Washington's threats to bomb Iranian nuclear installations appear to be empty, or are they, wonders Mashaallah Shamsolvaezin*
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Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, right, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai during the welcome ceremony after Karzai's arrival in Tehran
The escalation in Washington's rhetoric about Tehran can be viewed from three angles: political, military, and Iraq-related. The political angle has to do with the United States' desire to influence the course of Iranian domestic politics, particularly with regard to the presidential elections scheduled for June. Washington is prodding the Iranians to nominate a moderate, a man with the stature and pragmatism needed for a serious dialogue with the US on various bilateral, regional, and international issues.
In Iraq, the US is knee-deep in trouble and desperate for a scapegoat. The post-Saddam era did not go as the US expected and Washington is eager to find fault with Iraq's neighbours, so as to divert attention from its own errors. The Americans are good at passing the buck, at exporting the crisis, so to speak. They have done it before. When they got into trouble in Afghanistan, they moved the front to Iraq. When the latter turned sour, they began blaming Iraq's neighbours, particularly Iran.
Iran's nuclear capabilities provided the US with the stick it needed to clobber Tehran. The US is hoping to move Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council, with EU help. If it succeeds, this would put Iran on the defensive and perhaps encourage Tehran to rethink its Iraq policies.
Through this three-pronged approach, the US wishes to make Iranian leaders soften their positions on Iraq and seek closer ties with Washington. The US is not mincing its words about Iran's nuclear capabilities. It has made it clear that it may escalate the situation further if needed, a prospect that is chilling to the Iranians. The best course for the Iranians, in my opinion, is to open a direct dialogue with Washington and offer specific guarantees on all of the above angles. Tehran should make it clear to the Americans that the reform movement would be allowed to proceed unhampered in Iran, that political reform and democratisation are part of the domestic agenda, that Iran has no axe to grind in Iraq (apart from defending its legitimate interests as a neighbouring country), and that Iranian nuclear programme is strictly peaceful.
This is the message the Iranians need to pass on to Washington. But it is not a message that could be passed verbally or through official spokesmen. The Iranian position should be spelled out through direct negotiations with the US, so that its credibility and objectivity are in no doubt and international supervision is possible.
The Iranians have a good case. Iraq, for example, is a country open to all types of foreign intervention. It is unreasonable to portray Iran as the sole source of evil in Iraq. On the contrary, Iran has extensive borders with Iraq and is entitled for reassurance about developments in that country. The US does not look credible when it blames Iran for the wide array of troubles it is facing in Iraq.
Iran needs to see a political framework developed, one that addresses its concerns in Iraq. This can be done through talks with the major players in Iraq, chiefly the US. (Iran and the US held talks of a similar nature on Afghanistan in the past). Such talks can defuse the tensions with regard to Iranian policy in Iraq.
Can one expect the Iranians to open earnest dialogue with the Americans? I don't see why not, judging by how the Iranian leadership has acted in similar situations. Tehran, I believe, is willing to pursue moderate policies in the region and has shown a good deal of flexibility during its negotiations with the EU on the nuclear issue.
Another question is: Would the US attack Iran? The whole affair seems so far to be an exercise in bullying for tactical purposes. It is true however that, just before the end of World War II, the US bombed German installations suspected of developing nuclear technology.
* The writer is a Tehran-based journalist.