Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Word War: Iran

(Image courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Although Iran seems to be an ever-present issue in the news (for many reasons that include, but are not limited to, its nuclear program or its state of human rights), over the the past week there has been a dramatic increase in the volume, aggressiveness, and rhetoric not only from the West, but also from Russia and the immediate Middle East. Although worrisome, it seems to be more of an attempt of perception management at the public as well as governmental levels. To name but a few:

- in Iran: remind the government of the actuality of the possible threat it might be facing; also as an indirect encouragement to the opposition, hoping that it might change something (as if change is always necessarily for the better!);
- in the Middle East region: the US reminding its ally governments, as well as their publics, that it will not tolerate a misbehaving Iran;
- in Israel: Netanyahu making a show to his people about his "ability" to deal with the Iranian threat;
- in Russia: things are not that bad with the Americans;
- in US: "We said we will take a stand. So we are." Also, why not create a new "hot" topic to divert attention from the domestic problems, the Marjah offensive which is proving to be tougher than expected, or the upcoming Iraqi elections (very likely to be fraught with corruption, fraud, sectarian/ethnic tensions, etc.)?

Yes, the tensions might be running high, but I still do have faith in political leaders, especially those who realize the global implications of their actions. Talk is different from deed. But talk is important, and the general hope is, it seems, that this time it might just work in terms of putting up the pressure on Iran and talking it into submission. Here are some interesting observations from the past several days:

-- Last week, in a rally on February 11, that marked the 31st Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad boasted that Iran has the capability to enrich sufficient uranium to cause concern abroad. He reiterated, once again, that nothing will stop Iran's nuclear program, and no threats can intimidate him or his country. (Nice propaganda, by the way!)
-- On the same day, the US said it does not believe Iran has the ability to enrich uranium at a level that it claims. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed Ahmadinejad's claims as mere rhetoric. France followed suit. It all came as the US introduced new sanctions against several members of the Revolutionary Guard.
-- In several media appearances over the weekend Joe Biden devoted some time to talking about Iran to the American public, and reiterated the belief that it does not possess the nuclear capabilities it claims it does.
-- On Sunday, though, Clinton had a revelation: speaking at the US-Islamic forum on Sunday, she talked of Iran's nuclear capability as a major threat to the region. Of course, she did not forget to emphasize that the US is working to protect the region from that threat. (Well, since there are few "shared values," she needed to focus on shared threats and shared interests, at least.) Oh, and she also managed to mention, just by the way, that Iran is getting closer to becoming a military dictatorship.
-- It is noteworthy that when talking to Al Jazeera the same day, State Department Spokesperson PJ Cowley said that there was no new information to prompt Clinton to change her mind. His explanation was: "Given the current trajectory that Iran is on - the fact that it still has centrifuges spinning, and the fact that it is unwilling to constructively engage the international community - we have to assume that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program. [...] Given all the steps that Iran has taken and all the actions that Iran refuses to take, we can only begin to draw the conclusion that Iran's intentions are less than peaceful." (From what I remember, last time they were "assuming" and "drawing conclusions" it didn't turn out all that well...)
-- While Clinton was working on the Gulf states, Benjamin Netanyahu was paying a visit to Moscow, in the hope of getting support for a new UN Security Council resolution that will impose tougher sanctions on Iran.
-- Turkey's Erdogan came forth, forgetting the inconvenient tensions of the past couple of months, restating that Turkey is willing to be the venue for an exchange of Iran's uranium, under a plan suggested by IAEA some time ago.
-- Yesterday, in a public statement to the press, Nikolai Makarov, Chief of Russia's General Staff, warned against any military attack on Iran. Coming right after Netanyahu's visit, this raised concerns about the real "behind-the-doors" talks that took place in Moscow. Russia has begun showing signs of being increasingly inclined to support some further sanctions, but it certainly does not like the idea of a military action.
-- It was also on Wednesday that Russia announced it will be delaying its delivery of S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran, due to "technical problems." This surely came as a disappointment to Iran.
-- Meanwhile, Under-Secretary of State William Burns was in Syria for "in-person" talks on relations with Iran. This comes after Obama nominated an American ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years.
-- Iran keeps denying it all, deriding the West for the hysteria, invoking past hatreds, turning up the rhetoric, and staying defiant.

What to make of this all? Given Iraq and Afghanistan, given the financial crisis, and given the fact that 40% of all seaborne oil traded in the world passes through the Straight of Hormuz, there is absolutely no reasonable explanation for a military attack (these is just to name but a few reasons, of course...). What is more, Iran does have the ability to put up a strong resistance in case of an attack; however, it is also a rational actor that comprehends the implications and the consequences of such an event. And, of course, we should not forget the importance of having China's backing in any such endeavor - something that seems unlikely, at the moment, even with UN sanctions.

So, the attack is out of question. Obama's "extended hand" is turning into Clinton's "clenched fist." Regional tensions are rising. While Iran is getting lots of fodder to fuel its domestic propaganda, vilify the West (and not only), and boost internal support. It's unlikely that Iran really has the capabilities it claims it has; however the announcement and the ensuing hullabaloo only strengthen the regime. Perhaps the hope in the West is that more pressure and more sanctions will eventually bring the Ayatollah's down. But from what we saw in the summer, changes might not happen soon enough, or even if they do, they might not necessarily bring about a government that is willing to embrace the West. Unless Iran is engaged in a dialogue - even if through concessions on behalf of everyone - the tensions and the instability will stay high, justifying and making the Iranian regime ever more stronger. Perhaps PUBLIC diplomacy could help...?

Word wars are good, as long as they don't end in violence and aggression. It's all relative, after all.


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