Gerald Warner: Yet more volatile ingredients added to Iran’s explosive mix
PROGRESS was reported last week at the end of the so-called P5+1 talks in Baghdad on Iran’s nuclear activities. “Progress”, in the context of negotiation with the Islamic Republic of Iran, means simply that none of the attendees pulled their opponent’s hair or left in a rage.
Arguably, the claims of progress are not totally comical; both sides are playing for such high stakes that the pace of play is inevitably cautious and snail-like. The P5+1 group consists of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – plus Germany. Negotiators’ minds are concentrated by their awareness that the Israelis, whom Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has expressed an unkind ambition to wipe from the face of the Earth, are stirring ever more uneasily as Tehran continues its programme of uranium enrichment.
What concentrated minds in Britain was a report that the government has sought legal advice on the implications of the UK supporting military action against Iran. The likeliest explanation of this superficially dramatic news is that, learning from Tony Blair’s misrepresentation of the casus belli in Iraq, the government wants to be briefed against all contingencies, while sending a message calculated to give Iran’s leadership food for thought. Britain is not alone in playing games.
Last week, Israel publicly urged world leaders not to back down from confronting Iran. Ahmadinejad, for his part, described Israel as “nothing more than a mosquito”, dismissing any idea of war between the two states.
Then, more originally, the Ken Livingstone of the Middle East added: “Based on Islamic teachings and the clear fatwa of the supreme leader, the production and use of weapons of mass destruction is forbidden and have no place in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defence doctrine.”
How his co-religionists in the nuclear-armed government of Pakistan reacted to that postulate is unrecorded. However, this observation was more than a capricious soundbite.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did apparently sign an unpublished edict six years ago condemning nuclear weapons. On 22 February this year, he publicly stated possession of an atomic bomb “constitutes a major sin”. Is this grandstanding to deceive the West or a genuine theological principle? If the latter, in a theocracy such as Iran, it would be of critical importance. The US state department is taking the hypothesis seriously.
It is worthy of note that Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is the personal representative of Khamenei, not of the mercurial Ahmadinejad.
The immediate issue is Iran’s insistence on enriching uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 per cent for energy purposes, while America and her allies fret that it is a short step thereafter to 90 per cent, or weapons grade, enrichment.
Iran sees this as a matter of national sovereignty. Israel views it as a matter of national survival. Israeli intelligence and armed forces chiefs are concerned that Iran may already have made its research facilities so bombproof as to be invulnerable even to bunker-busting devices.
That raises the nightmare prospect of an Israeli pre-emptive strike that could prove ineffectual, while destabilising the Middle East.
Disagreement among Israeli strategists is voluble and public. In the Iranian camp, Ahmadinejad is not the power he was, and the Islamic republic has a lot more to worry about than either the Great Satan in Washington or the Zionist entity nearer home. The Arab Spring has reduced Iranian influence in the Middle East. While BBC fantasists prate about “democracy”, the local reality is of Sunni resurgence at the expense of Shia interests.
In Syria, Iran is trying to perpetuate an Alawite ascendancy against an insurgent Sunni population. Iranian influence in the Middle East was always hobbled by the ethnic disadvantage that Iranians are not Arabs; now the complementary sectarian fissure is being enlarged.
To maintain economic strength, too, Iran wants to avoid lasting and punitive western sanctions on its oil exports. In corollary, a recession-hit West could do without inflating global oil prices by putting the world’s fifth-largest producer out of business.
Above all, there is Iran’s new rival for local hegemony: neo-Ottoman Turkey, increasingly indifferent towards the European Union, becoming daily more Islamic and looking to the Middle East as a theatre of influence. It is playing directly against Iran in Syria, subverting the regime Iran is trying to prop up. It is a very different landscape from the fall of the shah in 1979 and there were many unacknowledged preoccupations haunting last week’s talks in Baghdad. They will equally dominate the third round of negotiations in Moscow next month.
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