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Indaba with a peg in the ‘axis of evil’?

The Guardian featured an article on Thursday, July 17 that showed the US plan on setting up “a US interest section — a halfway house to setting up a full embassy” in Tehran sometime in August 2008. This article followed short on the heels of a US announcement on Wednesday, July 16 2008 that the Bush administration will send one of its senior diplomatic officials to be a part of multi-nation talks in Geneva on Saturday July 19 with Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. This decision by the US must be seen as a tentative shift in its otherwise intransigent position not to conduct discussions with “terrorists and rogue states”.

The purpose of this indaba is to break the stalemate between the US and Iran on the issue of uranium enrichment and claims of the Bush administration of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Tomorrow will be Jalili’s day of days. He must respond, on behalf of the Iranian government, to a package deal offered by the UN Security Council last month in its bid to broker a deal between the US and Iran. The Bush administration insists that its attendance of this meeting (the so-called P5 + 1, i.e. Britain, the US, France, China and Russia … and Germany) does not signify a change in its policy towards Iran. Is this meeting a landmark in an arduous deal-making process towards the resumption of diplomatic relations with the Tehran regime? If this is indeed a probability, we must look at the number of hurdles both parties will have to jump over.

The Bush administration will have to formally agree that the ‘military option’ is out of the equation. This is not inconceivable given the belated Obama-ist twang that, in the words of Condoleezza Rice, “the point we’re making is that the United States is firmly behind this diplomacy, firmly behind and unified with our allies and hopefully the Iranians will accept that message”. Trading will have to involve Iran bringing its nuclear expansion to a halt in aide of the UN power bloc halting further sanctions against the defiant state. All this must happen before any substantive talks can begin. Iran has repeatedly rejected the US administration’s call to cease its uranium enrichment before talks can begin, but the latter rejected this demand with regular predictability. The reported plans, carried in the Guardian article referred to, to establish a halfway house embassy in Tehran next month, might be seen as another small but not insignificant gesture on the part of the US administration that it is ready to talk.

These indications alone are not enough to bring these two foes to the deal-making table. There must be more powerful, objective forces at play and it is to these that we must now turn. Firstly, there is the grave humanitarian crisis in Iran. The sanctions against it have effectively cut it from investments and the international finance system. Without access to this source and despite the demands for its high priced oil, Iran is simply not able to weather the mounting social and economic storms on the home front. The Bush administration is in no better a position. Firstly, there is its timid response to Iran’s missile tests recently. The context of this almost half-hearted, hand-over-the-mouth outburst is the deeper awareness for the need to find accommodation with Iran. The need to commit more troops to Afghanistan and the possibility of more military involvement with Pakistan in the rising tensions over infiltration of Taliban fighters requires an accommodation with Iran — especially if one considers that more American troops have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. No. The shifting of strategic focus requires a new look at this Iran-thing. Due to Iran’s long-standing political ties with both Iraq and Afghanistan, the regime of Tehran can be a useful centre in bringing pressure to bear on these two areas of instability.

Tomorrow’s meeting in Geneva might be the first step of a significant turn around in relations between Iran and the US administration. The objective political, social and economic conditions for a re-rapprochement exist for a Middle East version of ‘talks-about-talks’.