Selasa, 20 Maret 2012

Swift impact and what will happen with the critical upcoming talks on the Iran nuclear program

Swift blows to Iran and nuclear talksBy Kaveh L Afrasiabi

NEW YORK - Swift, the Belgian-based financial clearing house, delivered a major blow to Iran's international trade by announcing on Saturday that it would cut financial services to Iranian banks. For Iran's oil economy, this was shocking in its simplicity: it means that Iran will find it even more difficult to receive money for its major oil transactions.

While it will take a few months to tabulate the net effect of Swift's decision, rationalized by the European sanctions on Iran, it isfairly certain that the timing was critical, coming prior to multilateral nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called "5 +1" nations (ie, the UN Security Council's Permanent Five plus Germany). This and the White House's warning of a shrinking "window of opportunity for diplomacy," are meant to have the sledge-hammer effect of jolting Iran into submission at the negotiation table, although the exact date and venue for talks has yet to be announced. 

Although the Turkish Foreign Minister has expressed his country's interest in hosting the nuclear talks, much like the last round in Istanbul in January 2011, there is a hesitation on Iran's part, due principally to Turkey's anti-Syrian government role that is directly at odds with Tehran's pro-Damascus policy. A clue to the depth of Turkish-Iranian division over Syria is that Iran may opt to move the talks somewhere else - and there is talk in Tehran of Moscow, in order to send Ankara a clear signal. On the other hand, in light of Turkey's cooperative behavior on the nuclear issue in the past, and the on-going Iran-Turkey trade despite the Western sanctions, Tehran may not want to ruffle the waters with Turkey too much at this critical hour when the rings around Iran are rapidly tightening.

Irrespective of where the talks are held, the bigger and more important question is, of course, what can be expected and whether they will yield a breakthrough or another round of fruitless discussions?

From the Western camp, the pre-talk strategy of pounding Iran with maximum pressure, including warnings of "last opportunity" before the Israeli bombs dropped, apparently relayed to Russia by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently, holds sway in various Western capitals, although there is no unity of purpose among the "Iran six" nations and China and Russia have gone on record opposing further sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, greater cooperation between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is in the offing, per reports from Vienna suggesting that Iran and the IAEA officials are getting close to finalizing "modality" or framework to resolve the outstanding "ambiguities". That should turn down the heat on the crisis. The temperature of relations in Europe, on the other hand, is fixated on the coming presidential elections in France, scheduled for April 22, that can have profound ramifications on the rest of Europe as well as Europe's relations with the Middle East if ardently pro-Israel President Nicolas Sarkozy is defeated by his socialist challenger Francios Hollande, who is presently ahead in the opinion polls.

With national elections in Germany and Italy next year, the French elections could be a good omen for heralding a new, and vibrant, turn to the left in European politics that may translate into a more balanced and less US-dependent external politics by the European Union, whose oil sanctions on Iran go into effect come this July.

"France has not really been a big factor in the nuclear talks and they have taken their cues from the Americans without showing any sign of independence, but this may change and France may become a more proactive player in the nuclear talks if there is a socialist government," says a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity. In other words, Iran is vesting some hope in "regime change" in Europe, just as some Western politicians and media pundits are hedging their bets on regime change in Tehran as a result of "crippling sanctions" and other similar punitive efforts, such as supporting the Iranian political opposition.

Russia's 'step-by-step' proposal
At the moment, the Russian "step-by-step" proposal is the only game in town, and no one with any familiarity with the Iran nuclear talks is even minimally hopeful that Iran would ever consent to scrap its expensive uranium enrichment program under external pressure. The so-called "zero enrichment" option is for all practical purposes a passe and, yet, Western officials have stubbornly refused to present a viable alternative. What is more, United States President Barack Obama's turn to a more hardline posture of "deterrence", that lowers the US threshold of tolerance to Iran's "nuclear capability" rather than "bomb-possessing ability," simply means that the US has pushed itself into a corner where a more rigid and inflexible negotiation strategy can be expected that is not conducive to achieving a mutually-acceptable breakthrough.

Obama's stiffened position is a product of domestic considerations in an election year and has less to do with the nuclear realities on the ground in Iran, and is yet another reminder of how the Iran nuclear standoff is hostage to the domestic politics of various players involved in the crisis. A resolution requires political realism, diplomatic flexibility, and parties' preparedness to compromise. These are increasingly rare ingredients to come by in 2012.

It may make more sense to actually postpone the Iran nuclear talks after the US and Iran presidential elections, or simply use the opportunity of coming talks this spring for "confidence-building". The problem with this alternative option is, however, that the Iran sanctions have biting effects on the Iranian economy, thus leading some Iranian political and military leaders to entertain the option of introducing further costs to their adversaries, such as by playing hardball in Afghanistan, in light of a recent announcement by a revolutionary guard commander calling on the Afghan people to "expel" the Americans and their allies.

"If Mr Obama wants to deliver on his promise of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in two years, then he should know that Iran has the means to frustrate him and make the US suffer in Afghanistan in response to US trying to make life difficult on the Iranians," says the Tehran professor mentioned above.

Not only that, from Tehran's perspective, the recent showering of southern Israel by the Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza has sent a timely signal to Israel, as a dress rehearsal for much bigger attacks, by both Hamas and Hezbollah, in case Israel attacks Iran. The Iran-Israel war may not actually happen, due to Israel's "tyranny of distance" - to quote an Israeli general - from Iran. But the potential for the threat of that war to trigger smaller wars and flare-ups is indisputable. All this means that there is ample reason for both sides to give the Russian proposal and its call for the staged removal of sanctions in return for Iran's resolution of outstanding IAEA issues, decent consideration, up to the point of adopting the proposal's implicit agenda; that is, recognizing Iran's right to enrich uranium. For now, the US and its Western allies are stepping in the opposite direction, but the question is how long they can sustain their position, that obliterates the chances for a diplomatic solution, without appearing as unreasonably inflexible and even dogmatic? 

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