Iranian Quickstep: 1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back

15/02/2010

Latest Ahmadinejad statement suggests that Teheran still believes it can find a few partners for the dance it has been performing since 2003.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week told Iranian state television that “we have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad.”

In so doing, Ahmadinejad appeared to agree to the long-standing plan for the export of the greater part of Iran’s enriched uranium stocks.

Recent experience with the diplomatic methods of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggests that this statement is the latest instance of Teheran’s favored approach to diplomacy. The Iranian tendency is to seek to offset confrontation at the 11th hour by appearing to show flexibility. Once crisis is averted, the regime relies on differences over the details to make sure that nothing actually happens. It is the diplomacy of one step forward, two steps back. Thus is further time bought for the Iranian nuclear program.

The hitherto seemingly inexhaustible international patience at Iranian maneuvering, meanwhile, has recently been showing signs of at last wearing thin. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the latest convert to the cause of renewed sanctions. Brown said on Tuesday that “What we now, I think, have to do is accept that if Iran will not make some indication that it will take action – we have got to proceed with sanctions.”

It remains to be seen if the latest Iranian move will revive the spirits of the advocates of “engagement.” Ahmadinejad’s statement relates to the IAEA proposal that Iran should ship its low-enriched uranium abroad, where it would be converted into fuel rods for an Iranian research reactor producing medical isotopes.

The purpose of the IAEA proposal was to call Iran’s bluff. Iran has long claimed that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes. Very well, then, said the IAEA – let other countries take charge of converting Iranian low-grade uranium into material fit only for domestic use. Of course, this proposal depends on the assumption that the Iranians have been entirely honest in revealing all their supplies of enriched uranium. If they have not, and if a substantial amount remains outside of the purview of international observers, then the exercise becomes meaningless. Still, let us assume in this regard that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s well-known tendency toward honesty and transparency has prevailed, and that as such the proposal to export a large percentage of Iran’s known supplies of low enriched uranium is not entirely devoid of content.

In considering the seriousness or otherwise of Ahmadinejad’s statement, it is worth looking back to October last year, when the export proposal was first tabled. The apparent Iranian flexibility at that time came two weeks after the revelation of a secret uranium enrichment plant in the town of Qom on September 21. At the time, there was international excitement as Iranian representatives in Geneva agreed “in principle” with the proposal for the export of uranium. It was agreed that the details would be worked out at a subsequent meeting in Vienna.

That was on October 2. At the meeting in Vienna on October 19, the proposal was further clarified. A draft proposal was formulated. At the end of that month, Iran began to retreat from its apparent acceptance of the proposal. On November 18, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki unambiguously rejected it in the following terms: “Definitely, Iran will not send its 3.5 percent-enriched fuel out.”

The tentative December “deadline” came and went. On January 20, Iran confirmed that it rejected the export proposal as formulated in Vienna.

In other words, a skeptic might conclude, the international anger resulting from the Qom revelation made a bit of momentary cooperation from Iran advisable. Once the moment had passed, normal service could be resumed. The Iranian parliament and Guardian Council a week ago approved an Ahmadinejad endorsed bill to cut food and energy subsidies. The move, while significantly reducing government spending, stands to sharply increase prices and possibly lead to rising inflation. Political unrest is ongoing in Iran, and the regime is reported to be unnerved by the failure of its initial attempts at repression to douse the flame.

At such a moment, the last thing the regime needs is renewed sanctions. It is therefore an opportune moment for the reappearance of the reasonable Teheran of last October – to kick the ball down the road again for another few months.

Will the “international community” play ball? There are currently indications of a hardening US stance. A bill to target Iranian fuel imports is working its way through Congress. New sanctions may be discussed at the Security Council later this month. In the absence of renewed UNSC sanctions, the administration may set about trying to build a “coalition of the willing” for further moves against Iran.

But it is deeply questionable if any of this will prove sufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear drive.

In the meantime, the latest statement by the Iranian president suggests that Teheran still believes it can find a few partners for the dance it has been performing since 2003: one step forward, two steps back – all the way to a nuclear Iran.

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