Hounding Teheran

Print edition : October 19, 2007

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in New York on September 24. - SHANNON STAPLETON/AP

The U.S. seems determined to impose sanctions unilaterally and even exercise the military option to check Irans nuclear programme.

THE last week of September witnessed frenetic diplomatic activity involving Iran and its friends and enemies. Most of the action was centred in New York where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was attending the annual summit at the United Nations. The Bush administration and its ever complicit ally, the American media, have been demonising and denigrating Ahmadinejad at every available opportunity ever since he assumed office. But the decibel level of invectives reached a crescendo when Ahmadinejad set foot on American soil. The devil has landed was how one American newspaper headline greeted the visitor.

Around the same time, U.S. intelligence and security officials have been telling the media that President George W. Bush has shortlisted 2,000 Iranian targets to be bombed when hostilities break out. The media have been told that diplomatic efforts to make Iran give up its nuclear programme have failed and that military action is the only option now. The Pentagon has told the media that a carefully calibrated programme of escalation, which will inevitably lead to a military showdown, is under way. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who rarely gets his facts wrong, has confirmed in an article in The New Yorker that plans to attack Iran are at an advanced stage. According to Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, recent events have shown that there is a deliberate and concerted effort to bring the military option back to centre stage.

Joining in the anti-Iran chorus is the new French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Sarkozy shocked the international community by suggesting that military action could be an option if Iran went ahead with its nuclear programme. He said that more sanctions, coupled with an offer of negotiations, was the only approach that can keep us from facing a disastrous alternative; an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran. Kouchner, who had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, was even more specific.

In a highly publicised television interview in mid-September, he actually used the word war against Iran. We have prepared for the worst, the worst is war. Other West European allies do not share the views of the Sarkozy government and have been urging Washington to exercise caution.

Kouchner said later that he was misquoted. The Iranian news agency, IRNA, quoted him as saying that the media had unrealistically portrayed his comments. He told Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in New York that France supported the recent agreement Iran signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The U.S. and France had tried to push for a third U.N. Security Council resolution that would have expanded the sanctions on Iran. Sarkozy is now pushing for separate European Union (E.U.) sanctions on Iran.

This move is opposed by the majority of E.U. members, including Germany and Italy. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, is on the verge of releasing data that would reveal the extent of the lucrative business American and French companies are currently doing with Iran despite Security Council sanctions.

With China and Russia unwilling to back a new resolution on Iran, a new deadline of late November has been set for Teheran to scale back its nuclear programme. The Bush administration had earlier insisted that a resolution be passed in September itself. Senior officials had publicly stated that the U.N.s credibility was at stake. Better sense having prevailed, the Security Council will now take a decision on additional sanctions on Iran only after it receives two reports. One of the reports will be submitted by the E.U.s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. His report will focus on the Security Councils demand that Iran cease its uranium enrichment programme.

Iran continues to insist that the programme is conceived purely to produce energy for domestic consumption. Ahmadinejad reiterated this point in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The Security Council has asked Solana to meet Ali Larijani, Irans top security official, to lay the foundation for future negotiations.

The second report will be submitted by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei. ElBaradei and the Iran government had agreed on a plan that promises to shed new light on some unanswered questions on Teherans nuclear programme. Iran had told the IAEA chief in July that it would provide all the details about its nuclear programme by the end of the year. ElBaradei has come under a barrage of criticism from the White House for his initiative. He has repeatedly stated that recourse to war on the nuclear issue should be avoided at all costs. He has also been saying that he has seen no evidence to indicate that Irans nuclear programme posed a threat. ElBaradei also pointed out that it was only fair that after four years of cooperation between the IAEA and Iran, a few more months should be granted to complete the task. Ahmadinejad told the U.N. that following his countrys agreement with the IAEA, Irans nuclear case was now closed as far as the U.N. was concerned. He said that only the IAEA was authorised to monitor Irans nuclear activities.

ElBaradei is known to be of the view that additional sanctions on Iran or resort to the military option will prove to be counterproductive. He recently reminded the hawks in Washington about their Iraq fiasco. I would hope that everybody would have gotten the lesson after the Iraq situation, where 700,000 innocent civilians have lost their lives owing to the suspicion that a country had nuclear weapons. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quick to criticise the Nobel Peace Prize winner saying that it was not the business of a technical agency like the IAEA to engage in diplomacy. The IAEA chief, on the other hand, maintains that he has been mandated by the Security Council to clarify Irans nuclear history. The Bush administration had worked overtime to stop ElBaradei from continuing in the post when he was up for re-election. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, supporting ElBaradeis position, said in the last week of September that sanctions would undermine the IAEAs efforts to provide answers to questions being raised about Irans nuclear programme.

But the Bush administration seems determined to impose sanctions unilaterally if the need arose. In the last week of September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating Irans Revolutionary Guards as terrorists and recommended sanctions. The Bush administration has accused the Revolutionary Guards of fomenting violence in Iran and training and arming militants in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was also on a visit to the U.S., however, gave Iran a clean chit, saying that Iran did not interfere in the internal affairs of his country. The Revolutionary Guards are a key component of the Iranian Army and are also involved in important sectors of the Iranian economy. In retaliation for the American move, the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) has passed a resolution branding the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency as terrorist organisations. In the same week, the U.S. Congress passed another resolution recommending the division of Iraq into three parts, based on sectarian and ethnic lines.

Rice visited the Gulf countries in late September and warned them about the dangers posed by hegemonistic Iran. The U.S. has offered the Gulf monarchies multi-billion dollar arms deals to bolster their defences against Iran. It must be said to the credit of Iran that it has never launched a war against any of its neighbours. However, Iran is not complacent. A top adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the Iranian Pars news agency that the U.S. should realise that their 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are within the reach of Irans fire. Khamenei said recently that cowardly hit-and-run attacks on Iran will not be possible. He warned that if any country invaded Iran, it would face very serious consequences.

The U.S., in order to ratchet up economic pressure on Iran, has forced some important European banks not to do business with Iran. France has trimmed export credits and instructed French oil companies not to invest in Iran. Japan, which is dependent on Iranian oil to a great extent, has pulled back from energy projects in the country. India was conspicuous by its absence at the recent high-level talks on the Iran-Pakistan-India peace pipeline. Senior American officials have been issuing warnings to the Indian government against involvement in the multi-billion gas pipeline project. The Iranian Foreign Minister told the media in New York that sanctions as a political tool for exerting pressure would not make Iran give up its rational policy goals.

Rational discourse over Iran was, however, a casualty in the U.S. During his visit, the Iranian President was not allowed to lay a wreath at Ground Zero, the site of the twin towers that were demolished in the terrorist attack of September 11. Iran was among the first countries to condemn the terrorist attacks on American soil. Teheran did not raise too many objections when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to take on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Ahmadinejad said that some circles in the U.S. want to put him in the same boat as Osama bin Laden. Columbia University, which had invited him to deliver a lecture, badly dented its reputation by extending a churlish and spiteful welcome. Lee Bolinger, the university president, to the surprise of academic and diplomatic communities, insulted the Head of State in his welcome speech by describing him as a petty and cruel dictator. Bolinger came under heavy criticism from the Israeli lobby and right-wing groups in the U.S. for inviting Ahmadinejad to address the students.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner at a news conference in Washington, D.C.-MARK WILSON/AFP

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According to reports, Ahmadinejads speech was well received by the student community. He touched on all the emotive issues of terrorism, nuclear energy and the holocaust. According to Professor Juan Cole, an American expert on West Asia, there is very little substance to the debates raging in the U.S. about Ahmadinejad. He wrote that attacking Ahmadinejad is actually a way of expressing another deeper anxiety; fear of Irans rising position as a regional power and its challenge to the American and Israeli status quo. Ahmadinejad, in his speech at the U.N., vowed not to bow down to the threats by arrogant powers. He denounced the master-servant relationship of the medieval age that the U.S. is seeking to impose in international affairs through the auspices of the Security Council. He emphasised that his country had spared no effort to build confidence and that it was only aspiring for civilian nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons.

Bush, in his speech, called for a mission of liberation against countries such as Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus and North Korea. The Cuban delegation walked out when Bush insultingly said that the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. Ahmadinejad joined other leaders in highlighting the duplicity of Americas stance on issues relating to human rights and democracy. Some nations do not value any nation or human beings, he said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, speaking as the chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement, said that Bushs performance in the General Assembly was an embarrassing show. He said that the American Presidents speech reflected the delirium tremens of the worlds policeman. The intoxication of imperial power, sprinkled with the mediocrity and the cynicism of those who threaten to launch wars in which they know that their life is not at stake.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said that Bush, with Iraqi blood on his hands, has much to atone for and little to lecture us on. Mugabe accused Bush of rank hypocrisy for lecturing on human rights. His hands drip with innocent blood of many nationalities. He kills in Iraq; he kills in Afghanistan. And this is supposed to be our master on human rights.

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