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Israel’s Gift to Iran’s Hard-Liners
Posted on Jun 10, 2010
By Juan Cole
Washington, however, faced a problem: Russian Prime Minister and éminence grise Vladimir Putin initially opposed such sanctions, as did China’s leaders. As Putin observed, “Direct dialogue… is always more productive… than a policy of threats, sanctions, and all the more so a resolution to use force.” Moreover, the non-permanent members of the Council included Turkey and Brazil, rising powers and potential leaders of the non-permanent bloc at the Council. Neither country was eager to see Iran put under international boycott for, from their point of view, simply having a civilian nuclear enrichment program. (Since such a program is permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, any such Security Council sanctions on Iran represent, at best, arbitrary acts.)
By mid-May, Obama nonetheless appeared to have his ducks in a row for a vote in which Russia and China would support at least modest further financial restrictions on investments connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Many observers believed that such a move, guaranteed to fall far short of “crippling,” would in fact prove wholly ineffectual.
Only Turkey and Brazil, lacking veto power in the Council, were proving problematic for Washington. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey leads the Justice and Development Party, which is mildly tinged with Muslim politics (unlike most previous strongly secular governments in Ankara). Viewing himself as a bridge between the Christian West and the Muslim world, he strongly opposes new sanctions on neighboring Iran. In part, he fears they might harm the Turkish economy; in part, he has pursued a policy of developing good relations with all his country’s direct neighbors.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has led a similar charge against any strengthened punishment of Iran. He has been motivated by a desire to alter the prevailing North-dominated system of international relations and trade. Popularly known as “Lula,” the president has put more emphasis on encouraging South-South relations. His country gave up its nuclear weapons aspirations in 1980, but continued a civilian nuclear energy program and has recently committed to building a nuclear-powered submarine. Having the Security Council declare even peaceful nuclear enrichment illegal could be extremely inconvenient for Brasilia.
On May 15th, Erdogan and Lula met with Ahmadinejad in Tehran and announced a nuclear deal that much resembled the one to which Iran had briefly agreed in October. Turkey would now hold a majority of Iran’s LEU in escrow in return for which Iran would receive fuel rods enriched to 19.75% for its medical reactor. Critics pointed out that Iran had, by now, produced even more LEU, which meant that the proportion of fuel being sent abroad would be less damaging to any Iranian hopes for nuclear latency and therefore far less attractive to Washington and Tel Aviv. Washington promptly dismissed the agreement, irking the Turkish and Brazilian leaders.
Meanwhile, throughout May, a conference of signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was being held in New York to hammer out a consensus document that would, in the end, declare the Middle East a “nuclear free zone.” Unexpectedly, they announced success. Since Israel is the only country in the Middle East with an actual nuclear arsenal (estimated at about 200 warheads, or similar to what the British possess), and not an NPT signatory, Tel Aviv thundered: “This resolution is deeply flawed and hypocritical… It singles out Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy and the only country threatened with annihilation… Given the distorted nature of this resolution, Israel will not be able to take part in its implementation.”
The hypocrisy in all this was visibly Washington’s and Israel’s. After all, both were demanding that a country without nuclear weapons “disarm” and the only country in the region to actually possess them be excused from the disarmament process entirely. This was, of course, their gift to Tehran. Like others involved in the process, Iran’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency immediately noted this and riposted, “The U.S… is obliged to go along with the world’s request, which is that Israel must join the NPT and open its installations to IAEA inspectors.”
A Windfall for the Hardliners: The Flotilla Assault
With the Tehran Agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil—and signed by Ahmadinejad—and Israel’s rejection of the NPT conference document now public news, Obama’s sanctions program faced a new round of pushback from China. Then, on May 31st, Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship heading for Gaza. They threw stun grenades and fired rubber-jacketed metal bullets even before landing, enraging passengers, and leading to a fatal confrontation that left at least nine dead and some 30 wounded. An international uproar ensued, putting Israel’s relations with Turkey under special strain.
The Mavi Marmara assault was more splendid news for Iran’s hardliners at the very moment when the Green movement was gearing up for demonstrations to mark the one-year anniversary of the contested presidential election. Around the Israeli assault on the aid flotilla and that country’s blockade of Gaza they were able to rally the public in solidarity with the theocratic government, long a trenchant critic of Israeli oppression of the stateless Palestinians. Green leaders, in turn, were forced to put out a statement condemning Israel, and Khamenei was then able to fill the streets of the capital with two million demonstrators commemorating the death of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
The flotilla attack also gave the hardliners a foreign policy issue on which they could stand in solidarity with Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Arab world generally, reinforcing their cachet as champions of the Palestinians and bolstering the country’s regional influence. There was even talk of sending a new Gaza aid flotilla guarded by Iranian ships. Because Turkey, the aggrieved party, is at present a member of the Security Council, this fortuitous fillip for Iran has denied Obama the unanimity he sought on sanctions. Finally, the incident had the potential to push international concern over Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program and that country’s new assertiveness in the Middle East into the background, while foregrounding Israel’s brutality in Gaza, intransigence toward the peace process, and status as a nuclear outlaw.
In the end, President Obama got his watered-down, non-unanimous sanctions resolution. There is no doubt that Netanyahu’s reluctance to make a just peace with the Palestinians and his cowboy military tactics have enormously complicated Obama’s attempt to pressure Iran and deeply alienated Turkey, one of yesterday’s holdouts.
His election as prime minister in February 2009 turns out to have been the best gift the Israeli electorate could have given Iran. The Likud-led government continues its colonization of the West Bank and its blockade of the civilian population of Gaza, making the Iranian hawks who harp on injustices done to Palestinians look prescient. It refuses to join the NPT or allow U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities, making Iran, by comparison, look like a model IAEA member state.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and director of its Center for South Asian Studies. He maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Copyright 2010 Juan Cole
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