What’s Driving the Iranian Nuclear Crisis?


“It is difficult for me to understand not only why the Bush administration is pursuing its aggressive policy against Iran, especially at a time when its position in Iraq is crumbling toward utter failure, [] but surely even more puzzling is why has the European Union shown itself so willing to carry Bush administration water in what is by any measure a very dubious cause?

–David MacMichael, “An Unnecessary Crisis: The Iranian Nuclear Showdown“, Counterpunch, March 22, 2006.

An unprovoked war may be in preparation against the Iranian people, and beyond any opinions that we may have toward the Iranian regime, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the west need to respond to this threat of aggression. The very possibility of the reproduction or spreading of the catastrophe in Iraq (beyond, also, any opinions we may have about its timing or whether the threat on Iran is all bluff) should encourage and renew our solidarity with the peoples of the middle east who are under attack by western pressures and invasions under the cynical pretext of the “democratic” restructuring of the region. It seems increasingly clear that in order to do so we need a better understanding of these pressures, for nothing is more discouraging than to believe that the US and other imperialists form a solid and all-powerful bloc. But in any case we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, even if the weakness and lack of strategy of the west is ever more apparent, the threat of attack is real.

It is impossible to know what exactly has been happening behind the closed doors of the many negotiating rooms throughout the Iran nuclear crisis. But though there will be things we can’t unravel, there are indeed some elements of the situation that can be read.

To begin with, briefly, it’s necessary to recognize that Iran has not broken with its legal obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We will not go into the details behind this issue here, for two reasons: firstly, if one follows the sequence of events from the beginnings of the IAEA inspections and negotiations with the Europeans in 2003, through the Iranians’ voluntary suspension of enrichment activities under the “additional protocol” to their final rejection of the European proposal in the summer of 2005 and the subsequent resumption of enrichment, it is clear that Iran was participating in good faith during these inspections and negotiations while still claiming its right to enrich for peaceful purposes. As the country admits, its only fault was to have “hidden” its nuclear technology from the west ­ a technology which had originally been furnished and promoted by the US and Europe. David MacMichael’s well-argued analysis published in Counterpunch on March 22 gives rest to doubts on this issue. It is also interesting to read the full-page ad taken out in the New York Times by Iran itself on November 18, 2005 in an effort to counter the thick western propaganda, available on the web at http://www.antiwar.com/blog/more.php?id=2523_0_1_0_M.

Secondly, though, and not least, we mustn’t over-estimate the legitimacy of the procedures of the IAEA, which are clearly used arbitrarily by the western countries to further their imperialist policies – or indeed have any illusions about the legitimacy of a NPT which is applied discriminately and differently (or not applied at all) to different countries, such as Iran and Brazil, India, Pakistan and Israel. As one French commentator explained, perfectly disingenuously, in Le Monde on January 13, 2006: “Israel has not signed the NPT, and so its [military] nuclear program is not in violation of international law.” If the rules and accords of “international law” are only voluntary, then they needn’t be considered to be binding, of course ­ for anyone. This is not to undercut the idea of international law but rather to call for real and legitimate (and not only “legal”) alternatives that do not serve imperialist interests.

Recently there has been much talk of the difference between the western countries’ stance on Iran and that of Russia and China. There is clearly a fundamental difference between the imperialist intentions of the western countries and the more friendly interests of the eastern ones in regards to Iran. This rift became even more apparent last week when the “unity” of the Security Council (plus Germany), which on March 30 had finally succeeded in coming together to sign a non-binding “ultimatum” without any concrete threats, gave way on March 31 to declarations by Russia and China that any resolution of the problem by either attacks or sanctions was out of the question. Iran has more friendly relations and economic ties with Russia and China, but seems to do well not to trust them blindly. Russia and China are manoeuvering in the Iran affair both to shore up strength against the west and also to better insert themselves into the world economy (the accession of Russia into the WTO being one of the chips on the table, recently denied again by the US). But such differences and tensions between east and west preexist the current Iranian crisis and cannot explain the international escalation of tension around the “Iran dossier,” and even less can they answer the question of why should the US target Iran exactly now, an unpropitious moment for the US even given the race for oil. To understand this we need to look closely at the (more or less hidden) tensions between the US and Europe and their respective relationships with the Middle East, since it is from the western camp that the pressure originates.

Some Iranian officials, like many observers, have said that the recent European effort to engage Iran in negotiations was “subcontracted” out to them by the US, the real engine behind the aggression. They say ­ perhaps to oversimplify the argument ­ that since the US can no longer act unilaterally, it simply used its lackeys to go in ahead, using a round of insincere diplomacy to prepare the terrain. This argument gives much too much power to the Americans, whose precarious and faltering situation both economically and militarily is currently more obvious to the governments of other countries than it is to the international progressive left. For, again, why would France and Germany, in an about-face from their stance on the Iraq war, do the bidding of the US in the Middle East?

The answer is simple: they didn’t. The current “western” consensus in the security council covers over significant faultlines whose existence goes a long way toward explaining the current situation. It’s Europe who raised the current Iranian nuclear “problem,” not the US, in order to force a reason for its own presence in the region. It hoped to subdue Iran via diplomacy, that weapon that is not illegal, and establish a privileged economic and political relationship between the EU and Iran, to the exclusion of the US. In this sense, David MacMichael is on the right track when he argues in his Counterpunch article of March 22 that perhaps the Europeans “fear that if the US somehow does succeed in its goal of turning Iraq into a quasi-US colony and then is able somehow to subdue Iran, that they will be frozen out of the Middle Eastern picture in the future.” This analysis should be taken further in order to understand the situation.

Neither the Europeans, nor anyone, really thinks now that the US will succeed in colonizing Iraq. But in 2003 they almost certainly feared this, and thus they began a process of diplomacy and negotiations toward the end of securing Iran for itself. Whether the US succeeded in Iraq or not, the Europeans needed a foothold in the region both to secure a presence for the future and to prevent any possible further American destabilization, which would have affected its interests. Consider the result for Europe had the US actually colonized Iraq according to plan. It would be successfully divided into the “new” (US-allied) and the “old” Europe, thus effectively destroying its ability to act autonomously on the international scene. It would have been subject to American interests and pace in the region ­ indeed frozen out of the picture, except where the US allowed entrance. But the American failure pulls Europe down with it, both because of Europe’s association with America and due to the regional instability caused by the American failure, hurting its interests and access to oil. It therefore needed in either case a friendly bastion in the region and a roadblock against further American conflagration, and so it took advantage of the Iranian nuclear question to attempt to create its own Middle Eastern colony. Consider the implications for the US had Europe succeeded in corralling Iran diplomatically and legally into a privileged relationship last August. With America’s “colony” next door in flames and its invasion delegitimated, a European Iran would have consolidated Europe’s power both internally and in the region, and proven its necessary presence as an international player.

So,on the practical level, the European overture to the Iranians (and “overture” is the correct word) has developped in the face of the American failure to secure Iraq and the US pre-crisis economic situation. As opposed to the US’s overtly aggressive imperialism in southwest and central Asia, the Europeans have maintained a slower, economic (“soft”) imperialism toward countries of the east, starting with those of eastern Europe and extending toward the Ukraine and the Middle East. Europe desperately needs to secure access to a reliable, friendly and longterm supply of oil, and powerhouse Germany needs markets, resources and cheap labor to sustain its economic expansion. Most importantly, Europe now needs a rampart or firewall against the “proliferation” of the American fiasco. With the US in a weakened position both economically and militarily, the EU seems to have attempted to take advantage of this faltering hegemony to begin a process to claim Iran for its own. It wanted neither “regime change,” a military attack, nor economic sanctions-the last thing it wants is more instability in the Middle East. Rather it wanted a “partner,” or a pasture, to which it would have priority of access.

Briefly, a reminder of the process of negotiations that the Europeans undertook with Iran. In the summer of 2003, after the IAEA inspections had begun, the “E3” (France, Britain and Germany) opened up a series of negotiations with the country, where the deal was essentially that if Iran gave up the problematic aspects of its nuclear program, Europe would enter into a privileged political, economic and military relationship with the country. Initial negotiations in the Fall of 2003 yielded the voluntary signing of the “additional protocol” to the TNP, where enrichment was suspended and snap inspections allowed. This was done in view of an accord, eventually materializing on November 15, 2004, the Paris Agreement, wherein it was agreed to continue negotiations toward a treaty, in exchange for further inspections and suspension of activity in the nuclear facilities. After the awaited concrete proposal of cooperation did not materialize during the Spring of 2005, and elections yielded a new president, Iran decided to force the issue on August 1, 2005, by announcing the resumption of uranium enrichment. The EU responded by threatening the Security Council, and then asking Iran to wait until its proposal was delivered. It delivered its proposal of cooperation on August 5, 2005, which Iran immediately rejected, since it required permanent cessation of enrichment (enriched uranium would be furnished by the EU or other countries) and did not provide concrete guarantees of the promises that had been made during the negotiation process..

The E3 offer of August 5, 2005, which Iran rejected as “insulting,” included, in the form of “incentives,” access to European “environmental technology, communications and information technology, education and vocational training; [] and to invigorate cooperation in areas such as air transport, railway transport, maritime transport, seismology, infrastructure, agriculture and the food industry, and tourism” as well as to “promote trade and investment” and “support Iran’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and technical support to assist Iran making the necessary technical adjustments to its economy.” Read: a private pasture for control and investment. And, a clause seen as particularly insulting and condescending by the Iranians: “They [the Europeans] would be prepared to make a policy declaration that they regard Iran as a long-term source of oil and gas for the EU.” An Iranian editorialist referred to these incentives as “economic concessions such as purchasing oil” and as an insult to Iran’s already advancing development. Compare this list of incentives with that offered by the US during the same period of negotiations: support of Iran’s adhesion to the WTO and some spare airplane parts. Such a paltry “carrot” would have been received, and intended, as an insult not only to Iran but also to the European process of negotiations, which the US wanted to, and eventually did, undermine.

But although it seems to have been tempted by the “promises,” Iran is well-placed to see the imperialist intentions underlying diplomatic pressures. The E3 apparently thought they could use the nuclear issue to force Iran into a unique accord that (apart references to respecting the UN and international law) practically explicitly disregarded the US. The silence is not innocuous. With the offer the Europeans acted upon their knowledge that a big part of their leverage over the Iranians is that the US had been threatening to attack Iran, and that Iran might therefore be forced or scared into some kind of accord with “the west.” The choice of Europe might therefore be the lesser evil. The hidden and cynical European imperialism contrasts glaringly with its roughshod American counterpart. The E3, in their January 12, 2006 declaration, stated disingenuously: “The Europeans negotiated in good faith. Last August, we presented propositions of economic, political and military cooperation with Europe that are the most favorable that Iran has received since the Revolution.” However, Iran ­ although apparently tempted for at time ­ was not duped by the hypocrisy of a deal to the tune of “come with us, or you’ll get the big guns.” It’s clear that Iran would be insulted by the use of such coercive manipulation toward the end of a privileged relationship of “friendly cooperation.”

For such a deal would only work if Europe could credibly back up its promises. This is what was actually at stake in the European offer, left unspoken by both sides: for Iran to accept the European “partnership” would mean to become its protectorate. This explains the “promises” to which Iran repeatedly referred during the negotiation process and afterward, that it bitterly felt did not materialize into concrete guarantees ­ not likely a reference to the economic incentives whose sincerity and viability Iran probably did not doubt. The crucial element of “security” in the original European offer must have echoed deeply in Washington. For why would Iran need military backing? The Washington Post on August 6, 2005 states bluntly what the negotiating parties could not: “Iran had expected, based on early word from Europe, that the proposals would include security assurances that would protect Iran, which now has U.S. troops on its Iraqi and Afghan borders, from any future U.S. military plans. But the Europeans offered only limited guarantees of their own and did not include guarantees from the United States.” According to Iranian press on July 26, 2005, before the proposal was delivered, an Iranian official “warned that Europe’s proposal should not merely contain political and economic incentives and added that grounds are now prepared for Iran’s cooperation with Europe to settle such regional crises as Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to fight terrorism.” The simmering tensions between the two western blocs are evident.

The EU had cynically hoped it could wield “diplomatic” force to secure a privileged access to Iran’s resources and market (and thus a position in the Middle East), a bet it lost ­ since they are unable militarily (and Iran knows it) either to force Iran into the deal or to protect such a vassal state. During the negotiations, though, the EU stated clearly that it could not do the deal without the US on board-which reveals both its necessary diplomacy toward the US and the actual military weakness of Europe. In the end Europe may have been pressured by the US into dropping any real guarantees, as Iran now accuses, and/or it may have decided it was not up to the possible outcomes of the situation if the US did not then back down. Consider the real implications of the European proposal: the lining up of installments along the Iraqi and Afghan borders, by a Europe now allied with one of the members of the “axis of evil,” would be seen as tantamount to provocation.

The divergeant interests between the US and EU can be read in the fact that the US clearly did not support or believe in the possible success of the European overture, no matter what it said publicly. The US had disclosed the British participation in Israel’s nuclear weapon program, perhaps to undermine Iranian confidence in the European process; and it had revealed, just days before the European offer of August 5, that actually Iran is ten years away from the bomb, a revelation which would serve at that moment to remove the urgent edge from the European project.

The real issue in the “western” aggression against Iran is not the nuclear bomb, as we all know; nor is it the oil bourse in Euros, nor “nuclear apartheid” (the control of the (peaceful) fuel cycle by a handful of developed nations), although all of these elements are factors in a complex situation. Rather the real question is that of American hegemony, and the insecure global future in a context of competing imperialisms after the cold war consensus has disappeared and the American empire is showing ever more clearly its cracks. The current moment is marked by more international insecurity and uncertainty than we have known for many generations. Just as in the war on Iraq, the US’s main interest in “owning” Iran is not simply to own it, but to prevent its rivals from doing so. A sign of American fragility is that the timing of this aggression is not its own, but that of its rival. Had Europe not pushed the Iran issue, the US would surely not be making the same war-noises that we are hearing now given its problems in Iraq, and this may explain its lack of strategy, which is more and more apparent.

But it is as difficult for the “western” countries to back down as it is for them to further destabilize the region. The many delays in the security council, alongside the recent “ultimatum” without teeth, serve to show that the “diplomatic” situation is a mess. At least Europe seems to want an honorable exit, as it now repeats (after last summer having threatened the Security Council and beyond) that it desires to keep negotiating diplomatically like before: according to Le Monde on March 11, European diplomats are now promoting, somewhat ridiculously, a “gradual and reversible” process. According to the AFP, on March 17 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated, in response to the question whether the Security Council could come to unanimity on the issue, “It all depends on the specific proposals which get discussed in the Security Council, and given the lack of strategy, I don’t really know what sort of proposals there might be.” Now, after its diplomatic failure, the EU is quietly standing behind the bully, even though it does not want a violent outcome. However, the faultlines are apparent. After the March 30 show of “unity” that Condaleeza Rice was so proud of, German Foreign Affairs State Minister Gernot Erler stated on German radio, “The whole world can see now who is constructive here and who is not” (meaning, who is for diplomacy and who is threatening attacks.) He also said the option of lifting the existing sanctions, which he called “a very attractive offer,” was still on the table. That is, Germany not only does not want sanctions but wants to lift the existing ones in an offer that would resemble that of the E3 proposal of last summer. Sanctions pushed by the US, weakly supported at least publicly by Britain and France, vetoed by Russia and China, alongside Germany’s idea that even existing ones should be (strategically) lifted: the situation inside the Security Council must be one of a total impasse.

Iran knows this. As a Middle Eastern country with a relatively independent foreign and domestic policy, thus naturally sitting in the west’s line of fire, Iran seems to know that its best hope of success is to take advantage of the current situation (as no one is in a better position to see the contradictions under this surface multilateralism) and continue with its aggressively independent line. It will soon have a pay-out for having navigated the crisis so far without losing its autonomy: a chance to confront its enemy directly over the question of Iraq. In that meeting, it may extract the “security” promises it needs from the US, in exchange for promises not to interfere in Iraq. The upper hand in the meeting may be Iran’s.

That is, it is up to the US to decide if it is really in its interest to start throwing bombs without a realistic hope of securing control the country, especially if this aggression, like that of Iraq, would not be “legalized” by the UN. A Russian MP recently declared that US strikes against Iran would “accelerate the collapse of the US,” who cannot sustain its debt (Gazeta, March 31). The US strategy is volatile and irrational-and it is in US interest to be that way. The US is obviously acting from a weakened position, bogged down in two wars, and dependent on the world’s oil and debt-financing. Its answer to weakness, like any bully, is to get more aggressive-at least in its words. The superpower “consensus” bringing Iran to the Security Council may be an international compromise that is as much about getting the US to play by international rules as it is about Iran. But verbal aggressiveness, although effective up to a point, has its limits. The US is willing to go to quite irrational lengths in order to maintain its faltering hold on hegemony. An (“unauthorized”) air attack on Iran would also well serve its purposes of making things difficult for its rivals, Europe and China. Since its only real strength, without equal, is military and not economic or diplomatic, it acts like a pyromaniac fireman, setting fire in order to create a reason for its presence and to prevent that of others. The more unstable the Middle East, the more difficult it is for Europe and China to maintain their hold. As a desperate and stumbling empire, but still the strongest one by far, its relative power can be maintained by simply throwing burning roadblocks in the way of its rivals.

MICHELE BRAND is an independent journalist and researcher based in Paris, and can be reached at michele.brand@yahoo.fr.



Michèle Brand is an independent journalist based in Paris. She can be reached at michbrand [at] orange.fr.