The “P5+1” All Dressed Up, Nowhere To Go

In international diplomacy, when scheduling a major event on which issues of war and peace are pegged and that date is just a week away, and if you still don’t know the venue, you’re indeed in some serious trouble. The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced while on a visit to Istanbul to attend the ‘Friends of Syria’ meet on April 1 that the long-awaited meeting of the so-called ‘P5+1’ to discuss the Iran nuclear issue would take place on April 13. She disclosed that Istanbul would be the venue.

But Clinton’s Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi now says Istanbul is only one option. Although “personally speaking”, he likes Istanbul, he proposed Iraq and China as Tehran’s preference. Baghdad has since offered to host the P5+1; after all, if it could hold an Arab summit with wealthy, flamboyant sheikhs attending it, why not faceless diplomats from 6 or seven countries?

But Iraq’s Foreign Ministry also revealed that Tehran has asked Baghdad to host the upcoming talks instead of Istanbul. A high-ranking Iranian delegation led by the deputy head of the Supreme National Council Ali Baqeri apparently visited Baghdad Tuesday and made the request to Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

An easy way out would probably be for the US to accept the Iraqi offer and showcase the US’s success story of the enterprise begun by President George W. Bush to ‘stabilize’ Iraq. But Turkey is the hot favorite of the Barack Obama administration. Washington would want to boost Turkey’s regional standing.

Turkey too desperately wants to be the host country for the P5+1. It wants to be seen as the facilitator of the handshake between the West and Iran. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan visited Tehran recently to canvass Iranian backing for Ankara’s wish to host the P5+1.

Tehran understands Erdogan’s longings to project Turkey as the number one regional power. The catch is, that is exactly the problem too. The ‘burning problems’ of the Middle East include Syria and Tehran doesn’t like Turkey’s self-appointed role as the regional superpower.

Erdogan has also been playing complicated games with Tehran. He professes empathy for Iran’s nuclear program and is quite willing to accept that the program is peaceful; he warns against military strikes against Iran and maintains a high-pitch rhetoric toward Israel – recently demanding that Israel’s “200 or 300” nuclear weapons should also be made accountable by the international community. He does all this to ingratiate Turkey with the leadership in Tehran.

But while professing to be Iran’s friend, Erdogan proceeded with the deployment of the US missile defence system in the Turkish region of Malatya, whose sole agenda is to neutralize Iran’s missile capabilities in a conflict with Israel – that is to say, weaken Iran’s capacity to retaliate in the event of an Israeli military strike.

Erdogan forged special links with Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the axis burns midnight oil to isolate Iran in the region. Ankara speaks incessantly about Syria, but keeps mum on Bahrain. The green money that the oil sheikhs lavish on Turkey has become a major determinant of Turkish policy.

In retrospect, Tehran was barely controlling itself from putting Turkey on the mat. Perhaps, the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back came when Turkey announced its decision to cut oil imports from Iran by 20% soon after Erdogan returned from Tehran.

According to reports, Erdogan was made to cool his heels for an entire day in Tehran before President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad would grant him an audience. The Iranians claimed that their president was ‘indisposed’ while the entire region got to know he attended to state business by meeting visiting Turkmen vice-president Baimurad Khojamukhamedov.

Quite obviously, the Syrian crisis and attendant regional alignments have become the core issue in Turkey-Iran relations. Tehran can learn to live with the US’ ABM radar on the Anatolian plains; it can survive reduction in Turkey’s oil purchases; it can do without Erdogan’s certificate for its nuclear program; it is indifferent where the oil sheikhs park the ‘green money’ in Turkey. But Syria is the ‘red line’. And what Turkey has been doing in Syria is completely unacceptable.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei punched hard when he received Erdogan Thursday:

“Iran will defend Syria because of its support for the resistance to the Zionist regime… We are strongly opposed to any interference by foreign forces in the internal affairs of Syria… The reforms [of President Bashar al-Assad] which have begun there should continue.”

Taking a swipe at the ‘Friends of Syria’ group, which Turkey was hosting only three days later, Khamenei warned Iran would “strongly oppose” any plan “created by the Americans for the Syrian issue.” He said, “America accepts no nation as an independent entity… and this should be taken into consideration in the decision-making of Islamic countries.”

In the ultimate analysis, however, the content of the ‘P5+1’ talks are going to be “more important than the venue and timing”, to quote Salehi. He added meaningfully, “I think the future talks, compared to the past, will hopefully be better and forward steps will be taken.”

By raking up the issue of venue of the P5+1 talks, apart from puncturing Turkish vanity, Tehran is also warning that US is assuming far too much. The point is, harsh things are again being said about Iran. Clinton has reappeared on the scene with matchless rhetoric. More pressure tactic and sanctions are threatened. Clinton threatened on Wednesday that “time for diplomacy [With Iran] is not infinite and all options are on the table.”

Meanwhile, Clinton journeyed to Riyadh on Saturday to push the case for establishing the US missile defence architecture in the Persian Gulf. Washington is exploiting the paranoia of the oil sheiks over the Arab Spring to reinforce its strategic pre-eminence in the region. The ABM project is predicated on GCC-Iran animosities and it doesn’t speak well of the US diplomacy to be seen so openly feeding on them.

Tehran has strongly objected. Defence Minister Ahmad Wahidi said, “This missile shield is a US-Israeli project and anyone who gets involved in it is, in fact, implementing the US-Israeli plot.” The influential head of the Majlis commission on foreign and security policies, Alae’ddin Broujerdi said on Tuesday: “Sooner or later, the US and the Western countries will have to accept the nuclear realities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The sooner they realize it, the better… The nuclear train will never stop in Iran.”

Tehran has successfully defended the Syrian regime. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday: “Even if the Syrian opposition is armed to the teeth, it will not be able to beat the government forces.” The fact that Kofi Annan is heading for Tehran next week for consultations with the Iranian leadership regarding the future steps on Syria underscores the power dynamics of the Middle East.

Clearly, Obama is increasingly unsure about engaging Iran. The US doesn’t want to lose the golden opportunity to tie in the oil-rich gulf monarchies. At the same time, high oil price hurts the American consumer and it could impact US politics, while Saudi cooperation to keep extra oil flowing could help. All things considered, therefore, engagement of Iran becomes too much of a gamble for Obama to take in an election year with Mitt Romney hot on his heels.


Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR / Strategic Culture Foundation

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