Iranian missile test : Diplomacy still the preferred way out

While Wednesday’s test-firing by Iran of nine medium- and long-range missiles was strongly denounced by Israel and the US, there appears to be a growing consensus in Washington that the chances for war, at least between now and the US elections in November, have actually receded in recent days. The State Department charged that the launch of the missiles, some of which are capable of reaching or striking Israel as well as other US allies, was “provocative”. A White House spokesman said they violated UN Security Council resolutions and demanded that Tehran “stop the development of ballistic missiles, which could be used as a delivery vehicle for a potential nuclear weapon, immediately.”

The Iranian tests followed warnings Tuesday by a top aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini that Tel Aviv and US forces in the Gulf would be targeted if Iran came under attack. They appeared to be the latest in a series of moves by Iran and Israel, in particular, to show that their escalating military threats are not hollow. Last month, Israel carried out a major exercise involving more than 100 warplanes over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece that US officials depicted as a rehearsal for a possible bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The exercise followed an interview by Israel’s deputy PM, ret. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, in which he warned that an attack was “unavoidable” if Tehran failed to heed UN Security Council demands that it suspend its uranium enrichment programme. The subsequent visit to Israel by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, Adm. Michael Mullen, was taken by some analysts here as a sign that Washington and Tel Aviv were co-ordinating their plans.

At the same time, the disclosure by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh several days later that top Congressional leaders had secretly approved a $400-million action plan directed against Tehran added to speculation that war was indeed on the horizon.

But while those events, as with Wednesday’s missile launches, which sent the price of oil up two dollars, grabbed the headlines, the back pages suggest a somewhat different story — that, in advance of a period of intensified diplomacy, all sides are seeking to gain as much leverage as possible. That diplomacy, of course, is likely to centre around the latest proposal, submitted last month by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany to offer a range of incentives, including security guarantees, if Iran agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment efforts. While Tehran’s written response was reportedly disappointing, diplomats here and in Europe believe that the offer, combined with the latest financial sanctions imposed by the EU and rumours of war, has strengthened those in Iran who favour a deal.

They are hopeful that when Solana meets with his Iranian interlocutor, Saeed Jalili, later this month, they will at least make progress in devising a formula for a temporary freeze on both enrichment and the imposition of new sanctions that will satisfy the Bush administration’s pre-condition for joining the other five powers in direct talks with Tehran over its nuclear programme and other key issues.

They have been encouraged in these hopes by a number of statements by key advisers to Khameini, who is regarded as the ultimate decision-maker, most notably former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati who was quoted as saying earlier this month, “Because we know that America and certain other enemies are acting against Iran’s national interests and wish Iran not to accept the (European) package, it is expedient to accept it.”

If the doves in Tehran appear to be gaining ground, their US counterparts, led by the Pentagon, seem in an even stronger position, at least for now. In a press conference a week ago, Mullen not only repeatedly stressed the destabilising effects of an attack on Iran. He also effectively called for direct talks with Iran without even mentioning the administration’s demand that Tehran freeze enrichment first.

A senior State Department official charged with the day-to-day management of the Iran portfolio, while not ruling out military action, repeatedly stressed that it was a last resort and that existing sanctions were having the desired effect. “While Iran seeks to create the perception of advancement in its nuclear programme, real progress has been more modest,” said Undersecretary of State for Policy William Burns, who noted that Tehran had still not perfected the enrichment process.

He also elaborated on the areas in which the US and Iran might engage directly. “Careful consideration suggests that in certain contexts, we should have overlapping interests with Iran — for example, in a stable, unified Iraq at peace with its neighbours, in a stable Afghanistan, and in stemming narcotics trafficking.” US policy, he said, was aimed at “triggering a strategic recalculation in Iran’s thinking.” — IPS