Friday, May 13, 2005

The nuclear crisis

An interesting interview was broadcasted with two high level members of the Iranian team involved in the negotiation process with the Europeans-- Messrs. Aghazadeh and Aghamohamadi.( link an interview in Farsi) That process appears on the verge of collapse and so we now face the prospect of another full blown international crisis. I am going to share my thoughts on the subject.

Here is a quick recap. A few days ago, the authorities here declared their intention to resume uranium enrichment activities in Isfahan. The process, from what I understand, involves conversion of that notorious yellowcake of the few years back we heard so much about into UF6. Best think about it as the industrial process of mass producing cakes galore. If those cakes are then fed to the centrifuges in Natanz, then we'll have juicy cakes.

In other words, the Iranian scientists will have managed to successfully master and control the entire fuel cycle. And that in essence was what remained at the heart of all the negotiations, suspensions and the hustles and the bustles of the trio. That declared intention to resume activities has drawn the ire of the Europeans and now they've threatened this country with some not so vague "serious consequences." Now add the irate "Mr. Mustache" Bolton to the equation and Mr. Bush's declared support for the European position and I at least sit up at nights tending to my upset stomach.

Just so you know where I stand. My objections to the Iranian pursuit of nuclear energy are safety related. Put bluntly, modern Iranian culture suffers hugely from the plagues of impatience, inattentiveness to details, and a non-horizontal work structure marked by inefficiencies and overtly belligerent forms of non-cooperation.

We also have here the baffling antipathy for all conduct proactive, and an astonishing lack of respect for rules, procedures and predefined uniformed processes, Those qualities along with our ubiquitous manifestations of "audacity" when it comes to safety-related work issues, and our love of improvising as we please and our (misplaced) overconfidence in our own personal abilities and the tendency to have a dismissive attitude towards the inputs of others and an unwillingness to seek advice add up to bad news when coupled with nuclear technology. It is atrocious enough hearing gas leaks all the time in our streets and putting up with those murderous drivers in cars. You can understand why the prospect of another Chernobyl worries me a great deal.

But my position, I'd like to emphasize here, is an absolutely negligible, marginal minority opinion in Iran today. Most people here like the idea of nuclear technology. Understand that as far as most Iranians are concerned, energy conservation might as well be some suburb of Ouagadougou. Iranian energy consumption is mind bugling. And Iran is even an importer of gasoline. And we still manage to feel cheated of our birthright.

In the absence of the conscious participation of the Iranian citizens in the efforts to curb that insatiable appetite for energy, and given the adversarial nature of our relations with this regime, the authorities here do not have much room to maneuver domestically.

In purely technical/economic terms, a cogent case can be made here for nuclear technology.

And another factor to consider. Socially, our culture is highly adversarial in nature. It is always exhusting keeping up with everything one's interlocutor does or says or even what we think he or she is actually thinking while saying something else. We are all attentive to existing disequilibrium of power and even the slightest changes in the body language. And that is what makes living in this society so difficult. Among other riddles, it is always annoying to all of us when confronted with that simple question of why it is people so attentive and aware are also such apathetic, selfish and inattentive creatures in public settings. ("duh…years of authoritarianism" explanation comes in handy here!)

And that is an essential feature of most ancient cultures. Think the Greeks and the Indians and the Chinese. Our politics then is also fundamentally affected by this cultural proclivity. No one born and raised in this culture reacts well to threats and to perceived bullying. In personal terms, we might put up with it begrudgingly for a while. But at some point we suddenly decide enough is enough and then we do what we have to no matter what the costs. Just look at the casualties alone per year in Iran that is fight related. Think also the number of people killed or in jail under this Islamic regime. We make their lives a living hell and they reciprocate in order to hang on to power and we in turn return the favor. Life is one perpetual ceaseless battle here.
If you think any of us are ever silent, docile victims, you should think again. We might be momentarily defeated and biting our tongues or subdued and in retreat. But only to collect ourselves for the next round. And again, this is reflected in the politics of Iranians of various persuasions. It is a perpetual tug of war in this society and it has been like this over every single issue for as long as I remember. Now you can think International Relations and factor in our regime's love of power and money and its ability to tolerate exorbitant costs in pursuit of its objectives and you'll get more of a sense for what has given me an upset stomach.

I think the Europeans might be fundamentally misreading the intentions of the Iranian regime if they think this declaration a ploy to win concessions. As far as the negotiating team was concerned-- as best I could surmise-- the Europeans were deemed either unwilling or unable to offer anything worth of substance at this point. This is an assault to alter the existing context of the pressures Iranian regime is under.

Iranian authorities think Europeans have only been interested in delaying tactics and not serious in acknowledging Iranian objectives. And all that is required of them by their choice is that act of showing up to the negotiating table every now and again whereas with those seals on the facilities in Isfahan, the lives of around 700 employees has been placed in limbo and the Iranian nuclear aspiration in permanent stasis. Iranian authorities are loath to continue seeing the fate of their love, joy and pride hang in balance.

In essence, the Iranian authorities appear to me serious about wanting to salvage their nuclear energy plans come what may. And this while seeking to exercise full sovereignty over the entire process and production. They think this crucial to the technological, scientific developments of the next 20 years and a matter of national pride. Just look at the constant delays in bringing online the Bushehr facilites, they point out. This, they argue, is what befalls all activities dependent on foreign expertise.

Of course, we all know about those hundreds and hundreds of development project initiated exclusively by the Iranian nationals which never see the light of day. But playing the xenophobic card always gets politicians everything they want-- everywhere. Just look at all the freedom loving Bush supporters in the Land of the Free. What can you expect from us brutes?

They have made the final assessment that there is no satisfying Washington ever and if they bend on this issue any further, there would be no end to fresh demands and that will certainly be the start of an endless series of humiliating concessions that would ultimately culminate in a regime change. And they are not about to take that lying down.

This is the equivalent of Iranian regime's red line in the sand, I think. I do hope I am wrong on this. But this is how things appear to me at the moment.

So they are attempting to tie their endeavors to that deep rooted sense of Iranian nationalism. There has been much talk of selective treatment. Why is it, they repeatedly ask, that nuclear energy is being tapped in so many different countries-- even those with huge oil and gas reserves (singling out both Russia and the States), if it is deemed so economically unviable? Why was there such a hush job when it came to the South Koreans and the Egyptians whereas Iran is dealt with so clamorously?

And the answer was presented as simple enough. That Iran is deemed a threat and nothing the Iranian regime can offer would change that attitude. It was a rather funny, ironic restatement of the American position in the Iranian context. Yes you guessed it, "they hate us for who we are." So "let's do what we have to."

Think of it as a variation of the pro-Bolton adds that has been running on the US media I watched reports about last night. "Aren't you tired of politicians who blame everything on their own country?" This is now the pitch here. "We did everything in our power to resolve this standoff in good faith. And now we'll do what is right and in our long term national interest."

They were emphatic about their desire for a win-win deal with the Europeans especially given Washington's desire to see the negotiations fail. They claimed that the Iranian authorities had no intention of handing the Europeans a defeat in their mediations efforts to end the standoff. But enough was enough…or so they said.

And the issue of Israel was also raised tapping into the average Iranian's fears. The media has been pointing out the extent of Israeli nuclear arsenal shrewdly mixing some very effective images as usual here every night. And even for those here without a pathological loathing for Israel, the questions might appear sensible enough. How could you trust such a destructive nuclear arsenal in the hands of a Sharon regime which doesn't hesitate to blow up houses and uproot olive trees?

It appears to me that at this point a conscious decision has been made and a consensus reached in the highest echelons of power here to equate any further concessions with that unforgivable act of cowardice and betrayal. And they have a solid constituency for that line of thinking. And hence the specter of an unacceptable national humiliation. And again, this might strike a lot of people as cogent.

Even when most of us fully understand that the real national humiliation here is in not having our full say in the political decision making process and in having to live in fear because of what we think, wear, do or say and with whom we associate and that sad, infuriating fact of having our jails full of dissenters. But nationalism, you understand, has certain pull on people's emotions. Anywhere, everywhere and anytime.

The argument here is: given the (claimed) full disclosure by the regime and those intrusive inspections of all the (known) facilities which has ensued, the perceived lack of European reciprocity is no longer tolerable. Any further concession at this point is tantamount to reliving that detested Treaty of Turkmanchai.

The move appears to me well timed and part of a new policy shift playing out in an ongoing multi-pronged campaign. First, the attempt to beef up "national unity" domestically by appealing to Iranian nationalism. Hence all the recent travels here and the promises of those endless expanded programs of social entitlements. (I'll do another post on this soon)

Second, the decision to make clear that the regime will no longer offer compromises internationally backed by the threats to abandon the NPT with the hope that the nationalist tide might translate into more massive electoral participation in an otherwise dull election year. And third, the decision to prepare for various contingencies in order to confront the worst case scenario by flexing some military muscle. Hence we have had continuous coverage of the Navy war games in the Sea of Oman for the past three days along with some old war movies, and mutterings of patriotic songs.

The good news is, of course, that some acts are simple posturing as best I can figure based on the behavior pattern evident in today's Iran. Everyone here knows full well --and especially the authorities-- that they will not get that wave after wave of innocent youths walking on land mines which we got during the last war. Everyone has been disabused of that malady. The bad news, of course, is that Iranians have never been this angry before and this fickled. If anyone is to die, the objective will be to take along as many of the enemy as possible. No one will disappear without a nasty fight here—nasty and all over the place.

And so, it appears to me as if this regime is making its final stance on this issue. What might follow is something to see. I do genuinely hope though that this post ends up being way off the mark on all fronts.

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