By Salama A Salama
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now says that it is too late to dissuade Iran from enriching uranium. The Arab world didn't seem interested in the news, but the Americans and Europeans have taken notice. From now on, their efforts are likely to focus on how to dissuade Iran from making the bomb.
In other words, there is a major shift in the way the world is thinking about dealing with Iran. The main idea, as IAEA Chief Mohamed El-Baradei said, is to allow Iran to retain part of its nuclear programme.
This reminds me of what President Jacques Chirac said a few months ago, a remark that was considered at the time to be a slip of the tongue. Chirac said that he wouldn't be much worried if Iran were to obtain a nuclear bomb or two. Disarmament experts share the same opinion, because countries that have nuclear bombs never rush into using them, but rather tend to join the deterrence arrangements that ban their use.
Thomas Friedman, the well-known American commentator, is urging President Bush to adopt a realistic perspective in the Middle East. Friedman says that the US has two options. Either it keeps tens of thousands of its soldiers in Iraq indefinitely, or engages Tehran in a high-level dialogue that focuses on bringing back stability to Iraq. After all, the two countries cooperated closely in Afghanistan, and their cooperation helped the US defeat the warlords in that country.
According to Friedman, the stability of the Middle East hinges on the relations between the US and Iran, not -- as some think -- on the Cairo-Riyadh-Amman axis. Iran is not going to allow stability to return to Iraq unless its interests are protected; namely, unless the Shia-Kurdish balance is maintained and the Sunnis agree to a reasonable deal that guarantees their rights.
The US cannot allow its soldiers to die for the sake of returning the Sunni minority to power in Iraq, Friedman says. It is through diplomacy that a dialogue may also be arranged between Hamas and the Israelis, now that the destruction of the Palestinian Authority has brought mayhem and Al-Qaeda operatives to the streets of Gaza and Lebanon.
Washington, let's not forget, was the one that rejected Khatami's call for a deal that would end all outstanding problems between the two countries. But the neo-cons blocked this initiative. President Bush responded by including Iran in the axis of evil, thinking -- at the time -- that he would win in Iraq.
IAEA officials now say that Iran resolved some of the technical problems that it faced in large-scale uranium enrichment and is now operating 1,300 centrifuges that produce nuclear fuel. So it is only a matter of time before the West reconsiders its policy on Iran. This, in turn, would change the course of events in the Middle East.
So what are the Arabs waiting for? They need to reach an agreement with Iran and formulate a new regional equation in which the interests of both sides are taken into account. Ambassador Mohamed Shaker, the well-known Egyptian disarmament expert, has called for Egypt to arrange extensive talks between Iran and international partners, along the lines of the six- way talks on North Korea. Shaker believes that the Iranian nuclear dossier has a bearing on Western interests as well as on the Israeli nuclear issue. So the Arabs need to have a clear position, rather than the vague threats and rhetoric we seem to be getting these days.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is offering to restore relations with Egypt, which is not a bad idea. We need to maintain the Arab-Iranian regional balance, and we cannot let the nuclear question be monopolised by the US, Israel and Europe. Egypt cannot remain inactive as tensions escalate in the region.