A new Chinese red line over Iran
The conference on the Middle East in Annapolis in the United States last week seemed to be an exercise in self-delusion. Robert Fisk, who has chronicled the Levant for the past 31 years for the British media, somberly noted, "The Middle East is currently a hell disaster and the president of the United States thinks he is going to produce the crown jewels from a cabinet and forget Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran - and Pakistan, for that matter."
But in the days that followed, crown jewels did indeed begin to tumble out of President George W Bush's cabinet. What awaits determination is whether Bush orchestrated it, or just let it happen.
In any case, the morning after the Annapolis shindig, we learnt that Syria and the US had a common choice in General Michel Suleiman (who also happens to be close to Hezbollah) for the unfilled Lebanese presidency. And then we saw on Sunday Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz entering the conference hall of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha flanked by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The GCC, flag-carrier of US regional strategy for three decades, had never before invited Iran to its meetings.
By Monday morning, the Bush administration had released declassified extracts of the sensational National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear problem, a report lying in the cabinet in the Oval Office in the White House for some time. The White House said on Wednesday that Bush was told in August that Iran may have suspended its nuclear weapons program. And now we learn that Bush will be packing his bags for his first-ever visit in his presidency to the Holy Land and Palestine.
Of course, the "hell disaster" in the Middle East that Fisk mentioned remains palpable still. Israel said on Tuesday it is seeking bids to build more than 300 new homes in a disputed east Jerusalem neighborhood. By nightfall on Tuesday, 21 rockets and mortars had been fired on Israel from Gaza, bringing the 12-month total to over 2,000. Yet, hardly a week remains for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to meet in the first follow-up session of the Annapolis meeting.
It is premature to say whether there is a pattern in all this. There is no credible evidence of a compelling vision at Annapolis either. Between a final-status peace and interim measures, a wide chasm undoubtedly lies. The Middle East sits on plate glass and it is agonizing to contemplate that glass can give way. All we know for sure is that the NIE signals that the Middle East isn't going to be the same again.
China, Russia vindicated
The NIE means the Bush administration cannot resort to a military strike against Iran during its remaining term in office, as it says that Iran "halted" its secret nuclear weapons program in the autumn of 2003. The military option simply doesn't exist anymore, no matter US officials' grandstanding.
Equally, the Bush administration's diplomatic campaign to get the international community to back tougher sanctions against Iran runs into a cul-de-sac. Washington has been lobbying for a third round of United Nations sanctions against Iran. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked to their Chinese and Russian counterparts. But Beijing and Moscow have taken serious note of the NIE. Probably, their intelligence already knew of its contents. At any rate, they reiterated their aversion for another UN Security Council sanctions resolution.
China's ambassador at the United States, Wang Guangya, commented, "I think the [UN] council members will have to consider that [NIE], because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We will assess the situation on proposals for a new resolution in the United Nations Security Council on the basis of [several] factors, including the publication by the United States of data showing that Iran does not have a military nuclear program."
Lavrov added that Moscow had no intelligence pointing toward any Iranian nuclear weapons program, even before 2003. Lavrov also said separately following a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, at the Kremlin on Tuesday, "We noted the willingness of Iran to adhere to cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], and Iran again confirmed its adherence to an observation of the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty."
China offers mediation
But, having said that, China's stance on the Iran problem has acquired some unique features. Prominent American strategic thinker and former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote after a recent visit to China that it is "timely and historically expedient" for Washington to enter into a strategic dialogue with Beijing regarding applying their shared experience in dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem to the potential crisis with Iran.
Brzezinski highlighted three points. First, in "wide-ranging private conversations", Chinese leaders impressed on him their worry about the financial and political fallouts of a US-Iran collision. Second, Chinese leaders pointed out to Brzezinski that Iranian denials of a nuclear weapons program in fact create a window of opportunity for Washington to contrive a face-saving arrangement for an internationally sanctioned, non-threatening Iranian nuclear program. "In China's view, the United States should avoid being drawn into tit-for-tat salvos" with the Iranian leadership, but should rather focus on a formula that "effectively forsakes the allegedly unwanted nuclear option". Third, China could help break the US-Iran stalemate, but the US should be "more active in the negotiating process with Iran".
China's motivations are completely self-centered. Beijing doesn't want its economic relationship with Tehran disrupted. Iran is a major supplier of oil to China. China intends to boost its bilateral trade with Iran to over US$100 billion annually in the near future. (There is no reason to doubt China's capacity to do so.) China supplies weapons and industrial products to Iran and participates in major projects, such as the Tehran metro.
Interestingly, Brzezinski gave a logical explanation as to why the US and China should become equal stakeholders. He pointed out that cascading US-Iran tensions could cause a more dramatic shift in the global distribution of power than what the international system witnessed when the Cold War receded into history. He explained that unlike the US and China, Russia has an "uncertain role" in the Iran crisis. That is because Russia is an increasingly revisionist state, and denying Chinese and American access to Caspian and Central Asian oil is at the core of the Russian geostrategy. Also, Russia fears "potential Chinese encroachments on Russia's empty but mineral-rich eastern areas and American political encroachments on the populated western areas" of the former Soviet Union.
Therefore, Brzezinski argued that unlike the US and China, Russia might even stand to gain from a political conflict in the Persian Gulf. Russia would certainly stand to gain out of a dramatic spike in oil prices, unlike the US and China, which would be badly hit. More important, high oil prices resulting from Persian Gulf tensions would leave Europe and China with no option but to depend heavily on Russian energy supplies. That is to say, "Russia would clearly be the financial and geopolitical beneficiary" of the Iran crisis. Brzezinski concluded, "A comprehensive strategic dialog between the United States and China regarding the relevance of their shared experience dealing with North Korea to the potential crisis with Iran could be timely and historically expedient."
US leaves allies in the lurch
Curiously, the NIE echoes the line of thinking that the Chinese leaders put across to Brzezinski. But it leaves the US's allies with a lot of egg on their faces. Not only the US's European allies but also its Asian partners, like Japan, India and Australia, went out on a limb to demonstrate their willingness to toe Washington's line on the Iran question.
Britain and France will be severely embarrassed by the u-turn in the NIE. They were hardliners. Germany, in comparison, has been the weakest link. The mounting US pressure on Germany will now ease. On the whole, the European allies will now be even more lukewarm about pursuing a confrontational path with regard to Iran.
Among Washington's Asian partners, it is India which will be the hardest hit. India's Iran policy is in a shambles. Amazingly, it now transpires that Delhi succumbed to US pressure to curtail banking links with Iran. Delhi will be hard-pressed to claw its way back into friendship with Tehran. There is a stunned silence among the strategic community and media elite in Delhi, who used to disparage the "mad mullahs" in Tehran. The NIE has been a nasty hit when there is much criticism already in public opinion over Delhi's pro-US foreign policy.
Compared to the US's Asian partners, its Middle Eastern allies find themselves far better placed to cope with the fallouts of the NIE. They heave a sigh of relief that the threat of war descending on the region may now lift. The pro-West Arab regimes should feel relieved that they kept a dual-track approach by also engaging Tehran actively. The changes in Saudi foreign policy in the post-September 11, 2001, period in the direction of more diversified external relationships included a judicious approach of keeping lines of communication open to Tehran at the highest levels of leadership, no matter the US-Iran tensions.
Therefore, the GCC's decision to invite Iran for its summit for the first time goes beyond a symbolic gesture. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the GCC kept Washington informed in advance about its overture to Tehran. Conceivably, the GCC consulted Washington. If so, we are witnessing the foundation-laying ceremony for a new regional security architecture in the Persian Gulf region.
The NIE poses Washington with a difficult choice. Prominent neo-conservative thinker Robert Kagan, who is close to the US administration, starkly posed the dilemma: "With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran."
Kagan argues a strong case for negotiations and suggests an agenda of intrusive IAEA inspections and monitoring of Iran's nuclear facilities, and underlines that any talks with Tehran should be wide-ranging and include such thorny issues as terrorism and al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas, and of course Iraq.
Meanwhile, Bush and Rice have kept up a road show that the NIE changed nothing. Such grandstanding doesn't come as surprise. Washington will strive to negotiate with Tehran from a position of strength. Also, it is far from clear how the NIE shock waves play out on Iran's complicated political landscape. The Bush administration will be closely watching for signals from Tehran.
Ahmadinejad certainly comes out a winner on the Iranian political heap. He astutely played his cards. By appointing a tough negotiator like Jalili, he ensured that his position that Iran would not stop its uranium-enrichment program would be put across more firmly than before. The West now realizes that the stance carries conviction and is rooted on a principle that is difficult to counter, namely, that as long as Iran honors its commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has no reason to forgo its rights either.
A logjam has resulted insofar as UN Security Council resolution 1747, adopted in March, insists on suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing-related activities by Iran. That leaves two choices. First, if Iran stubbornly refuses to curtail its uranium enrichment, then the Security Council ought to impose tougher sanctions. But China and Russia will not agree. The alternative is embarrassing and precedent setting - the Security Council backtracks from 1747, admitting a mistake. Iran has essentially challenged the US's untenable assumption that it is incumbent on the NPT's non-weapon signatories to prove the peaceful nature of their programs.
On balance, Ahmadinejad has won. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said recently that it no longer makes sense to insist Iran should stop enrichment since its nuclear program is already far advanced. Washington has to learn to live with Iran, just as it did with North Korea, despite the latter actually possessing nuclear weapons. No wonder, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who met with Jalili last week, plainly admitted he had no more proposals to make to Iran, nor did he think Iran would resume nuclear talks.
Putin, too, acknowledged this reality when he referred at his meeting with Jalili in Moscow on Tuesday to the "intensive contacts at all levels" lately between Moscow and Tehran and "stepped-up cooperation on all fronts", and added, "I am very pleased to note the intensification of contacts between your country and the IAEA. We welcome the expansion of cooperation and expect that all your nuclear programs will be open, transparent and conducted under the supervision of this international organization."
But it is unlikely Tehran will brag too much. Once the dust settles on the NIE, cool stocktaking will follow in Tehran. The diplomatic statements at responsible levels so far - by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the head of the majlis (Parliament)foreign policy committee, Ala'eddin Broujerdi - have been mature and reasonable.
The highly respected former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans has assessed after a recent visit to Tehran and meetings with top Iranian officials that the outlines of a deal are emerging and the NIE "gives us the chance to break out of this impasse [of Iran insisting on its right to enrich]". He suggested that the "red line" should no longer be the issue of enrichment, but could be between the "civilian and military capability" of NPT signatories, and if such a new red line would hold, "it would not matter whether Iran was capable of producing its own nuclear fuel".
Evans added, "That [red] line will hold if we can get Iran to accept a highly intrusive monitoring, verification and inspection regime" with additional safeguards, and if Iran could be persuaded to "stretch out over time the development of its enrichment capability and to have any industrial-scale activity conducted not by Iran but by an international consortium".
Evan assesses that Iran is "capable of being persuaded" if incentives include the lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations with the US. Evans concluded: "This is a country seething with both national pride and resentment against past humiliations, and it wants to cut a regional and global figure by proving its sophisticated technological capability. One only wishes that something less sensitive than the nuclear fuel cycle had been chosen to make that point."
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).