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Current tensions between Iran, West cloud mutually beneficial relationship

Statements by Michael Bauer

Some experts claim Iran is using the turmoil over its disputed presidential election to stall on a return to nuclear negotiations with the West. Others say the two sides need each other and will eventually reopen talks.

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01.07.2009 · dw-world.de

The violent repercussions of Iran's disputed presidential election have somewhat eclipsed the on-going stalemate over Tehran's nuclear program recently. But instead of being two separate issues in the Islamic Republic, some analysts believe that Iran's increasingly antagonizing approach to the West over the pro-opposition demonstrations has more to do with the atomic stand-off than first appears.

Some observers say that the heightened tensions between Iran and the West are allowing Tehran to deflect demands to re-start talks on its nuclear program.

Ratcheting up the animosity by arresting local staff at the British embassy and challenging the US over apparent broken promises over a new dialogue, Iranian authorities have created an atmosphere in which nuclear talks are highly unlikely to resume.

It was assumed that a peaceful, undisputed election would have led to a return to Western pressure on Iran to restart nuclear negotiations. But the subsequent eruption of violent protests and the hard-line, authoritarian crackdown has presented the West with a new dilemma. It has been suggested that some of Iran's political elite have fomented the idea that countries like Britain and the US are behind the uprising, driving another wedge into the divide over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

This in turn has led some analysts to suggest that some factions in the Iranian government were happy to stir up a crisis specifically for this purpose. If the West could not be trusted to stay out of Iranian domestic politics, then it could not be trusted in negotiations over uranium enrichment.

Iran buying time through unrest?

But not all experts believe that this is an official policy promoted by the upper echelons of Iran's political hierarchy.

"It might be the case that some radical fractions within the Iranian establishment have such a plan," Michael Bauer, a Middle East expert at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich, told Deutsche Welle. "Unpredictability is an important characteristic and even strategic tool of Iranian foreign policy. This makes its behavior hard to predict. However, I don't think this position is held by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other important players in Iran's political system."

"I would not say that Iran is 'using' the situation," Konstantin Kosten, an Iran expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), said. "However there's no doubt that any loss of time in discussing the nuclear issue will bring more advantage to Iran than to the Western negotiators if they are planning to develop an atomic bomb."

Despite the increased rhetoric, experts agree that Iran has no intention of sliding into international isolation like North Korea over its nuclear ambitions. The unrest over the election results may buy Iran some breathing space but most believe that the current stance against the West is not the beginning of a new downward spiral in relations.

Mutual benefits too important to ignore

The two-sides are intrinsically linked by a number of geo-political situations in which a certain degree of co-operation and diplomacy is needed. In these situations it remains the case that Iran needs the West and the West needs Iran.

Iran knows that Washington needs its support in Afghanistan and Iraq," Bauer said. "With its role in Lebanon through Hezbollah and Gaza through Hamas, Iran also shows that it can play a very destructive but influential role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran also has an interest in improved political relations and negotiations with the West, in particular with the US. Tehran wants the US to accept the Iranian regime - and Obama has indicated that he is willing to do so - and accept Iran as a regional power. Moreover, Iran needs access to western technology."

Kosten agrees that good relations with Iran are important to the West and could be mutually beneficial in a number of areas.

"Good relations with Iran could be useful in any discussions regarding regional stability in the Middle East and the Gulf Region where Iran could be a major player," Kosten said. "Also, in the Middle East peace process, a more cooperative role for Iran may lead to new possibilities for the integration of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in a political solution."

Kosten also believes the benefits of good relations with Iran could lead to more energy security and economic opportunities. "There is a major interest in economic incentives and partnerships with the West, at least at the moment," he said. "However, this goes against the aim of some groups in Iran which prefer cooperation with countries like Russia and China."

Iran unlikely to suffer North Korea's fate of isolation

Bauer believes that the West, while pursuing a policy of sanctions, will never go as far as isolating Iran in the manner of North Korea and that the US has already made steps to reverse the previous administration's attempts to do so.

"The policy of isolating Iran pursued under President Bush failed completely," Bauer said. "The strategy of the West needs a complete overhaul and President Obama knows this. As (National Security Advisor Zbigniew) Brzezinski said, 'sticks and carrots are appropriate tools to deal with a donkey, not with a country.'

"Besides, Iran is not North Korea," he added. "Iran is a regional power with strong influence and a strong administrative system. It also has huge natural resources. Russia, China and many other countries have economic interests and do business with Iran. It is hardly possible to effectively isolate such an oil and gas-exporting country."

Konstantin Kosten agrees. "I don't think Iran would become a pariah-state like North Korea because Iran is much more developed. If relations with the West become even more strained, then Iran would orientate its cooperation towards the East which would be a loss of opportunities."

So what does the future hold for relations between the West and Iran, once the dust of the recent unrest settles? What needs to happen before both sides are willing to return to the table to discuss the nuclear stand-off?

Compromise and integration needed

"Iran has to learn to trust the Western negotiators and at the very least open talks with on offer to maybe slightly alter its way of enriching uranium," Kosten said. "The West has to find regulations and certain approaches to the discussion which allow the Iranians to save face while also encouraging them to foster transparency in their civilian enriching program."

"Regarding the nuclear program, a compromise could be Western acceptance of the full (uranium enrichment) cycle in exchange for Iranian ratification of the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Iranian cooperation with the IAEA, ensuring full transparency of the Iranian nuclear program and ensuring verification of its civilian nature," Michael Bauer said. "This will be difficult to achieve and it would require a lot of confidence-building measures.

"To ensure the sustainability of any compromise with Iran, it is crucial to include all regional actors, in particular the Arab Gulf states, most importantly Saudi Arabia," he concluded. "At the end, the rules of the game in the Middle East need to be changed from a zero-sum game to a cooperative understanding of security. A format like a sub-regional system for cooperation and security is needed."

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