Iran counting on Beijing and trade ties to dispel U.S. challenge

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By John Metzler

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

UNITED NATIONS — Are the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran heading toward military confrontation over Teheran’s nuclear activities? Possibly, but not probably. Still in the wake of a weak UN Security Council resolution in late 2006 and continuing security concerns by the Europeans and the Americans over Iran’s blatant nuclear weapons program, there seems to be another pending showdown with the Islamic Republic. Whether Washington can muster the diplomatic support for further steps remains unclear, especially given the tenuous security situation in neighboring Iraq.

Sensing that an American naval buildup in the Persian Gulf, coupled with aggressive measures against Iranian political/military destabilization tactics inside Iraq, presages conflict, the Teheran regime has ratcheted up its own rhetoric. The country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Iran will strike against U.S. interests if it is attacked. The Ayatollah added, “The enemies know well that any aggression will lead to a reaction from all sides.”

A pending Feb. 21st UN deadline for Iran to brief the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with a transparent account of its nuclear activities, is already facing all sorts of technical tricks from Teheran. Eerily, the process evokes the diplomatic minuet danced by many of the same players in the years leading up the Iraq war in 2003.

Though Teheran excels in the smoke and mirrors diplomacy of the Security Council, the reality remains that any serious economic sanctions package on Iran would have to get past a likely Russian and Chinese veto. Notwithstanding a last minute change of political heart in Moscow, tough action by the Council could be blocked by Beijing. Given that the People’s Republic of China remains Islamic Iran’s second largest petroleum market, and a major explorer for gas reserves inside Iran, it’s not hard to figure the outcome.

There’s another less visible side too in confronting Iran. Though Britain, France and Germany have been the key European countries calling for tough diplomatic measures to ensure Iran’s nuclear non-proliferation, it’s also the Europeans who are among Teheran’s largest trading partners. Thirty-seven percent of Teheran’s imports come from the European Union, the largest trading partners being Germany, France and Italy. Japan is Iran’s primary petroleum importer. Thus a web of economic inter-dependence may deter firm political action.

Ambassador Gregory Schulte, American Representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency warned, “The United States and Europe face a common security challenge, one we must address both through the United Nations and through our own robust diplomacy. This is the challenge posed by the nuclear ambitions of Iran — a country whose leaders blatantly defy their international obligations; a country whose shadow spreads ominously across the Middle East. We have a common interest in preventing Iran's shadow from taking the shape of a nuclear cloud.”

In a largely unnoticed speech given in Munich, Ambassador Schulte advised, “Iran should be inviting inspectors, and giving them access to all facilities, individuals, and information required by the IAEA. Rather than showcasing noncompliance, Iran should be suspending activities of concern. .. after three years of intensive verification, the IAEA remains unable to certify the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities.”

Iran has hindered IAEA access to and has prohibited scrutiny of, its suspected nuclear weapons capacity sites. At the same time President Ahmadinejad has boasted that a nuclear-armed Iran could use its weapons on Israel. Still factions inside the Teheran leadership will try to play “good cop/bad cop” with Western negotiators on the nuclear issue.

While Washington welcomes the European Union’s support of Security Council resolution #1737 with its limited sanctions, Amb. Schulte advises, “Faced by the defiance of Iran's leadership, the European Union and European countries can do more — and should do more — to bolster our common diplomacy. Why, for example, are European governments using export credits to subsidize exports to Iran? Why, for example, are European governments not taking more measures to discourage investment and financial transactions?”

Schulte added, “This non-military campaign should direct political, economic, communications, and other non-military pressure at Iran's leadership…a non-military campaign, if serious and sustained, has the potential to succeed against a regime that has failed to deliver on its economic promises, that needs foreign investment to sustain government revenue, and that faces increasing opposition at home.”

Still in a scathing assessment of diplomatic moves to defuse the nuclear crisis, the Financial Times reports, “Diplomacy has failed to halt Iran’s nuclear armament,” an internal EU document has concluded. The candid admission of “the international community’s failure to hold back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the document, compiled by the staff of Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, says the atomic program has been delayed only by technical limitations rather than diplomatic pressure,” adds the paper.

Though the atomic Ayatollahs may view compliance with the IAEA as a kind of cat and mouse Persian parlor game seeking a “grand bargain,” the grim reality remains that Islamic Iran has factored in its global commercial links, the Iraq war, Beijing’s likely diplomatic support, and assumed it can probably get away with it.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World