High stakes at the 5+1 Iran talks: The threat of a ‘big war’ that could involve Russia

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Sheda Vasseghi, FreePressers.com

On April 14, 2012, representatives from the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany (“5+1”) met with officials from the Islamic Republic of Iran in Istanbul to discuss its nuclear ambitions. Discussions were preliminary and introductory, and expectations for the parties to come to any agreement were low.

According to UK representative Baroness Catherine Ashton, the conference was useful and productive. Mr. Saed Jalili, the chief negotiator from the Islamic Republic, stated that the discussions were “based on cooperation” and they were “very successful.” Mr. Jalili opined that if discussions continue along this path, “there will be more success in the future.”

Members of the Chinese delegation arrive at the Consulate of Iran in Istanbul on April 13. /Bulent Kilic/AFP

In this meeting, Mr. Jalili met with the Russian, Chinese, and the U.S. representatives, separately. A meeting between Mr. Jalili, an Islamic Republic official, and Ms. Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for political affairs and a close advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was unprecedented since in the past meetings, the Islamic Republic officials have refused to meet with the Americans, not even to shake hands. Given both sides have agreed to resume talks on May 23rd in Baghdad, the significance of the conference is now in the forefront. It has set the stage for more serious negotiations and a real diplomatic chess game.

Against this backdrop, we conducted an interview with Dr. Assad Homayoun, former Minister of the Iranian embassy in Washington and the current president of the Azadegan Foundation, on his views regarding the latest developments:

Dr. Homayoun, are you optimistic about the results of the conference, and whether the two sides will reach a feasible compromise?

I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I’m indeed realistic. The reality is that both the U.S. and the Islamic Republic have concluded they have to come to some sort of a compromise.

On the one hand, Ayatollah Khamenei is feeling the pressure of sanctions making a bad economy in Iran more dismal, on the other hand, he notes the unhappiness of majority of the Iranian people, who have announced their lack of support for the regime and their readiness to explode. Khamenei thinks if there is no compromise, there is a possibility of war. Further, Ahmadinejad is not as arrogant and pompous as before since his position has weakened giving Khamenei more security in having some meaningful discussions with the 5+1. Ahmadinejad is a lame duck president. He is not acting as loose cannon anymore and talking about the Holocaust although he has done his damage. If Ahmadinejad revolts against the establishment or goes against Khamenei, he can be impeached by a parliament that is for the most part supportive of Khamenei.

Further, a former president and an influential reformist in support of the theocracy in Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was isolated for a while and ignored is now on Khamenei’s side again. Rafsanjani, as a reformist, has always been in favor of compromise with the U.S. and the West seeing it as the best solution for the clerics to remain in control of the country.

The regime in Teheran is willing to open negotiations to insure its survival. The regime knows majority of Iranians hate it, the economy is very bad especially with the latest sanctions, and as such, the clerics want to remain in power.

Do you believe Khamenei is in a realistic position to reach some sort of an agreement with the West?

Well, Khamenei has two impediments. One is his psychological profile. He is a revolutionary, and as such, compromise is not in his nature. The other involves the control of the Revolutionary Guards. That is, Khamenei has to get the consent of the Guards, who are completely in control of the nuclear program and everything else. Khamenei has been able to maintain the top position in the country with their blessing. If the Guards are not ready to give up their advancement in nuclear program, one has to see for how long they can resist pressure from U.S. and Israel.

Why would the Obama administration choose to go back to the negotiation table with the anti-American regime in Iran?

President Barack Obama is against another war. It is a presidential election year, he wants to be re-elected, and he needs to have compromise with the Islamic Republic clergy in power at the same time. His foreign policies have so far been unsuccessful. With the economic situation in the U.S. not being so good as well as Europe’s, another confrontation in the Middle East would bring the oil price to $200+ which would be disastrous for the global economy. This outcome would seriously threaten Obama’s re-election plans.

Obama too faces an impediment in compromising with the clerics in Teheran. First, he doesn’t want to be branded as a weak president, because if he gives concessions to them, the Republicans will think he is weak.

Second, he is also under pressure by the “hawks” in Congress as well as the powerful Israeli lobby, pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and neo-conservatives in the U.S.

What are your thoughts on Israel’s reaction to the latest rounds of talks between the 5+1 and the Islamic Republic?

Now in the upcoming Baghdad conference on May 23rd, both sides will discuss not only the Islamic Republic’s nuclear plans, but the entire regional affairs of the Middle East including the Persian Gulf, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be long and tiresome discussions.

According to Haaretz, on April 15th, Netanyahu severely criticized the recent Istanbul meeting. Netanyahu repeated his positions on the need for the Islamic Republic to stop all uranium enrichments immediately, to take enrichment material of 20% out of the country, and to dismantle the nuclear facility in Fordo. Further Netanyahu demanded a full inspection of Iranian atomic installation facilities.

These demands by Netanyahu go beyond the policy of the theocratic regime in Teheran. Netanyahu’s demands interfere with Iran’s national pride. As you know, I’m against the dictatorship of the clergy, their mismanagement of the nation’s economy, and their 33 years of gross violations of human rights to all minorities including women, Kurds, Balouchis, Khuzistanis, and religious factions.

I have always been in favor of replacing the current theocratic regime in Tehran with a national, secular democracy. But the conditions demanded by Netanyahu are collectively against the Iranian pride and place in history. Iran is a country with more than 3000 years of recorded history. It has been and continues to be an important country with respect to its geopolitical position in the region.

Iran’s enrichment of uranium is a right given to Iran according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Dismantlement of the Fordo installation is not going to be acceptable to the Iranian people. Iran cannot be treated as a pariah state given the country’s historical role and its astute and very talented people. For example, in the use of computer technology, Iranians rank #4 in the world. The Iranian people are very informed about world politics, have expressed their desire to be part of the Free World, and cannot tolerate meddling of foreign powers in their domestic policies.

Dr. Homayoun, what are your concluding remarks with respect to the May 23rd Baghdad meeting?

The two sides are headed for a second round of discussions to Baghdad on May 23rd. How they can manage to compromise nobody knows, but the threat of war is real. In this situation, the Russians are very sensitive. For example, the head of the Russian Security Council, Mr. Viktor Ozerov, recently said that Russia is prepared for an action plan in the event of war on Iran. What action plans? Nobody knows, but Russian diplomat Mr. Dimitri Rogozin also said that if Russia engages in any action, it will involve their national security. For this reason, there is a report that the Russians have strengthened their air base in Gyumri, Armenia. We have to take the Russian factor seriously especially when Mr. Vladimir Putin resumes his presidency with a new energy on May 7th.

Regardless of the reported optimism, the gap between the 5+1 and Islamic Republic parties is wide. They differ in many areas. How they can come to terms and make peace or compromise is uncertain. That is why I’m realistic and, according to a famous Iranian poet Malek o-Sho’ara Bahar (1884-1951), I hope the owl of war will not triumph!

It should be noted that military expert Les Gelb said this year Obama has three disasters: the Islamic Republic, Syria, and North Korea — all with bad regimes. To me, the most important is the Islamic Republic and its nuclear issue, so Obama does not want to initiate war. His focus is on improving the U.S. economy and his re-election, and not to be viewed as a weak president especially by the Republican opposition party. The stakes for both the U.S. and the Islamic Republic is very high, and a failure is a catastrophe which will catapult the entire Middle East into a big war with the potential use of nuclear weapons.

Sheda Vasseghi is on the Board of Azadegan Foundation, and is a regular contributor to Freepressers.com and WorldTribune.com on Iran’s Affairs. Join the Official Site of Sheda Vasseghi on Facebook.