After making a grand retreat from the deliberately contrived nuclear standoff with Iran that even its close allies had found distasteful, US officials still continue to behave as if everyone must snap to attention whenever they click their fingers. This was again seen on June 21, when US president Bush was in Vienna for talks with European rulers. At a press conference with Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, Bush said that he had just heard Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's announcement that Tehran would respond to the US-European proposal after August 22. Displaying characteristic arrogance and bombast, Bush said he needed Iran to respond to the proposal "in weeks, not months". The European-US proposal, which includes a number of offers to Iran in return for its suspending uranium enrichment, was made on June 6. Describing it as a "step forward", Iran said it was studying the proposal and would respond in due course, probably giving a counter proposal.
For years the US has demanded that Iran must suspend all enrichment activities, despite the fact that, as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Iran is fully entitled to enrich uranium. Further, Washington threatened to use force, including nuclear weapons, against Iran unless it stopped enrichment. Even America's friends could not miss the mind-boggling hypocrisy of such threats. Bush also ruled out direct talks with Iran, accusing it of supporting terrorism and being a threat to Israel. Far from supporting terrorism, Iran is the victim of US-backed and -financed terrorism through the group that calls itself the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which is better known as the Munafiqeen (hypocrites). So what forced this change of policy in Washington when secretary of state Condoleezza Rice announced on May 31 that the US was willing to talk to Iran directly (although this was again couched in a long list of demands)?
Iran's principled stand and its steadfast refusal to be browbeaten into submission, calling the US's bluff, forced the cowboys in Washington to blink first. The protracted indirect negotiations that the US had conducted with Iran through its European allies came out into the open when the EU made a formal offer to Iran, although it was again presented as a proposal coming from the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany.
At the press conference in Vienna on June 21, when Bush was asked about the US offer to talk to Iran directly, Bush said, "We'll come to the table when they verifiably suspend. Period." He was referring to the US's demand that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must confirm that it had done so. When President Ahmadinejad heard about this, he responded immediately to Bush's statement while addressing a huge crowd in a town in Hamdan province on June 22. "Today certain bullying powers in the international arena seek to impose their wishes on our country through force or threats of the use of force to deprive us of the benefits of modern technologies. It is our duty to thwart the goals of these bullying powers by maintaining our unity." This remark was greeted with loud cheers and chants of marg bar Amerika.
Bush's rhetoric aside, the joint EU-US summit declaration in Vienna on June 22 seemed to suggest the prospect of a negotiated settlement with Iran. It said the EU package offered a "basis for discussions with Iran": a far cry from the unilateralist demands of Bush, which have become untenable in light of America's isolation and its impending almost certain military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. As if to underscore the different American and European positions, the statement said the US was insisting on Iran resuming "full and verifiable suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities as required by the IAEA" (emphasis added) before talks commenced. It did not say it was a joint EU-US position. This must have disconcerted the Americans; they had been hoping to present a united front with the Europeans, while in fact the Europeans are appalled at the Americans' arrogance when Washingtonought to be showing some humility. Even the threat that if "Iran decides not to engage in negotiations, further steps [will] be taken in the Security Council. We urge Iran to take the positive path" is ambiguous. If Iran does not, what will the EU and the US do? After months of threats, veiled and open, the Americans have had to climb down because they realise that the Iranians are not impressed by their bluster. Bush is like a man lying on his back threatening to break his assailants' bones if he is punched one more time in the face.
The climbdown by the EU and US is being presented under the rubric of "new flexibility". American diplomats have hinted that the US pre-condition that all enrichment activity must cease should not be taken as "surgically precise". The Iranians, too, have said they are willing to talk without pre-conditions. In Baku, Azerbaijan, for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) foreign ministers' meeting, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the media on June 22: "the important thing is the creation of a positive atmosphere". Russian president Vladimir Putin also tried to nudge the process along by offering the Americans a way out of the difficulties into which their poorly-informed president had got them. During his meeting with Italian prime minister Romano Prodi in Moscow on June 22, Putin said: "Our job is to use the negotiating process of the six nations and Iran to return the question to the framework of the IAEA. Judging from what we heard from our Iranian partners in Shanghai, I think that is entirely possible." Putin had only a week earlier met Iranian president Ahmedinejad in Shanghaiduring the Shanghai Cooperation Organization annual conference, at which the latter had once again reiterated Tehran's position that it wanted the nuclear issue to be dealt with through the IAEA and not the Security Council. Iran has taken strong exception to US threats of the imposition of sanctions using the Security Council. It has threatened to use its oil as a weapon should sanctions be imposed, and has chided Bush for imposing deadlines on its response, which Tehran is not prepared to accept. The Chinese support Iran on this point, as they do on the question of sanctions.
Amid the US's bluster, one point seems to have been overlooked altogether: that Iran is adhering to its NPT obligations and the US is not. Nobody has been able to fault Iran on this score; the US, on the other hand, has failed to live up to its commitment to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons. With more than 10,000 warheads, the US still has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. It is also guilty of using nuclear weapons twice against Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and in recent years it has used depleted-uranium missile-shells, causing severe suffering to the Iraqi people.
Far from succeeding in isolating Iran, the US stands discredited all over the world. Everywhere there is intense dislike of the US's policies; according to a Financial Times/Harris poll last month, 36 percent of Europeans consider America to be a threat to global stability, which is far more than the figure for Iran. Nearly the same proportion of Americans fear Bush's policies as threatening world peace; only 4 percent of Americans believe Iran poses a threat. At the same time, officials from neighbouring countries and farther afield have been making a beeline to Tehran to meet Iranian leaders and officials. These include Arab leaders and officials, who have at last recognized that Iran is a regional power and that nothing can be achieved without its consent. It is interesting to note that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formed in 1980 at the behest of the US to confront Iran after the Islamic Revolution, have pointedly rejected the US's offer to sell them more weapons. The GCC member-states want Iran to be included in any new security arrangement.
Russia and China are actively courting Tehran for its strategic location, its new-found strength and self-confidence, and its vast energy resources. During the Shanghai summit, Putin responded warmly to President Ahmedinejad's proposal for a grouping of gas-producing countries. Although a gas cartel on the lines of OPEC does not seem to be intended at present, this response reflects the changed realities that are beginning to challenge the rogue superpower's hegemonic tendencies. To appreciate how much the world has changed since the USemerged as the "sole superpower" in 1991/1992, consider these facts: that the non-aligned members meeting in Vienna on June 13 reiterated Iran's right to uranium enrichment; and that the same message was delivered by the foreign ministers of the OIC in Baku on June 22. Barely two years ago none of this would have been thinkable.
What this shows is that if leaders of the Muslim world have the backing of their people and stand up for principles, they can withstand any pressure from the bullies of the world. We may be about to see the end of the unipolar political scene dominated by the US.