Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Engaging Iran

Engaging Iran through diplomacy and more

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Prime Minister Tony Blair will be retiring after the May elections and should be indeed thankful for diplomacy to have succeeded, regardless of any under the table quid pro quo, in the return of fifteen British sailors and marines.

Never did Britain seem so lonely and helpless and wounded during the two weeks of captivity even when Blair talked of a calm and conciliatory approach to get out of the impasse. You might call it a facing saving device on the part of Iran when last week President Mehmoud Ahmadinejad announced to free the hostages as a “gift”, nonetheless, reprimanding Britain for not being “brave enough” to admit that its naval personnel had made a mistake and strayed into Iranian territorial waters, the centuries old disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway which was one of the causes of Iraq-Iran of the 1980s.

Now Iran wants its “generosity” to be reciprocated and is expecting that Britain would open up meaningful channels of communication and would persuade Washington to release five Iranians held in Iraq by the US forces since January. Prolonged hostage crisis or any military action would have aggravated the situation and ruined Blair’s brilliant though controversial political career. Blair escaped Jimmy Carter’s political fate. The blunder the former president made in his desperate attempt in rescuing the American hostages held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1979 by launching the operation Desert One (which had to be aborted) in fact prolonged the crisis and humiliated the United States.

The treatment of the captured British sailors and marines, though they were initially blindfolded and cuffed and forced to make confessions, as they told the BBC, was not as inhumane and cruel as it was in 1979 when Iranians seized 66 Americans from the US Embassy in Tehran and held them for 444 days only to release them (the remaining 52) hours after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president on 20 January 1981. The hostage crisis ruined Carter’s presidency; and in spite of the Nobel Peace Prize and global humanitarian work Carter has been doing since he left the White House, the image of his presidency is associated with the blindfolded American hostages in Tehran. In those days, Iran was riding the wave of Ayatollah Khomeini-led Islamic revolution and did not care much for rest of the world, least of all the United States, whom the Iranian spiritual leader denounced as the “Great Satan” and the enemy of Islam.

Times have changed. When the world conference he presided in Tehran on 14 December 2005 to denounce the Holocaust as fiction and his denunciation of Israel as a country that should be wiped out from the map failed to arouse any revolutionary fervour in the Arab-Muslim world, Ahmadinejad must have realised that he is no ayatollah. When the British hostages were being paraded before the media, no Muslim country raised a voice to support Iran’s action. Despite his blustering charm and media swagger mixed with abrasiveness, Ahmadinejad has the charisma of more like that of a used car salesman than a world statesman.

The hostage crisis has not brightened the image of Iran, nor added to Ahmadinejad’s diminutive stature. Iranians need to learn that global networking and diplomacy can be more fruitful in dealing with nations like the United States and Britain than kidnapping and hostage taking, which has become associated with terrorism. But bad national leaders should not be the reason for punishing their people as it tragically happened in Iraq, where to get rid off Saddam Hussein, the whole country has been devastated. I

ran needs to be engaged through diplomacy to be a responsible power in the Middle East, where another conflict will neither change a regime nor anyone’s mind. Although the US stance toward Iran has not softened, European politicians see a door opening for dialogue about the most contentious issue, Iran’s nuclear program for uranium enrichment for which the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution imposing sanctions, asking the country to cease uranium enrichment and reprocessing and open its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The question is how to accept Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without letting it clandestinely transfer the enriched uranium for the development of nuclear purposes. The release of sailors and marines might be construed as a desire, as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted in Deutsche Welle, to “open the door to further cooperation.”

It might seem that the Bush administration is adamant in not negotiating with Iran unless it meets the precondition that it must stop uranium enrichment processing. But since the elections much has changed in the United States. Congress controlled by Democrats has become increasingly assertive and active in international affairs, as the recent trip of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Syria shows. Despite strong rebuke from the White House, Speaker Pelosi and her delegation went ahead to meet with President Assad of Syria in order to seek cooperation to stabilize Iraq so that American troops could return home.

The American people are not ready for any violent confrontation with Iran; nor are they willing to let Iran keep up with its nuclear weapons program, which necessitates that nuclear and other issues must be solved through diplomatic negotiations. Iranian rulers too seem to be prepared for dialogue if one reads their minds correctly after the hostage crisis.

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