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Chance to step back from the brink

Publication Date : 23-05-2012


Though rounds of talks have achieved no concrete progress in finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, the most recent talks in Istanbul seem to have defused the tensions to some extent.

However, people should not be too optimistic about the talks in Baghdad on Wednesday. Each time the P5+1 countries - Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany - have held talks with Iran there has been an easing of tensions only for them to intensify again later.

A critical issue now is how much time remains for diplomacy and sanctions to work before the US and/or Israel decide military action is the only way to prevent Iran possessing nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that nothing would be better than a diplomatic solution to the problem, but he said Iran is just using the talks to "buy time". He did not give any ultimatums but he told US president Barack Obama in March that Israel is prepared to launch air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities with or without US backing in order to stop what it perceives as a threat to its existence.

Adding to the international pressure, US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said on May 15 that the necessary planning for US military action against Iran had been done and it was not just available, "but ready".

For Israel, Teheran must stop enriching uranium. But Iran is unwilling to abandon its "right" to nuclear weapons when Israel is widely believed to have them already.

US President Obama discussed the Iran nuclear issue with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House in early March. Obama said he believes there is still a window for a diplomatic solution to be found, but Teheran needs to abandon its plan to develop nuclear weapons. The US has no objection to Iran's nuclear programme if it is geared to peaceful purposes.

Obama even asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deliver a message to the supreme spiritual leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in order to help defuse tension in the Persian Gulf.

More specifically, Obama requested that the Iranian spiritual leader backed up his public announcement that Iran would never pursue a nuclear programme, as "holding these arms is a sin as well as useless, harmful and dangerous". Because Iran has multiple centres of power, the US apparently hopes that the supreme leader has the greatest influence in the country.

Western countries believe that if Iran develops nuclear missiles it will inevitably encourage Islamic extremists throughout the world to challenge the current international rules and the core interests of Western countries. So the message Obama delivered to the Iranian supreme spiritual leader in March had two meanings: On the one hand, Obama obviously made his proposal to highlight the role of diplomacy and economic sanctions. On the other, his message could also be understood as a warning, the delivery of such a soft message if ignored could justify massive air strikes against those nuclear facilities in Iran if Teheran adheres to its nuclear weapons programme.

The arrival of International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano and his two aides in Teheran on Monday suggests Iran wants to avoid military confrontation.

But it is trying to win support and fight back. On Sunday, Iran's economic minister warned the upcoming European Union embargo on Iranian oil could lead to the price of oil soaring to $160 a barrel this summer and said Iran would never give up its nuclear programme, which it insists is for peaceful energy purposes.

Iran has called for the sanctions against the country to be lifted at the Baghdad talks, but in return the P5+1 countries will want proof that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

Although many analysts believe the US and Israel are divided on the issue, the possibility of military action by either or both cannot be ruled out unless there is further progress made in Baghdad.

The author is a research associate at the centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in California, US.


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