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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Note to footballers: doing the right thing is more than a PR job

Simon Barnes
 

The royal dress code can't cloak Prince Charles

Joan Smith
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin