The Middle East Channel

The road to Tehran runs through Ankara

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in recent days met with dignitaries at the United Nations to generate international support for Iran to engage in talks with the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council over Iran's nuclear program. But when Mottaki and other Iranian officials in Tehran have talked recently about restarting talks, they are not referring to the nuclear negotiations the Europeans and the United States are hoping for; rather, they are trying to gain traction on negotiations about the Tehran Declaration, the agreement brokered between Iran, Brazil and Turkey in May, which is limited to a swap deal over a portion of Iran's enriched uranium. This is the deal the United States, Britain, and France dismissed in May as a sideshow and a manipulative tactic by Iran to get out of tough sanctions, shortly before crippling sanctions were passed in the United Nations, the European Union, and the U.S. Congress. At the time, this action prompted a hostile reaction from Iran.

Now that Mottaki is placing the deal squarely on the table again, the Obama administration should seize the moment. Rather than purse talks over Iran's broader nuclear program and risk failure -- during a period when there appears to be little time to waste before either a military attack is launched against Iran or Iran develops the technology to produce a nuclear weapon -- a wiser move would be to talk with Iran first over the Tehran Declaration as a way of building trust.

This is certainly the view of the Turks. A delegation of Turkish parliamentarians was in Washington last week for meetings with the Obama administration over Ankara's relations with Iran, Israel and other issues. The delegation likely advised the United States to take Iran up on its offer to begin talks immediately over the Tehran Declaration. At least one other Turkish delegation visited Washington this past summer, delivering this same message. But their efforts produced little more than hostility from members of Congress and less than enthusiastic responses from officials in the administration.

In interviews I had in Turkey during a recent trip there, Turkish diplomats who spent months shuttling between Ankara and Tehran last spring to broker the Tehran Declaration told me that the United States should accept Iran's offer to make the Tehran Declaration the framework of any negotiations with the five-plus-one because there is no support in Tehran now to negotiate over Iran's broader nuclear program. This might be what the United States wants, but there is no backing for it among a cross-section of Iran's political elites. "The inner circle around [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei views this Tehran agreement as a first step to establish good faith with Western governments," said one Turkish official with first-hand knowledge of the talks with Iran.

Iran's new campaign to revive the Tehran Declaration extends from New York to Tehran. On Sept. 28, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast reiterated Iran's position: "We have repeatedly said that we are ready for talks with Vienna Group based on [the] Tehran Declaration and we are continuing consultation to specify details of the negotiation as well as its place and time."

Turkish officials have stated repeatedly -- both last week during their Washington visit and in the summer -- that Turkey wants to facilitate the negotiations with Iran and the five-plus-one. Indeed, as the arbiter Turkey would likely ensure success. By now, Turkish negotiators understand the internal politics inside the Iranian regime far better than their European or American counterparts do. The many months Turkish foreign ministry officials shuttled between Tehran and Ankara were instructive: "It was a good lesson in how to build a consensus with different political actors," one Turkish foreign ministry official told me who participated in the delegation. 

The Turks believe that negotiations first over the fuel swap deal -- even though it falls far short of the demands of the five-plus-one -- will lead the inner circle around Khamenei and the supreme leader himself to compromise over other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran enriching uranium at 20 percent, which the Obama administration adamantly opposes because it could allow Iran to eventually produce a nuclear weapon.

The United States should listen to the Turks, simply because there are no other options to begin a dialogue with Iran. At this point, we do not need any more negotiations with Iran to understand that Western states cannot effectively talk to the Iranians alone. Talks between the five-plus-one with Iran, with Turkey as the arbiter, are a positive path out of the deadlock.            

Geneive Abdo is the Director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation and creator of http://www.insideiran.org.

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The Middle East Channel

Can Lebanon avoid its impending autumn of discontent?

Beirut has witnessed a distinct spike in tensions in recent days as elements across Lebanon's diverse political spectrum brace for impending indictments to be issued by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Speculation has been rife that the indictments will name several members of the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah. This outcome could in turn trigger a collapse of the fragile consensus government, or worse, sectarian violence in Beirut and beyond. Indeed, many observers compare the tense atmosphere in Beirut today to the period preceding Lebanon's last bout with significant sectarian strife in May 2008 when scores were killed and wounded over several days of fighting.

Jamil al-Sayyed's announcement of 33 arrest warrants against prominent Lebanese and international officials is the latest escalation in the ongoing crisis. Those named in the warrants stand accused of providing "false testimony" to the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. While Syria hasn't officially admitted a role in the arrests, this move is likely Damascus' latest attempt to cast doubt on the STL and aims to pressure the Lebanese government, particularly Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to disavow the U.N. court.

The tribunal crisis encompasses far more than what the legal jargon of indictments and false testimony might suggest. Explicitly or implicitly, it embodies all the complex challenges that confront Lebanon: Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions, Hezbollah's weapons, confessional power-sharing, the influence of regional players particularly Syria (recall that suspicions initially centered on the Assad regime -- some of whose members were specifically mentioned and then redacted in the first U.N. investigation report), and broader proxy battles between the West and the Hezbollah/Syria/Iran alliance.

For Hezbollah, the anticipated STL indictments appear to represent nothing less than an existential threat. Perhaps the fear is that in "pulling a Libya," i.e., sacrificing some low-level (call them "undisciplined") operatives in the name of sating the U.N. process, the investigation will continue and eventually target senior Hezbollah officials, even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself. Or that Hezbollah's culpability in the Hariri assassination will deal a fatal blow to Hezbollah's professed raison d'etre of "resistance" against Israel, instead reducing the organization to nothing more than a sectarian militia among many in Lebanese confessional politics. Hezbollah may well believe that the U.N. tribunal process seeks to achieve what U.N. resolutions (1559 and 1701) and war with Israel could not: its disarmament, if not outright destruction.

As such, Hezbollah has embarked on a multi-pronged strategy -- mirroring its tactics during Lebanon's 2006-2008 political impasse -- to derail the STL. First, they have unleashed a fairly sophisticated public relations campaign to discredit the U.N. court as "politicized," instead accusing Israel as the real perpetrator of the crime. Indeed, in a series of interviews and press conferences, Nasrallah laid out a detailed, if convoluted, case against Israel -- complete with video clips -- and deemed the STL process a Zionist plot. Prime Minister Hariri added to the drama in an interview last month with the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat by blaming "false witnesses" for what amounted to "politicized" accusations against Syria in the investigation of his father's murder. Hariri's interview, which appeared to absolve Syria of involvement in the case, brought the Shakespearean tragedy of his father's assassination full circle, deepening Saad's calculated rapprochement with Syria while casting further doubt on the STL's credibility.

Further ratcheting up the pressure, Hezbollah is now undertaking a political coercion strategy, threatening to block funding for the tribunal (Lebanon is responsible for providing 49 percent of the STL's funding), if not bring down the government entirely. Hezbollah and its allies comprise a "blocking third" in Lebanon's consensus government, allowing them to veto key cabinet decisions and paralyze the political system. Indeed, as a further escalation, ministers allied with Hezbollah could resign en masse, effectively bringing down the government.

Finally, failing these public relations and political tactics, Hezbollah could resort to massive street demonstrations and possibly outright violence. A recent episode at the Beirut airport in which armed Hezbollah members "escorted" former pro-Syrian general Jamil Sayyed -- protecting him from the state prosecutor's summons for questioning -- serves as a potent reminder of potential flashpoints in a politically charged atmosphere. The general -- together with three other security officials -- was held for four years without bail on possible charges related to the Hariri assassination before being released for lack of sufficient evidence. He has demanded that "false witnesses" be brought to justice, calling Prime Minister Hariri a "criminal" and demanding the government be toppled.

Lebanon's STL conundrum is often depicted as embodying a necessary trade-off between justice and stability. Either the U.N. tribunal proceeds unimpeded with its work leading to indictments that would destabilize Lebanon and possibly plunge it into civil war -- or the STL process is aborted, placed on some type of indefinite delay, and Lebanon is spared the expected instability, while Rafiq Hariri's killers are never brought to justice.

Yet, Lebanon rarely fares well in either/or scenarios. Indeed, the Lebanese mantra "neither victors nor vanquished" offers the best guidance for seeking a peaceful exit from the crisis which threatens not only Lebanon's fragile order, but regional stability as well. Lebanon's fractious parties -- together with Saudi Arabia, Syria, other Arab states and possibly France -- must engage immediately to prevent impending violence. Lebanon's National Dialogue process should serve as the blueprint for such talks -- perhaps convened outside the country either in the region (Doha II?) or in Europe. Surely, in the short term, dialogue will not resolve the deep issues embedded in Lebanon's STL crisis. But dialogue is certainly a better option than fighting and will spare the Lebanese the agony of another May, 2008 or worse.

Mona Yacoubian is a special adviser to the United States Institute for Peace's Muslim World Initiative.

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