By Martin Woollacott (THE GUARDIAN, 21/09/06):
As the Iranian and American presidents offer their rival versions of international reality at the United Nations this week, it is worth recalling that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the first Iranian leader to travel to New York to proclaim his country’s right to make its own decisions about energy resources, to denounce imperialism, and to condemn a world order weighted in favour of a handful of powerful nations.In this same month in 1951, Dr Mohammad Mossadeq convinced the UN that British efforts to regain control of the oil industry the Iranian government had just nationalised did not deserve the world body’s support. Mossadeq won over the security council, and he won over the United States, which enjoyed the spectacle of this elderly, eccentric and eloquent man challenging the British empire. American reporters affectionately nicknamed him “Old Mossy”.
How different is the scene at the UN today, with Bush castigating Iran for political suppression at home, for supporting terrorism abroad, and for pursuing nuclear weapons, while Ahmadinejad portrays the US as the leader of a group of nations which have hijacked international institutions in pursuit of their own narrow interests. Between these two moments on the East River lies a half century in which the US was transformed, in Iranian eyes, from the angel in international affairs that Mossadeq had imagined into the demon scourged by Ayatollah Khomeini and most of his successors.
“Old Mossy” hoped America would help Iran become truly independent. Instead, America joined Britain in removing him from power and ensconcing the Shah as an authoritarian ruler. Most Iranians, including opponents of the regime, think the US has never redeemed itself for that act, or for its later meddling in Iranian affairs. American intervention would reach a malign climax, they say, if the US were to attack Iranian nuclear installations. Just as Iranians believe the US has never made up for the wrong it perpetrated in 1953, so Americans believe the Islamic republic demonstrated, by its seizure of American diplomats in 1979, a deeply unreasonable and probably permanent hostility towards America. The two nations, in other words, bulk pathologically large in each other’s vision, and that is the ultimate problem which makes an accommodation between them on nuclear matters, let alone a more general rapprochement, so difficult to achieve.
The drama which began three years ago when Britain, France and Germany undertook to bring Iran round on the nuclear issue has had its comic dimension, as European wiliness encountered Iranian guile, and was usually outmatched by it. But now comedy threatens to tip over into farce, and tragedy lies in wait. After the passing of many deadlines, the latest at the end of last month, the Iranians are still enriching uranium. They have so far suffered no consequences, and even if a very modest package of sanctions were to survive Russian and Chinese objections at the UN, it would not hurt the Iranians much, if at all.
The western bluff has been called. The Europeans have moved from making suspension a condition for talks to contriving formulas to allow talks to begin without it. As long as serious sanctions lay in the far future, the Europeans were ready to act as if they, and even the highly sceptical Russians and Chinese, would be prepared to take strong measures. But as soon as they become a real prospect, the excuses emerge, ranging from the lack of adequate inducements to the absence of conclusive proof of Iran’s nuclear intentions and the danger of pushing the Tehran regime into too tight a corner. All have some substance, but nevertheless represent a retreat from previous positions.
In the unlikely event that strong sanctions were imposed, Iran would find it relatively easy to survive them, and they would play into the hands of those in the Iranian government, including Ahmadinejad, who may well believe that a good relationship with the west is a contradiction in terms – something that would sully the revolutionary purity of the republic. So there are indeed reasons for caution on sanctions. In any case the real sanction has been the prospect that if negotiations were to end in total failure, they would be followed, no doubt after a period in which economic measures would be shown to be ineffective, by American military action. The bunker-busters would go in and parts of Iran would be dug up and ploughed under by a bombing campaign, aimed both at destroying installations and killing scientists, which would set back Iran’s nuclear programme by three or four years.
Yet even if the Bush administration was less weakened by Iraq than it is, the chances of it choosing this option are somewhat less than they may have seemed some months ago. There is no readiness in the country to accept another military enterprise, even if it “only” involved air action, and anyone ordering it would suffer grievous political damage. This would come not so much in the campaign itself, but with the inevitable retaliation by Iran in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The US government would be wide open to the charge of making a bad mess worse, and the charge would be true, something which it may now be beginning to grasp. It will not rule out the counter-proliferation option, and the American military will continue to plan for it on a contingency basis, but the Iranians are probably right to conclude that it is not a very immediate threat.
But it is in the nature of the relationship between Iran and the west that as one danger recedes, another advances. If the Iranian regime comes to believe that both the Europeans and the US are paper tigers, it will be both strengthened and emboldened. At home, the consequences may well be to quicken the pace of the regime’s encroachments on the freedom and democracy the Iranian system still displays. Abroad, they could give a push to the sort of adventurism which would make war between Iran and the US a stronger possibility. The only answer is a Middle Eastern policy which stresses needs, rights and fairness more than threats and enemies. Easy generalities, but somewhere in that direction lies the solution, if there is one to be found.