by Thu Hang
Prospects remain gloomy for a diplomatic solution to the tense standoff between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear energy programme, even as Israel continues to threaten to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
Iran's ability to enrich uranium into weapons-grade nuclear fuel is at the heart of the confrontation, with the West and its allies worrying that Tehran could push ahead with the higher uranium enrichment levels needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran, meanwhile, continues to maintain that its only aim is to fuel reactors for peaceful energy production and medical research.
While much is known about Iran's nuclear activities from UN inspection visits, significant questions remain uncertain.
According to Col Le The Mau, a senior commentator with the Vietnamese Ministry of Defence's Military Strategy Institute, the US's carrot-and-stick approach of sanctions and negotiations with Iran has been ineffective, and the strategy would not prevent Iran from developing a peaceful nuclear energy programme.
Mau noted that Iran was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP) and that there was not yet any evidence proving that Iran was attempting to produce nuclear weapons.
Whether Israel would nevertheless carry out its threats to attack Iran would depend on Washington, not Tel Aviv, Mau said. Both Israel and the US want to strike Iran if sanctions do not work, he said.
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday warned Tehran that "the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking" and pressed it to take upcoming negotiations with world powers seriously. He has warned that military action remained an option if sanctions and diplomacy failed.
Obama also predicted at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron that a punishing new set of sanctions on Iran would "begin to bite even harder this summer" and would further hurt Tehran's economy.
Obama reiterated that his intention was not to contain Iran but to actively prevent it from getting nuclear weapons.
While both Obama and Cameron have signalled that they do not believe that the time is right for military action against Iran, fierce speculation continues about the possibility of an Israeli strike within the next few months.
Cameron has backed Obama's condemnation of "loose talk" of war with Iran, which has boiled over due to speculation over Israel's intentions and heated rhetoric by Republican presidential candidates in the US.
In a letter to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton earlier on Wednesday, Iran formally requested a date and venue for talks with the P5+1 group of world powers, consisting of the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
Russia has warned that military action against Iran risked catastrophic consequences and has said that the crisis must be solved diplomatically.
Iran has said it was interested in talks "without preconditions and with the goal of having long-term co-operation". In the past, Iran has refused to discuss its nuclear programme at the talks, with Iran denying the programme was designed to manufacture weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that sanctions against Iran have not worked, and the world could not afford to wait much longer, with the time running out for any pre-emptive strike. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu reasserted Israel's right to defend itself and said that he would never gamble with Israel's security.
Col Mau warned that the US and Israel could ultimately co-operate to launch strikes on Iran. However, such an attack could undermine the global economic recovery by cutting off the flow of oil from the Middle East.
Strike could have immeasurable negative effects on the entire world, Mau said.
In the US, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday that a 56 per cent of Americans would support US military action against Iran if there were evidence that Tehran were building nuclear weapons, even if such actions led to higher petrol prices. Another poll also showed that one in four US respondents favoured an Israeli strike. Meanwhile, 69 per cent – including a strong majority of Republicans – also said they preferred continued negotiations with Tehran.
But the political pressures on Obama are increasing as he fights for re-election this year. Obama, a Democrat, has faced criticism from his potential Republican rivals for being too soft on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel. But war could cause global oil prices to skyrocket, killing the economic recovery Obama needs if he is to win re-election.
World powers last week urged Tehran to allow UN inspectors access to a military base thought to be central to its suspected nuclear weapons drive, and they urged Iran to take talks seriously. No date or location has been agreed upon, but Washington's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Robert Wood, told AFP that he expected talks to resume within the next few months.
Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, also said Tehran's willingness to discuss with the IAEA allegations of a nuclear weapons programme was also a confidence-building gesture.
"We will never suspend our nuclear activities, but we will continue under the supervision of the IAEA," he told AFP.
Meanwhile Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by Kommersant daily as saying: "War is not going to solve the problem and will create a million new ones and will be fraught with serious consequences for many countries."
The fundamental and long-term solution to these types of conflicts is for countries to stop intervening in the internal affairs of other countries, Col Mau said. The ultimate goal should be to promote peace and security, with differences solved diplomatically and with respect for other countries' sovereignty. — VNS