Beautiful to behold
Iran responds to the West's package of incentives with rhetorical rather than confrontational posturing, writes Sherine Bahaa
On Saturday, the deadline set for Iran to declare its position regarding the freeze-for-freeze formula offered by the six world powers -- the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China -- in Geneva talks earlier this month, comes to an end. According to this formula, Iran would not add to its nuclear programme, and the US and other powers would not seek new international sanctions for six weeks to pave the way for formal negotiations. The proposal was originally offered to Iran last year and presented again to Tehran last month as part of a new proposal to ultimately give Iran economic and political incentives if it stops producing enriched uranium.
At a news conference after the negotiations Tehran gave no clear reply. Indeed, Tehran evaded the question every time it was raised. The meeting at Geneva's City Hall was one of the most important public encounters between Iranian and American officials since relations were halted after the American Embassy was seized in Tehran in 1979.
Iranians are sure that sending the third highest ranking official in US administration, William Burns, to meet with its Chief Nuclear Negotiator Said Jalili is an opportunity for more fruitful negotiations.
At the press conference, Jalili refused to say whether Iran would accept a freeze of its uranium enrichment programme. But he called the negotiating process a "very beautiful endeavour" with a result that he hoped would eventually be "beautiful to behold."
Other meetings have been authorised in the past. Madeleine Albright, as secretary of state, for example, once sat at the same table with then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and other emissaries at the United Nations to discuss Afghanistan. Colin Powell, as secretary of state, once shook Kharrazi's hand. American and Iranian officials have met episodically in Baghdad to discuss Iraq's security.
But now that the Bush administration has made such "an about- face", Iran has the space to make concessions without losing face itself.
The US administration has always linked any direct talks with the Iranians to an announced halt to the Persian state's nuclear activity.
In a rare interview with the American Broadcaster, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC TV, "Today, we see new behaviour shown by the United States. My question is: is such behaviour rooted in a new approach? In other words, mutual respect, cooperation and justice. Or, is this approach a continuation in the confrontation with Iranian people but in a new guise?"
The European-led negotiations now have a real chance of succeeding in reining in the Iranian nuclear programme. It was obviously clear that this time round the six powers were united more than ever on a joint strategy on how to proceed. For its part, the American delegation informed its partners that Burns's appearance was a one-time event and that Iran had two weeks to decide whether to accept the "freeze-for-freeze" formula.
Iranian leaders know that as long as they stop short of weaponisation, neither the Europeans nor the US military will approve an attack on Iran, with all its potentially devastating consequences for Western security. An attack will open up disastrous splits not only between the US and Europe, but possibly within the US security establishment itself.
Asked whether Iran would consider ceasing uranium enrichment -- a key demand of the US and other UN Security Council members, who have slapped three rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt its nuclear programme -- Ahmadinejad said the Islamic Republic is "a great nation with a great economy". NBC quoted Ahmadinejad as saying that Iran is not scared of US bullying. "We are living in the 21st century."
Iran has threatened to blockade the Straits of Hormuz, an export channel for a quarter of the world's oil, if its nuclear facilities are targeted.
Oil is another potential for Iran. The country is the second-largest oil producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and has vast economic potential.