on March 11, indicates opinion tilting in favour of the former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani. His political skills, pragmatic orientation and previous experience of quiet negotiations make him a credible candidate in difficult times. 

It is evident that a critical juncture has been reached in American-Iranian relations. Both sides are confronted with difficult choices: adjust and co-opt the adversary or seek to prevail with all the imponderables of a confrontation. Both are aware of their limitations. Both now seek a way out through multilateral engagement. If successful, it could pave the way for a new structure of regional stability. 

The author is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, and former Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University. He is presently Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Courtesy: The Hindu, Chennai, March 28, 2005.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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