Snub for Iran eases nuclear crisis
A window of opportunity for Iran to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) seemed to have opened when on July 18 the Russian news agency quoted a source in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow hinting at such a prospect. It happened two days after Washington let it be known that a shift in its Iran policy was under way.
The unnamed Russian diplomat said the SCO foreign ministers at a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a week later would decide on whether to lift a moratorium on bringing in new states. "The moratorium has lasted for two years. We have now decided to consider the possibility of the SCO's enlargement," he said. It appeared that weathering US opposition, Moscow was pushing Iran's pending request for SCO membership. Founded in 2001, the SCO currently comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran has observer status.
However, in the event, following the meeting in Dushanbe on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that the foreign ministers did not discuss the enlargement of the SCO, while finalizing the agenda of the organization's summit meeting on August 28, and that Iran wouldn't be able to get the status of an associate member.
Not only that, Friday's meeting also decided to set up a "mechanism for dialogue partnership to establish links with all countries and international organizations that are interested in the SCO". In other words, the US may finally be on the verge of establishing links with the SCO.
Since such issues are invariably decided within the SCO on the basis of a consensus between Russia and China, it stands to reason that either Russia didn't press Iran's membership case or China disfavored the idea. On balance, it seems to be a combination of both. Conceivably, Moscow didn't press after informally ascertaining Beijing's lukewarm attitude. Tajikistan, which hosts the SCO summit in August, has openly favored Iran's membership. If the two Big Brothers had given the green signal, Tajikistan would have asked Iran to come in from the cold. No doubt, Tehran, which openly canvassed for SCO membership, has suffered a diplomatic setback.
On the face of it, neither Russia nor China would have any conflict of interests to keep Iran out of SCO membership. Both countries enjoy excellent relations with Iran. As The Russian news agency acknowledged, "Both China and Russia have major commercial interests in Iran. China wants Iranian oil and gas, and to sell weapons and other goods to that country, while Moscow hopes to sell more weapons and nuclear energy technology to Tehran. The Kremlin also needs Iran's endorsement for a multinational arrangement to exploit the Caspian Sea's energy resources." They have been, arguably, the principal beneficiaries of the Iran nuclear problem. Their "principled position" on the Iran problem enabled them to optimally tap business opportunities in Iran so long as the West continued to boycott Iran and Tehran needed friends.
What emerges is that Moscow and Beijing take great care that their doublespeak on the Iran problem never quite gets to the point of antagonizing Washington. As for Tehran, being an experienced player itself, it let the charade continue and even to try to extract any advantages out of it as far as possible, until options opened up with regard to Iran's relations with the West.
But the endgame may be nearing. It seems neither Beijing nor Moscow quite expected that to happen so soon. Chinese commentators and scholars have been confident that short of a war, the US-Iran standoff would remain on a high pitch during the rest of US President George W Bush's term in office. Moscow commentators were relatively outspoken and speculated on disarray at the leadership level in Tehran, which all but precluded any progress on the nuclear problem. They wrote that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was "on his way out". On the whole, Russian commentaries have become needlessly critical of Tehran. Chinese commentators have lapsed into silence.
Why is Moscow (and Beijing) edging closer to the West's stance? The short answer is, they seem to be apprehensive that Tehran has found a new interlocutor for communicating with Washington - Turkey. Thus, soon after talks ended in Geneva on July 19 on Iran's nuclear program , Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, headed for Ankara, where Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki joined him. The two Iranian diplomats briefed Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who flew to Washington immediately thereafter. Tehran has indeed made a very interesting choice here.
Ankara is currently also mediating between Syria and Israel - most certainly, with Washington's acquiescence, if not encouragement. Besides, Turkey has some unique credentials to aspire to as a go-between in the US-Iran standoff. Apart from being a leading country in the Islamic world, it is one of the US's staunchest regional allies, while its relations with Iran have been on a steady upswing in recent years. It is quite capable of acting as a bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Its strategic location makes it a kind of bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
Despite its hostility toward Tehran, the US has largely looked away from Turkey-Iran cooperation in stabilizing northern Iraq. Washington will not throw a spanner into the Iranian attempt to mediate the easing of tensions in Turkey-Armenia relations or in bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan to a path of dialogue and negotiations. Such Iranian efforts would even serve the interests of US regional policies in the Caucasus. Most important, Iran can be the key to the realization of the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which would go a long way in reducing Europe's energy dependence on Russia. Turkey, in turn, would be the transportation corridor for any Iranian gas to be pumped to Europe.
All in all, therefore, a fascinating pattern of interlocking diplomatic moves is forming on the regional chessboard in which Turkey, Syria and Israel are already openly engaged as protagonists with Iran now appearing on the scene. (Mottaki visited Damascus en route to Ankara.) The very fact that Turkey has extended an invitation to Ahmadinejad to pay a visit to Ankara and the alacrity with which the visit is being scheduled for late August surely indicates that the diplomatic tempo is expected to pick up in the coming period. For the beleaguered Islamist government in Ankara, any diplomatic breakthrough on this front would be a feather in its cap, enhancing its prestige and prospects of survival while at the same time underscoring Turkey's immense importance as a regional power for both the US and the European Union.
Overarching everything is the reality that the clock is ticking for the finalization of a US-Iraq security pact. (Turkish President Abdullah Gul is scheduling a visit to Baghdad.) In the absence of a security pact, a further extension beyond December of the United Nations mandate on the international forces in Iraq becomes necessary, which in effect means that the US troops have to stay in Iraq. Washington is desperately keen to wrap up the security pact, though it is clear that the end-July deadline cannot be met. Tehran opposes the pact and has influence on the Iraqi ulema, government and Iraqi groups to block the pact.
Tehran has the capacity to ratchet up tensions in Iraq, but it is also in a position to play a significant role in bringing down tensions. Indeed, the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cannot afford to cross swords with Tehran. Clearly, no matter what Moscow commentators seem to think, if Washington were to press ahead in September with a tough UN sanctions resolution against Iran, it must be prepared for the fallout on the Iraq situation.
In a fundamental sense, the Iranian stance remains highly pragmatic, notwithstanding its matching rhetoric against the US or Israel. The Iranian reaction to the deal between Hezbollah and Israel on a prisoner exchange was restrained. Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani complimented Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for the latter's "wise diplomatic efforts that guaranteed calm in the region", even while sending a "strong message to Zionists that they are facing a strategic deadlock in the region". Tehran is manifestly helping to calm the situation in Lebanon. It didn't disapprove of the deal between Hamas and Israel either. Again, it has allowed the US to finesse the Shi'ite Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. And it has signaled its welcome to the establishment of a US diplomatic presence in Tehran and has reiterated its own interest in establishing direct flights between the countries.
Significantly, at such a critical turning point when issues of peace and war are hanging by a thread, it was more than a coincidence that former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was chosen to deliver the customary Friday prayer sermon at the Tehran University campus. The main thrust of his speech, addressed unmistakably to the Western audience, was that the Israeli lobby in the US is once again working hard to torpedo nuclear talks by harping on a "deadline" and an "ultimatum" to Iran.
After taking a well-trodden route peppered with the familiar rhetoric of the Islamic revolution of 1979, Rafsanjani came to the point. The senior cleric who has seen many ups and downs in US-Iran relations over the past three decades, urged, "With patience and perseverance, let us give this negotiation a chance. Every time the situation is about to improve, these Western hardliners and radicals begin their diversionary ploys, which only shows some powers cannot bear to see peace in the region."
Rafsanjani summed up, "Iran is ready to negotiate. The aim of the talks is also clear ... Staging military maneuvers and holding talks from a distance cannot resolve issues. Do not try to invent pretexts. Be patient and let wise people sit down and talk to resolve the problems."
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.