Russia promotes a “step by step” diplomatic initiative with Iran

Zvi Bar’el reports: It appears that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can rest easy for now, as voices coming from the European Union suggest a military operation is not in the offing. Not only do Syria and China reject such an attack, but on Monday, Germany, France and Turkey added their voices to those objecting to a military option. The United States also does not seem thrilled at the prospect of launching another war in the region.

The European and American plan to impose another dose of sanctions on Iran may be worrisome, but it likely isn’t threatening as long as China, Russia and several of the Gulf states continue regular trade relations with Iran.

The effort to impose restrictions on the export of gasoline to Iran, which can only supply 60 percent of its own demand, is unlikely to come to fruition, as some fear the restrictions would only harm the citizenry and not the regime. Furthermore, the efficacy of such a plan remains doubtful. Iran recently declared that it is capable of producing more gasoline; with a strict rationing program it might well be able to overcome the entire shortage. This would not necessarily mean that Iran could successfully supply its demand for gasoline over the long term, but it would certainly be able to significantly reduce its dependence on foreign imports.

The more ambitious aim of obtaining a UN Security Council resolution to impose international sanctions will have to wait, especially given Russia’s efforts to promote – together with Iran – a new diplomatic plan that is being dubbed “Step by Step.” Under the plan, Iran will begin to respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s demands. In exchange for every satisfactory response, the international community would gradually roll back the existing sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister visited Moscow last week to discuss this idea with his Russian counterpart, and on Sunday the Russian deputy foreign minister for Middle Eastern affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov, went to Tehran to discuss the joint diplomatic effort with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

Meanwhile, Iran is adopting a new line of public diplomacy aimed both at Europe and the United States. Yesterday Salehi declared, “Strengthening the ties between Europe and Iran will be very helpful to Europe, since if Turkey joins the European Union, Iran will be a close neighbor of Europe’s.”

Over the weekend Ahmadinejad also said that “The Iranians are a nation of culture and logic, and are not warmongers.” The remarks, made at an event marking the unveiling of ancient artifacts returned by Britain to Iran, received big headlines in the Iranian press.

It is not clear what Ahmadinejad meant by “logic,” yet it notably was Ahmadinejad who initiated the 2010 agreement to deposit Iranian uranium in Turkey. Ahmadinejad is also believed to lead a certain school of thought that maintains it is better to come to an agreement with the West now, as opposed to the views of much of the radical religious leadership, which objects to any agreement.

In the end, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will be the one to decide whether to promote any new diplomatic options. But the assessment that he still hasn’t given the green light for the production of nuclear weapons seemingly leaves the window of diplomatic opportunity open.

Ahmadinejad also can rest easy about his domestic situation. Yesterday he got some unexpected support from Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president, who is considered the leader of the Iranian opposition, and who until now never failed to criticize his rival. Khatami declared that if there were an attack on Iran, all groups – those that want reform and those that don’t – would unite to rebuff the attack.

Khatami defined the Israeli threat as “psychological warfare and a bluff,” but expressed concern that such psychological warfare could persuade the international community that an attack on Iran was possible.

Iranian opposition sources say that the debate over a possible attack on Iran plays directly into Ahmadinejad’s hands, since it boosts his political position not only vis a vis the opposition, but also vis a vis the supreme leader, Khamenei, whose confidants see Ahmadinejad as a political threat.

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