19 July 2008

Could the US make peace with Iran?

By Liam Carroll

The United States is, for the first time, sending a senior envoy to sit down at the same table with the Iranians and the other world powers to discuss the Iranian nuclear fuel programme. This is a first for the Bush administration which over six years ago placed Iran on the 'Axis of Evil' on the basis that they supported terrorists and were developing weapons of mass destruction. For good measure, it was added in the speech that the unelected Iranian leaders also "repressed the Iranian people's hope for freedom".

What the Americans meant by 'terrorists' were the militant groups opposed to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories and disputed parts of Lebanon. It wasn't a reference to al Qaeda, whom Iran had helped the American's fight in Afghanistan during the first few months of the 'War on Terror'. The al Qaeda terrorists, it should be remembered, emerged from the fighters assembled by the American CIA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, back in the eighties. The Iranians too, like everyone else in the region, is still suffering from the after effects of the American plan, as al Qaeda and the Taliban cause trouble for the Iranian regime by aligning themselves with the militant separatists in Iran's tribal region which borders Pakistan (known as Balochistan).

It is generally forgotten these days that Iran was encouraged to develop nuclear power, and indeed the United States built a nuclear reactor there, when the Shah Mohammed Pahlavi ruled the country before being overthrown in a popular mass revolution. Since that time the United States has done everything in it's power to prevent the Iranians from acquiring further nuclear technology in violation of Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which is designed to help deliver the benefits of nuclear power to all. One could argue with the wisdom of that intention, but one cannot dispute the fact that the basic right to make nuclear fuel has been enshrined in one of the world’s most important post world war treaties.

Since the Iranian people overthrew Washington's favoured Iranian ruler, the Shah, who used brutal forms of repression to preserve his reign, the United States has held a deep animosity toward the Iranian regime, against whom they have supported a string of adversaries. The principle adversary that Washington backed was Saddam Hussein who fought a long and dirty war against the Iranians that included extensive use of chemical weapons against the Iranian troops and their Kurdish allies, with full knowledge and acquiescence from the United States (including the infamous gassing of the town of Halabja which killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds). In the same year, 1988, the US also accidentally shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in Iranian airspace killing some 290 people.

Since then US hostility toward Iran has only deepened over Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq, and the continuing rise of the Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, whom US backed Israeli forces tried to destroy two years ago, resulting in large numbers of Lebanese civilian casualties. If these confrontations weren’t bad enough of course, we now have an increasingly bitter war of words escalating between Iran and Israel over the nuclear fuel programme, with US aircraft carriers, armed with tactical nuclear weapons, floating close to the Iranian border in the Persian Gulf.

It is commonplace in the West to depict Iran as the unreasonable aggressor in this long standing confrontation with the United States and Israel, and to wonder at what point these two nations will deliver what the Iranians have clearly got coming to them. Fortunately for the people of Iraq, who most likely would be the first mass casualties as Baghdad went up in flames, the threatened air strikes are extremely unlikely to happen. The proof of this is the volte-face by the Bush administration over it’s refusal to negotiate with the Iranian regime unless they suspend their uranium enrichment programme, which they have not.

The big question then, is to ask why it is that the Bush administration has made this dramatic policy shift. The answer is that the US needs Iranian help to stabilize Iraq, or else it has no chance of maintaining a central government in Baghdad. The US needs the Iraqi government to authorize a legal agreement on keeping US military forces in the country and to get the Oil Law passed, and it increasingly seems like they won't be able to do that without Iranian help. The US doesn't normally negotiate with 'evil', but as the saying goes, "needs must when the devil drives."