Iran: Tehran's Nuclear Gamesmanship

8 MINS READOct 21, 2005 | 04:12 GMT
Iran on Oct. 20 gave U.N. inspectors key documents concerning activities that could be related to the development of nuclear weapons. With the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) meeting set for Nov. 25, Tehran is focusing its efforts on bringing IAEA members to its side to prevent a referral to the U.N. Security Council. Through a careful blend of threats and conciliatory moves, Iran will likely succeed in turning the volume down on the nuclear chatter and will head into another phase of negotiations.
Tehran provided U.N. inspectors Oct. 20 with documents detailing Iranian activities that could be related to a nuclear weapons program; it also permitted the inspectors to question a senior official involved in Iran's nuclear program. U.S. officials called Iran's move an "important concession" in the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear power grab. This calculated and well-timed gesture is part of Tehran's initiative to put a damper on any U.S.-led plans to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council. Iran strategically complemented this conciliatory move with a warning to certain International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) members: that they should resist toeing the U.S. line in the event of a vote to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) over Tehran's alleged noncompliance in curbing its nuclear program. This warning consisted of banning South Korean imports in protest of Seoul's support for a UNSC resolution. On Oct. 17, $100,000 worth of PVC from South Korean company LG Electronics was prohibited from passing through Iran's customs office, and on Oct. 18 $1.8 million worth of steel products from Daewoo International Corp. was rejected by Tehran. South Korean exports to Iran totaled $2.13 billion in 2004 and $1.58 billion in the first nine months of 2005. But while Tehran was sticking it to Seoul by banning South Korean imports, it did not cut off exports to South Korea. Iran exports to South Korea about $ 1.8 billion worth of goods per year. More important, Iran is the fifth-largest exporter of crude oil to South Korea. An Iranian cutoff of oil exports would deal energy-hungry South Korea a serious blow. Moreover, Iran would be shooting itself in the foot if it pulled out the oil card against any of its energy partners. Interestingly, Iran did not single out Japan — an IAEA member like South Korea — for an import ban. A look at the trade balance between Iran and Japan reveals why. According to 2004 figures, Iran exports $7.7 billion worth of goods to Japan and Japan exports $1.05 billion to Iran. Though it is just as energy-starved as South Korea, Tokyo has in the past resisted heeding Washington's requests to cease trading with Iran. Since trade with Japan is more vital to Iran's economy than trade with South Korea, it is clear why Japan remains unscathed — Tehran singled out South Korea for punishment to test how much importance Seoul attaches to its commercial ties, should the UNSC referral come to a vote. Tehran's strategy is to carefully threaten certain IAEA members ahead of the Nov. 25 meeting at IAEA headquarters in Geneva in order to shake Washington's confidence that it will find enough support to send Iran to the UNSC. From Seoul's viewpoint, however, the IAEA vote is not so much about siding with Washington and against Tehran as it is about using the Iranian nuclear issue to send a signal to North Korea on how the six-party talks could play out if Pyongyang provides certain concessions on its nuclear program. Enough time remains for Tehran to scale back the pressure it has put on Seoul, should Iran receive the appropriate assurances from South Korea. Meanwhile, given its oil interests, Seoul will have to think twice before it sides with the United States against Iran on a nuclear vote. India is the next target in Iran's campaign to escape the Security Council noose. While New Delhi has shared close ties with Tehran and has taken great care to maintain its nonaligned status from Cold War days, an initiative spearheaded by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and ruling Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi led India to give tacit support for a referral of Iran to the UNSC to curry favor with Washington and push ahead a pending U.S.-Indian pact to develop India's civil nuclear program. Following New Delhi's public announcement that it would support a resolution against Iran, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India-Marxist strongly condemned Singh for taking unilateral action against Iran and blindly following Washington's commands. The Iranian press has been carefully monitoring internal Indian politics to pinpoint the vulnerabilities of the ruling Congress Party. Upcoming elections in the states of West Bengal and Kerala will likely be dominated by India's left parties. Fully aware that the Congress Party is heavily dependent on India's left parties to form a majority coalition in the government, Tehran has dispatched senior Iranian diplomats to New Delhi to encourage left party leaders to pressure Singh into abstaining from an IAEA vote. It is also important to note that India houses the second-largest Shiite population in the world. Building up support among Muslim voters to weaken the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is one of the Congress Party's main priorities — especially as state elections are currently underway in Bihar, which has a sizeable Muslim population. Tehran is strategically looking toward forming closer ties with India's Muslim population to build up opposition in the country and to undermine Singh's decision to side with the United States. Though New Delhi reached a nebulous agreement with Washington to vote against Iran, it cannot ignore the domestic constraints imposed by India's left parties and Muslim constituency. While talks between the United States and India over a proposed nuclear agreement began Oct. 20, an Indian delegation traveled to Iran to discuss the proposed Iran-India natural gas pipeline and increased future shipments of Iran's liquefied natural gas to energy-hungry India. The balancing act that India has tried to maintain between its friends in Washington and Tehran is coming under pressure as the Nov. 25 IAEA meeting approaches. Fortunately for New Delhi, the IAEA meeting will likely not include a vote on sending Iran to the UNSC. As we forecast, back-channel talks between the United States and Iran over stabilizing Iraq have led Washington to go soft on the Islamic republic over its nuclear program. Fiery rhetoric over sending cruise missiles into the Persian heartland to take out Iranian nuclear facilities has gradually given way to statements proposing deterrent strategies in dealing with Iran. Moreover, Washington has been much more open to the idea of dealing with Tehran given that former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is dictating much of Iran's foreign policy with the West. Tehran is also closely watching the political imbroglio erupting in Washington over the Plame affair to gauge U.S. strength in dealing with external affairs. Iran is quite confident that it will not be referred to the Security Council. This broad effort to bring IAEA members to its side is Tehran's way of showing the United States that it cannot make good on its threats, in hopes of getting Washington to agree to Iranian demands in back-channel talks. In essence, Tehran is responding to U.S. public posturing by seeking to gain behind-the-scenes leverage against Washington. Tehran's next move is to work on the EU-3 — made up of the France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Oct. 19 that France has not adopted the appropriate policy toward the Iranian nuclear program and that he expects Paris to stand by Tehran. For their part, the French are not entirely enthused about resuming endless negotiations with Iran, but are willing to entertain the idea of talks under the appropriate conditions. Moreover, Paris still needs the Iranian issue to promote its status as a world power. Germany, on the other hand, has pretty much stepped out of the game at this point, as it still needs to finish forming a ruling government before it can even start talking about policy. That leaves the United Kingdom — a major sticking point in Iran's plans to downplay the nuclear issue. An ongoing spat between London and Tehran has led to a major increase in tensions between the two nations in recent days. London alleges that Tehran is backing Shiite militants targeting British soldiers in southern Iraq, while the Iranian regime continues to blame the Brits for helping Ahvazi nationalist militants to stage bombings in order to destabilize the country. Iran upped the pressure a notch when it announced a ban on imports from Britain on Oct. 19. Though both sides are engaged in a public battle of accusations, Tehran can use allegations — and what it calls proof that British intelligence is training and funding militants within the Islamic republic — as leverage with London during nuclear talks in order to reach a compromise. Iran's moves to create a favorable diplomatic atmosphere ahead of the Nov. 25 IAEA meeting are likely to bear fruit — allowing Iran not only to evade a UNSC referral, but even to make gains in its demands for a civilian nuclear program. Come November, the compromise will essentially boil down to an agreement to talk about talking about the Iranian nuclear issue … later. A sternly worded letter from the IAEA addressed to Iran will also likely be thrown in. Iran might wind up being the common denominator guiding these nations' votes at the IAEA, but individual interests — whether related to energy needs, security in Iraq or a general lack of interest — will allow the Iranian nuclear negotiations to continue in the public sphere.

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