Monday, February 09, 2009

Unclenching the fist

February 9 2009

Unclenching the fist into an offered hand

THE Obama administration is willing to talk to Iran. That is what President Barack Obama's number two Joe Biden stated in the first landmark foreign policy speech of the new administration in his address to world leaders at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.
While the speech contained a marked change in tone from the Bush administration, it contained few major new policy initiatives indicating that the Obama administration does not intend to shift tracks on most international issues such as missile defence in Europe, the crisis in Georgia etc.
On the Iran front, the Obama administration's position is that the options before Tehran are clear: Either it abandons its nuclear programme and its support for "terrorism," or face "pressure and isolation."
The world could only wish it was as simple as that. Washington and Tehran remain far apart on most issues, regional and international, after three decades of open hostility and the Iranian regime is unlikely to bow to either demand if only because the high moral ground that the US has adopted for itself.
Tehran's stand in the nuclear dispute is that it is exercising its right to engage in peaceful nuclear activities as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There is no concrete evidence that Iran is engaged in developing nuclear weapons as the US and Israel are alleging. However, most people around the world know that Iran would speed away in that direction when its nuclear programme reaches the right point. That is an issue of great concern to the entire region.
On the "terrorism" front, the world knows the US is referring to alleged Iranian links with the Iraq insurgency and groups like Lebanon's Hizbollah and Palestine's Hamas. Most definitely, it would be impossible for Tehran and Washington to see eye-to-eye to determine who is a "terrorist."
Indeed, a majority of the world community cannot accept the US definition of terrorism and terrorist, particularly in the Middle Eastern context. That is also a no-go area for Tehran and Washington.
Perhaps the US should give more careful attention to the position stated by Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani at the Munich conference one day before Biden spoke.
Larijani spoke of a "golden opportunity for
the United States" — implying that if the Obama administration goes far enough in conciliatory signals Tehran could positively.
Particularly interesting was Larijani's call on the US to switch "to a chess game instead of a boxing match." It meant that Tehran would be receptive to more subtle US negotiating tactics.
In a private meeting on Saturday with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana , Larijani reportedly rejected the US policy of "carrot and stick."
Clearly, the signals coming from Larijani show that his country is expecting a better fine-tuned diplomatic approach from the West than offers of blandishments coupled with threats.
Biden gave no indication that Washington had heard the Iranian message loud and clear. Instead, he and other Western leaders attending the Munich forum opted to offer an "unclenched fist" that could turn
into an extended hand if the Iranians backed down.
This is the clincher. Iran's post-revolution history shows that warnings and threats would not work with the Iranians. Military action against Iran would have unpredictable repercussions in the region and beyond — no one except Israel wants it anyway.
Surely, there should be a position between the "unclenched fist" and the "extended hand" and that could be the best the West could embrace while dealing with the Iranians.