Widening gulf

Print edition : April 20, 2007

The British frigate HMS Cornwall on station in the Gulf. Britain is keeping up the pressure on Iran over the fate of 15 of the frigate's personnel captured on March 23.-AFP

The West puts further pressure on the Islamic republic through another Security Council resolution, and it reacts strongly.

THE political temperature in the Persian Gulf has once again risen to uncomfortable levels. The month of March saw the United Nations Security Council passing a tough resolution against Iran. This was followed by the capture of 15 British sailors by the Iranian navy on charges of trespassing into Iranian waters along the Shat Al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.

As expected, Iran reacted very strongly to the Security Council resolution, which seeks to further widen the economic sanctions imposed in December 2006. The unanimous Security Council vote came after Teheran refused to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. The capture of the British soldiers by the Iranian navy came soon after the passage of the latest Security Council resolution.

Security Council Resolution 1747, passed in March, instructs Teheran, once again, to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing and heavy water-related projects within 60 days. It also extends the list of groups, companies and individuals in Iran, including the state-owned Bank Sepah (Iran's first bank), whose assets abroad will be frozen. The Security Council has also called on member-states "to exercise vigilance and restraint" in dealing with Iran on matters relating to weapons exports and financial aid. This move seems to be aimed at curtailing the help the elite Iranian Islamic Guards and Iranian military give to groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas.

Russia and China had earlier opposed proposals from the United States and the European Union for more draconian sanctions against Iran. Russian officials have said that their country will not be a party to any military action to force Iran to comply with the demands of the Security Council. However, Russian officials are unhappy with the contradictory signals coming from Teheran on the nuclear issue. They blame the so-called hardliners in the Iranian establishment for the passage of another unanimous resolution by the Security Council on the nuclear issue. In a joint statement issued during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Moscow in late March, Russia and China stated that their countries were ready to "search for a comprehensive, long-term and mutually acceptable solution to the Iranian nuclear programme". Russia is constructing the $1 billion nuclear reactor in Bushehr, Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in New York after the passage of the resolution, asserted that the "harshest sanctions and other threats" were not sufficient to coerce the Iranian people to give up their legitimate rights. He said that the suspension of peaceful nuclear research work was "neither an option nor a solution". As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is permitted to develop peaceful nuclear technology, including the technology involved in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. The Iranian nuclear programme started with the blessings of the U.S. as long ago as 1957 when the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, was ruling the roost. Iran signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1970. Washington had in fact given the go-ahead for the construction of 23 nuclear power stations by the year 2008. The Islamic revolution of 1979 radically changed American attitudes towards Iran.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair. There are signs that London wants to resolve the crisis amicably.-TOBY MELVILLE/AP

After the Security Council adopted the latest resolution, Iran angrily announced that it was partially suspending cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), saying that under the changed circumstances it was no longer bound to inform the agency about plans to build new nuclear facilities. The U.S. administration was quick to say that this was yet another signal that Iran was accelerating its efforts to make a nuclear weapon. Washington and its allies in Europe continue to insist that Iran is out to become a nuclear power. Most experts, including those in the U.S., believe it would take Iran a minimum of 15 years to make a bomb. A recent IAEA report provided to the Security Council stated that much of the intelligence the U.S. has given the atomic watchdog on Iran was unfounded.

Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and other top spiritual and government leaders have repeatedly stated that Iran has no ambition of becoming a nuclear power. In fact, Ayatollah Khamenei has said that possessing a nuclear weapon is an "un-Islamic" act. Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who was in Delhi in the third week of March, restated this position. He also said that Iran was determined to continue with its nuclear programme. Iran's recently introduced largest denomination banknote - the 50,000-rial note - shows an atomic symbol over the map of Iran. The new denomination rial has a quotation on it from the Prophet Muhammad: "If knowledge is in the heavens, the Persians will go and get it."

It has to be remembered that despite Resolution 1747, Iran continues to have the support of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has 118 members in the U.N. NAM has consistently supported Iran's right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

According to Khatami, there are two world views prevalent on the Iranian nuclear issue. One is that Iran has a legitimate right to use nuclear energy. The other, held by the West, is that it is dangerous to allow Iran even to avail itself of the rights accorded to it under the NPT. Khatami said that Iran had always been prepared to negotiate and provide guarantees that it would not become a nuclear military power. He said that under Article 4 of the NPT all member-countries had the right to gain access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. "We are only taking advantage of our legitimate rights," said Khatami.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Teheran may free the sailors if London admits that they violated its maritime borders.-BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP

Immediately after the passage of the resolution, Nicholas Burns, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said that Washington was trying "to change the actions and behaviour" of Iran. He specified that the scope of the new sanctions was not only limited to Iran's nuclear civilian programme but also aimed at limiting its ability to be "a disruptive and violent factor in Middle East [West Asian] politics". Washington has warned countries such as India, Italy and South Korea against investing in Iran. Senior U.S. administration officials have warned the Indian government against proceeding with the gas pipeline project with Iran. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was, however, quick to reject the American advice, stating that India was determined to go ahead with the project. Interestingly, Iran seems all set to acquire "observer" status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Among the other "observers" in the South Asian regional grouping are the U.S., the E.U., China and Japan.

Before the U.N. resolution was passed, there was hectic lobbying by Washington in Arab capitals to build an anti-Iran and anti-Shia front. Though some of the regimes in the region fear the ascendancy of Iran, none of them was willing to accept American arguments about the dangers posed by Iran. In the Arab League summit held in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, in the last week of March, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia accused the U.S. administration of precipitating the serious problems in the region. He specifically blamed the administration of President George W. Bush for invading the "the sovereign state of Iraq" and letting chaos unfold in that country.

That Washington and its allies want to use the Security Council resolution to pursue a broader strategic agenda is becoming clearer by the day. For the last couple of months, the U.S. has been trying to provoke Iran in many ways. Five Iranian diplomats were kidnapped by the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. A former Iranian Deputy Defence Minister went missing during a trip to Turkey. The Iranian government accuses Western intelligence agencies of kidnapping the official. Sunni extremists along the Iran-Pakistan border are bei ng encouraged to carry out terrorist actions on Iranian soil.

The capture of the British sailors comes in the wake of these significant developments. The British and U.S. navies have been aggressively patrolling the Shat Al Arab waterway after the invasion of Iraq. Critics have said that their tactics are reminiscent of the gunboat diplomacy of yore. These tactics are also efforts to probe the preparedness of Iranian defences. In his New Year message, Ayatollah Khamenei warned that Iran would not take things lying down. "In case the enemies of Iran intend to use force and violence and act illegally, without a doubt the Iranian nation and officials will use all their capabilities to strike enemies that attack," said Iran's supreme leader.

Protesters in front of the British Embassy in Teheran on April 1.-MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/REUTERS

The British sailors in the custody of the Iranian security forces have admitted to crossing into Iranian territorial waters. There have been angry demonstrations in front of the British embassy in Teheran demanding that Iran cut off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. Ali Reza Afshar, Iran's Deputy Chief of Staff, speaking after the capture of the British sailors, warned the U.S. and its allies against making any miscalculations. He said that they would not be able to "control the dimensions and limit the duration of a war".

In the wake of the latest crisis, global oil prices have risen again. However, there are signs that Teheran and London want to resolve the situation amicably. Teheran has indicated that the sailors would be released once London admits that Iran's maritime borders were violated.

Khatami told a round-table conference organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi that resolving the problems between Iran and the U.S. would not be an easy task. The Iranian leadership had always been of the view that only direct talks between the two countries could resolve the nuclear issue. He said the problems between the two countries started as early as 1953 when the Americans intervened in the internal affairs of the country by overthrowing the democratic government and reinstating the Shah. However, he said that in the late 1990s, the two countries had managed to clear up a lot of misunderstanding.

Vice-Admiral Charles Style, Britain's Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, speaking at a press conference at the Ministry of Defence in London on March 28, against a backdrop of a map showing the location of the incident in which the sailors were seized by Iranian forces.-STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AP

According to Khatami, both sides made "positive steps" to resolve their differences "though there was opposition in both countries". The charismatic Khatami, who still retains considerable influence in Iran, said that during his presidency the Americans admitted that many mistakes had been committed on their side. According to the ex-President, when the "neoconservatives" came to power in Washington, the dialogue process between the two countries was completely derailed.

Khatami is of the view that the international community would be better served if its attention was focussed on the great nuclear arsenals piled up in other parts of the world. He pointed out that Israel has between 200 and 400 nuclear warheads. "Israel's might is stronger than that of one-billion-strong India," he noted. He said that the entire nuclear issue concerning Iran was being looked at through a political prism.

Iranian leaders know that the U.S.'s manoeuvres are aimed at provoking them to walk into a political and military trap. As Khatami observed in Delhi, the U.S. has readied its fleet in the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea at striking distance from Iran. There are thousands of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, supplemented by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops in Afghanistan.

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