Monday, March 26, 2007

The fog of phony war

With UN sanctions and defiance over uranium enrichment and the arrest of British sailors, a perfect storm is brewing between the west and Iran.

March 26, 2007 4:00 PM

Mark Seddon

For those of us who have spent the past few days waiting for President Ahmadenijad of Iran to fly into New York, observed the less-than-diplomatic wrangling at the UN and had an expectation that the sanctions vote against Iran might not pass unanimously, the drama has not been that the president didn't show up, or that the sanctions vote was unanimous, but that the end-result provides scant cover for a very deep feeling of unease. One US diplomat accused the South Africans of writing their ''amendments in Farsi", while the usually jovial South African ambassador, was furious that his country was being rushed to a vote - especially as he had wanted to watch the weekend baseball.

Ambassador Wang of China probably spoke for many developing countries - and those such as UN security council members, Russia, Qatar, South Africa and Indonesia, who tried to influence the outcome but in the end went along with a tough sanctions package that promises more of the same if Iran continues with it's uranium enrichment programme. Off camera, Wang said: ''We have to find some formula that [will try] to re-start these negotiations - I think that is more important because, otherwise, we are in a vicious circle."

And a glimpse of just that possibility came when Iran's foreign minister, who had hot-footed it from Tehran via South Africa, and who came to the UN instead of his president, told a New York press conference that his country was open to the possibility of "bilateral discussions with the United States". Otherwise, though, the career civil servant turned foreign minister was in steely, uncompromising mood. He claimed that the security council was being "abused" by countries such as Britain, France and Germany. He evoked the CIA-backed and British-supported coup that toppled Iranian nationalist premier Mossadeq in 1953, and told journalists that a number of US politicians had, and continued to call for "regime change in Iran".

Foreign minister Mottaki himself, and Iran's defiance of the UN over the uranium enrichment programme generally, are deeply coloured by a sense of historical grievance - notably, the west's backing of Saddam Hussein during the savage Iran/Iraq war. The west's failure to come to the support of Lebanon at the UN during the recent Israeli attacks was held up by him as example of hypocrisy.

In a gesture to the growing resentment, even among countries in the Gulf that have had reason to fear Iran in the past, Britain, France and Germany accepted an amendment to the sanctions resolution from Qatar. This simply re-stated a long-term UN goal of getting rid of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. For, although Iran is clearly in breach of successive UN resolutions calling for a cessation of uranium enrichment, neither the IAEA or any other government has managed to prove that Iran is actually building nuclear weapons. And while it seems highly probable that Iran is intent on building them, it is not yet in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And for all of Iran's secrecy, many in the Middle East remain furious at the double standards that allow Israel to remain outside the NPT and to have nuclear weapons - some 200 of them at the last count, which have been built in secret with western support.

But there is no hiding the disappointment the Iranian government feels towards those countries it thought it could rely on in the UN security council and elsewhere. Hence the decision by Ahamadenijad not to fly to New York to present his own appeal to the council. He cited "visa issues", even though he had apparently been granted one.

And so a bruised and defiant Iran resolves to make the life of the IAEA inspectors yet more difficult and to push ahead with a nuclear programme that the Iranians say is their "sovereign right". In the meantime, a recent upsurge in trade union and other protest in Iran, risks being clamped down on, as Ahmadenijad makes the most of his pariah status.

And in picking a scrap with Britain and detaining a Royal Navy detachment, Iran is sending a very clear signal that it won't be cajoled. Foreign minister Mottaki was adamant that not only had the sailors been in Iranian waters, but that their GPS positioning would be sent to the British government. The sailors could yet be charged, depending on how aggressive the Iranian administration now feels, with "illegal entrance". In the meantime, the fate of the Iranian "officials" arrested at Iran's consul in Irbil, Iraq by US forces, may begin to come to the fore.

As the dust fails to settle and turns radioactive, we have all the makings of a potential hostage swap game of brinkmanship neatly to take the minds of the Iranian people off the sanctions that are beginning to affect directly and indirectly their economic wellbeing.

Mark Seddon is the United Nations and New York correspondent for Al Jazeera International. He is a former editor of Tribune and member of the Labour party’s National Executive Committee.

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