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'India was our friend'
September 28, 2005
Tehran has responded in a carefully structured, calibrated fashion to the resolution passed by the IAEA Board of Governors last Saturday regarding Iran's nuclear programme. We may not have heard the last word yet, but are quite close to it.
During the first three days, the Iranian reaction was almost entirely in the nature of media commentaries and remarks and statements by politicians, including some influential ones who held senior positions in the select committees of the Iranian Majlis.
These statements were primarily addressed to Iran's domestic audience. This was perfectly understandable as there was a high degree of concern among the Iranian public about the import of the IAEA resolution, since the superficial impression given by the resolution was that something drastic had happened that went against the grain of Iran's national interests.
Care had to be taken to convincingly portray that the newly elected government headed by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad firmly and confidently held the helm of the ship of the Iranian state.
For the Iranian regime, the first and foremost concern in such situations has always been domestic public opinion. National solidarity behind the government's handling of any critical domestic issue at the international level is seen as crucial.
The pattern was the same during the crisis in relations with the United States soon after the 1979 revolution, at various stages of the devastating Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War of 1991, and, more recently, the US invasion of Iraq. This is a curious aspect of the Iranian regime's order of priorities, all negative Western propaganda against it notwithstanding.
The sharpness of the Iranian comments through the period September 23 to 26, therefore, served an important purpose of riding the wave of the public indignation within Iran over the development.
Having somewhat finessed public opinion, Tehran's reaction has now shifted gear and moved to statements at the official and government level.
These reactions have come at the level of President Ahmadinejad, chief of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larjani, and the official spokesman of the Iranian foreign ministry, Hamid-Reza Asefi.
The pronouncements at the different levels of leadership and government appeared alongside a formal statement issued by the Iranian foreign ministry on Tuesday.
President Ahmadinejad spoke at a cabinet meeting held in Tehran on Tuesday. According to the Iranian media, Ahmadinejad did not get into the substantive issues raised by the resolution passed in Vienna, but spoke generally, saying that the resolution was 'politically motivated' and was at the behest of 'certain big powers.'
He also rejected any demands on Iran's nuclear programme beyond the parameters of obligations and commitments undertaken by Iran under existing international treaties and agreements.
But, interestingly, he underlined two key points of how Iranian reaction would crystallise vis-à-vis the Vienna resolution.
First, he calmly asserted that Iran's reaction would be characterised by 'reason, patience and perseverance.' This remark should assure the international community that Tehran would not resort to any knee-jerk, theatrical moves but would remain logical and conciliatory even while firmly asserting its legitimate rights as a sovereign country and its national dignity and national interests.
It was also a pointer directed at Iran's domestic audience that this was an issue that was not of the stuff of polemics but of extreme gravity demanding patient professional handling which should not lend itself to public grandstanding.
Second, Ahmadinejad reposed his faith in Iranian diplomacy as the best instrument of handling this issue. Tehran's instruments of diplomacy were 'vigorous, frank, and capable of defending its national interests,' he said.
This was a signal to the international community that Iran would be focussing on the issue exclusively at the diplomatic level – lest there be confusing signals as to the authoritative voices to be heeded in Tehran. It was aimed at dispelling any misconceptions in domestic public opinion that the resolution signified any professional failure or inadequacies on the part of the Iranian foreign ministry or the National Security Council.
That one of the first reactions at the top echelons of Iranian leadership should have come from the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi is significant.
Ayatollah Shahroudi is undoubtedly one of the key figures in the leadership pyramid in Iran, being the inheritor of the mantle of the revered Ayatollah Beheshti, a titanic figure of the Iranian revolution. (President Ahmadinejad made it a point to call on Ayatollah Shahroudi seeking the latter's 'blessing' even before being sworn in formally as the president.)
Shahroudi's remarks were addressed entirely to Iran's domestic audience, especially the Iranian Majlis. He also emphasised that the handling of the issue by the National Security Council (headed by Larijani) was absolutely commendable, upholding the Iranian nation's 'righteous demands.' He went out of the way to compliment the National Security Council, saying that its 'strong diplomatic approach should have been adopted resolutely long ago' (under the previous government).
Shahroudi, who commands immense respect amongst large blocks of Iranian parliamentarians, thus outflanked the most radical of the radical elements in the Iranian Majlis by publicly endorsing Ahmadinejad's leadership and by stressing the importance of allowing Larijani a free hand in steering the tricky diplomatic negotiations through the choppy waters ahead.
Viewed against this background, the statements made by Ali Larijani at the press conference in Tehran on Tuesday constitute the hard core of Iran's official reaction to the IAEA resolution.
While ruling out any likelihood of Iran shutting down the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan as demanded by the resolution, he reaffirmed Iran's continued adherence to the NPT and the Additional Protocol (despite some radical demands by members of Majlis that Iran should jettison such commitments).
'We will not make any hasty decision. Majlis will examine the MPs' proposal to susupend the Additional Protocol. For the present, nothing has been decided. Of course, our reaction will depend on what the Europeans do next,' he said.
Larijani pointed out that the resolution did not mean that Iran's nuclear issue was being referred to the UN Security Council, but expressed unease that an 'atmosphere of ambiguity' was created. Iran, he warned, cannot be expected to give in to 'extortion.'
But Iran did not think that the European powers or the US would take the extreme step of referring the matter to the UN Security Council either as that would have serious consequences for regional stability.
'The (Middle East) region needs stability and the smoke of any escalation in the region will hurt their (Western countries) own eyes,' Larijani said in what could be regarded as a broad reference to Iran's capability to impact on the situation in Iraq, West Asia, the oil market, and other issues.
Larijani made it clear that Iran would now carefully watch how individual countries adopted their stance on the issue and Tehran would not hesitate to 'revise its relations with any country which may adopt a harsh stance toward Iran or try to impose arbitrary conditions on Iran' over the nuclear issue.
He regretted in particular the stance taken by the UK and India. Interestingly, he was mild in his criticism of Britain, saying, 'what the UK did in the IAEA Board was contrary to the outcome of our talks with them.'
As for India, Larijani spoke in disappointment and a sense of hurt rather than anger. He said: 'India was our friend. We did not expect India to do so. (But) I believe that friends should not be judged by a single action. Iran enjoys friendly relations with India. Of course, we have complaints about their behaviour.'
(The New York Times quoted a senior Western diplomat as saying that 'India is not promising to vote the same way next time' in case of another resolution at the IAEA in favour of actual referral of the issue to the UN Security Council.)
The key point in Larijani's press conference was that he signalled Iran's readiness to go back to the negotiating table with the EU-3 (Britain, Germany and France)
As for Friday's resolution, he washed his hands off it, saying it lacked any 'legal foundation' and it was entirely up to the IAEA member states to 'review' the resolution at the IAEA's next meeting scheduled for November. Meanwhile, 'we (Iran) reject the resolution and believe that it will not work.'
By taking a patently flexible stance, eschewing any outward signs of belligerence, and by voicing its positions in a low-key, Iran is putting the ball firmly back in the European and US court.
Tehran is not threatening to walk out of NPT or suspend the Additional Protocol with the IAEA, or that it will resume nuclear enrichment activities at the Natanz facility. In fact, there are no retaliatory moves of a provocative character on Iran's part.
But having said that, Iran does not propose to shut down the uranium conversion work at Isfahan either. This poses serious dilemma for the US and the Europeans.
First, they do not have the stomach to ratchet up the tensions at a time of grave instability in the Middle East and high volatility in the oil market.
Second, it will be an uphill task to get a resolution through on the issue's actual referral to the UNSC. The IAEA Board will be reconstituted shortly and two new members are Cuba and Belarus, who would hardly go along with a Western drive to isolate Iran.
Third, the stance adopted by Russia and China continues to work in Iran's favour.
So long as Iran does not resort to uranium enrichment activities or shuts the door against further negotiations with the European powers, Moscow and Beijing would see no reason to review their opposition to UN SC referral.
Given the current situation, the European powers and the US have also kept a low key approach, leaving Iran time and space to reflect some more and somehow come back to the negotiating table. Back channels, surely, must be already at work.
The odds are in favour of a resumption of Iran-EU negotiations, though a face-saving way needs to be found for getting around Iran's unequivocal position on continuing with the work of uranium conversion at Isfahan.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian ambassador with extensive experience in handling India's relations with Iran.