Ali Ansari: They are marching as to war

The West should make clear that 'regime change' is not an option

Share

The negotiations are formally at an end. The EU3 initiative has failed. It's official. Byrestarting uranium enrichment, the Iranians have seemingly crossed the Rubicon. The negotiations have been dying for some time. Principle was increasingly obstructing progress. This reflected the reality that, for all the talk of nuclear minutiae, the problem is fundamentally about the absence of trust between the political elites of the US and Iran.

Without recognising this vital context, the unsavoury process we find ourselves in makes little sense. How can it be, for example, that North Korea can declare itself a nuclear weapons power and barely raise an eyebrow in Washington, while Iran breaks some seals on a research centre and becomes a threat to humanity? The problem is not only political but ideological. The former Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, understood this problem. Hence his determination to build bridges, to promote a "dialogue of civilisations", and to provide assistance to the coalition in its war against the Taliban. He was rewarded with the "axis of evil"; a simple sound-bite that reverberated so loudly, it effectively derailed Khatami's foreign policy initiative.

The Europeans also understood the problem. They were particularly anxious that the Cold War which had been simmering between Iran and the US since the 1979 Islamic Revolution could, in the light of 9/11, boil over. The rhetoric in Washington was becoming considerably warmer. A favourite mantra of the neo-cons was that the "boys go to Baghdad and the men go to Tehran". This rhetoric was not lost on the Iranian leaders, and while the US and the "coalition of the willing" mobilised towards Iraq, there were signs that Tehran was willing to be more accommodating.

This flexibility was to be seized upon by the EU3, who, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, were anxious to prove that "Old Europe" and diplomacy could work. The fundamentals of the deal were: Iran would come clean on its nuclear research, pre-empting formal criticism, and deferring referral to the UN Security Council; in return for which the Europeans would negotiate a permanent agreement by which they would facilitate the development of civil nuclear technology while securing guarantees that Iran would not pursue the weaponisation of that technology.

Key to this was securing Iran's agreement to sign the additional protocol allowing for greater inspections. In broad terms, each side agreed to honour its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The initial signs were positive. In the autumn of 2003, the three EU foreign ministers flew to Tehran to sign the agreement. But Old Europe not only failed to appreciate the depth of distrust among US hawks, it misinterpreted political developments within Iran.

Iran's neo-cons were on the move. In February 2004, they seized the parliament in elections that barely warrant the name. The silence from Europe was deafening, emboldening hardliners and disillusioning reformists. Some European diplomats shrugged off this political sea change by noting that "conservatives" were easier to deal with.

Really? It soon became apparent, that the new parliament, buoyed by developments in Iraq, had no intention of ratifying the additional protocol. Indeed, for some Iranians, Europe's adherence to international law appeared quaint in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Diplomacy rapidly gave way to politics as it became apparent that the "objective guarantees" required actually meant a "permanent" cessation of uranium enrichment. Triumph gave way to tragedy, tragedy to farce; the negotiations in any meaningful sense were over long before the formal declaration last week.

The comforting illusion was shattered by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mutually reassured ambiguity was no longer an option. Ahmadinejad not only distrusts the West, he is not very fond of what it stands for. The pretence of diplomacy has given way to a battle of wills. In practical terms, the options are not good. Iran's leaders calculate they can weather any sanctions (or, indeed, worse); but to achieve that they must whip up nationalistic fervour - further precluding any accommodation. This, of course, has the added benefit of consolidating a hardline government that would otherwise rest on precarious foundations.

None of the options are attractive. Even the talk of sanctions has sent jitters through the oil market. The West should know its objectives and be clear about how it intends to achieve them. It should make clear that "regime change", on the model of Iraq and Afghanistan, is not an option. It should be united in its presentation and recognise that, in the post-Iraq WMD fiasco, the credibility bar has been raised considerably. The diplomatic option, which is still being publicly endorsed, must be pursued vigorously through private and public channels, and be directed not only towards its own sceptical public but to Iranians everywhere.

Persian nationalism is a powerful tool of mobilisation. The West should avoid fuelling it through reckless generalisations and hyperbole, which will simply alienate all Iranians. Particularly pernicious in this regard has been the loose talk of fomenting ethnic separatism throughout the country.

Above all, procrastination, rhetoric and reaction are options we can ill afford. There can be little doubt that a subtle but significant change of tracks has occurred and the locomotives have begun rolling. In concentrating on the details rather than the broader picture, we risk blundering into a conflict of nobody's choosing. To paraphrase an old soldier: "If nations want to avoid war, they should avoid the pinpricks which precede cannon shots."

Ali M Ansari is Reader in Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Associate Fellow of Chatham House. His latest book is due out this spring

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Barnardo's: Young Carers Wirral Intern

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work upon production of rec...

Barnardo's: Business Development Intern (West Midlands)

Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward, who were killed after a gunman opened fire during a live broadcast in Virginia  

Because of Facebook and Twitter I still have Alison Parker's final chilling moments looping in my head

Nash Riggins
A Chinese investor holds prayer beads as he monitors stock prices at a brokerage house in Beijing  

We fear China's growing power. But it is morally reprehensible to celebrate the country's woes

Fokke Obbema
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future