Friday, April 20, 2007

There is Time With Iran

Time.

It is a precious, fleeting commodity, something we all say we want and complain we never have enough of. It is what our clocks and watches measure on the assumption (“close enough for government work”) that it is uniform throughout the universe – or at least on our small planet – Einstein notwithstanding.

It is also something that we are very good at “wasting.” But like Einstein’s theory of relativity by which time is extendable from the perspective of a “static” reference, “wasting time” in the eyes of one person might be productive introspection for another.

For example, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, traveling in the Middle East, has reiterated his belief that the multi-strand diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran’s nuclear “problem” is “working” and should be given enough time to reach a successful conclusion.

The calls to “give negotiations a chance” have been growing within the Congress and even within the Pentagon. The sentiment is hardly unique either in its subject matter – Iran’s drive for a nuclear arsenal, possibly as a bargaining chip with the west – or in the subtle rewording of a warning to the Iraqi government that the commitment of a combat force is not forever, just as the U.S. public’s patience for foreign wars is not unlimited.

The “Axis of Evil” hawks still in (and still in charge of) the Bush administration undoubtedly relegated Secretary Gates’ conclusion to the trash bin as soon as it reached them – no wasting time, from their perspective, talking with “extremists” in Tehran about not doing something the U.S. “extremists” say is Iran’s real purpose – a nuclear weapon. Better to move ahead now with military force, they contend, and end the “threat” to the region. Never mind that the consensus outside the White House and the National Security Council (NSC) “extremists” is that the U.S. military has been so over-extended by the long struggles to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq that it would be a costly endeavor – and an unacceptably risky one – to initiate a third active war front in the Gulf region.

Mr. Gates himself is a man in a hurry. He came into his current position with a clear direction from the U.S. public (but alas, one seemingly not acknowledged by the president) to find a way to at least begin, if not complete, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq in the 24 months remaining in Bush’s second term. That is just over half the time that his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, expended (44 months) in creating the black hole that is today’s Iraq, a terrestrial phenomenon that every day consumes hundreds of lives and squanders billions in national treasure and natural resources that could have gone to productive ends instead of destructive ones.

While the Defense Secretary may not have the support of some important White House and NSC staff, he and Secretary of State Rice seem attuned to the same message: the necessity to thoroughly explore all non-military avenues for engaging Iran on the nuclear issue. Moreover, Gates and Rice can point to the progress (breakthrough might be too strong) in slowing North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal as a model of what is possible in negotiations like the “Six Party Talks” with direct DPRK – U.S. talks held initially “on the margins” and later “mainstreamed.”

Sometimes, help comes fortuitously and from unexpected quarters – and it did again earlier this month. The former head of military studies at Israel’s Armament and Development Authority blasted Israeli media for exaggerating the nuclear and missile threat posed by Iran to the Israeli state. The former official, Dr. Yitzhak Ravid, also criticized the Israeli media for printing and then touting a photograph of four Iranian “missiles” – purportedly Shihabs (latest model with an estimated range of 1,500 kms.) – being fired at the same time. According to Ravid, not only have the Iranians never fired more than one Shihab at a time, the photo of the four “Shihabs” is actually a photo of four rockets.

One of the points being pushed by Rice and Gates is the necessity of involving all the countries in the Gulf in the search for an enduring security regimen for the entire region – virtually a pre-condition for the more critical follow-on, sustained (and sustaining) involvement of geographic, religious, trade, and cultural organizations with interests in the Gulf.

Although the western media were represented at the on-going “Doha” Round of trade negotiations of the World Economic Forum, little attention was paid to an April 9-10 “meeting on the fringe” of 150 political, business, and other public figures at the Arab World Competitiveness Roundtable. At that gathering, Hassan Rowhani, who directs the Center for Strategic Studies of Iran’s Expediency Council and is widely regarded as Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s man on Iran’s National Security Council, presented Tehran’s solution for stabilizing the Persian Gulf region. The proposal divides into three sections as follows.

Conventional security. The plan would employ the existing Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of all the countries on the Arabian Peninsula, as the security base, but adding Iraq and Iran so as to include all countries on the Persian Gulf littoral. The plan also calls for the withdrawal of all foreign (non-Gulf) military forces and assumption of the “full security mission” by the “Persian Gulf Cooperation Council.

Commerce. The plan calls for the gradual and complete removal of all artificial limitations and restrictions on cooperation in non-military areas and for an eventual internal free-trade bloc.

Energy Security. The plan calls for rationalizing energy production and export policies that benefit all countries, the development of transparent nuclear energy programs that cannot be surreptitiously converted to weapons programs, and creating a regional nuclear enrichment consortium accountable to and under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These same ten points had been presented by the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatame, to a delegation of leaders of U.S. church organizations that traveled to Tehran in late February 2007. But there was no apparent U.S. government response when the delegation held a post-trip press conference on their discussions in Tehran.

Washington doesn’t want to talk to Iran at all, but has been forced to sit down with Tehran on the nuclear standoff. This may account for the apparent dismissal of the Iranian ten-point plan in February.

It is now almost two-thirds of the way through April, and the U.S. “solution” to Iraq – the “surge” – is in trouble. Maybe it’s time for the administration to make time to look at and to think about the plan now.

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