Lighting Iran's Nuclear Fuse

Article excerpt

David Patrikarakos reveals how Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, missed a blatant opportunity to defuse the crisis with Tehran

In August 2002 the press officer of an Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahideen, summoned reporters and TV crews to a news conference in Washington with the promise to reveal explosive information on Iran's nuclear programme. There were fears that not many would turn up, given the group's reputation for peddling exaggerated or plainly false information. But what Alireza Jafarzadeh had to reveal was indeed dynamite: full details of a hitherto secret uranium enrichment site at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water plant at Arak, which would enable the production of plutonium. None of what Iran was doing was, in the strictest sense, illegal. But it proved beyond doubt that Iran was determined to master the nuclear fuel cycle which would in turn open the way for it to become a nuclear weapons power, if it so desired.

Ever since then Iran has been in almost constant conflict with the international community - represented by the UN Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency and several leading powers which are conducting negotiations with it - over its right to enrich uranium. Iran refuses to give up enrichment 'at any price' while the coalition (in its current form, the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, known as the P5+1) insists it must cease or slow enrichment down.

We are at a stalemate. Iran is suffering crippling sanctions, under constant threat of air attack by Israel, and wary of US cyber attacks to sabotage the centrifuges which enrich uranium. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now openly intervenes in the US presidential election on behalf of the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, whose rhetoric against Iran chimes with his own. It is worth asking, how did we slide into this stand-off? And are there any lessons for the future?

The Iranian nuclear crisis is, in many ways, the story of missed opportunities borne of bad timing and diplomatic failure.

Perhaps the best chances to resolve the crisis came in 2003, shortly after it began. The Iranians were scared: they had just seen Washington topple Saddam Hussein and the geopolitical picture looked bleak. Since the Gulf War of 1991 the US has had a strong military presence in the Middle East, with bases in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The 2001 war in Afghanistan had seen huge numbers of American troops gathered on Iran's eastern border, while Saddam's overthrow saw yet more US troops massed on its western border. With US forces also in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Washington had encircled Iran on its own continent and talked openly of 'regime change'.

In May 2003, Iran reportedly presented the US with a 'package' of proposals, in which it offered to end support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups, to help to stabilize Iraq after the USled invasion and to make its nuclear programme more transparent. In return, Tehran asked Washington to end its hostility, to end sanctions, and to disband the People's Mujahideen opposition group and repatriate its members.

The offer was prepared in Tehran by Iran's Ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, and reportedly came in an unsigned letter, passed via the Swiss Ambassador, Tim Guldimann, in Tehran. The letter was passed both to the State Department, where Guldimann briefed officials on his conversations with the Iranians, and to Republican Congressman, Robert Ney of Ohio, who passed it on to President Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove. The offer caused immediate controversy. Some, like John Bolton, the Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, thought the offer was nonsense and argued that the Swiss be informed that their ambassador in Tehran was 'fantasizing' and should be removed from his post. The US State Department was keen to discuss it but was over-ruled by Vice-President Dick Cheney's office: 'We don't negotiate with evil' was its response. …