Iran playing ducks and drakes

Iran playing ducks and drakes

Europe is set to ban the import of Iranian crude if there is no progress in resolving the nuclear issue.

The victory of ultra-conservative hardliners in the March 2 parliamentary election in Iran could encourage supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to seek a deal with the west over Iran's nuclear programme.

In the first round of the poll, 225 of 290 seats were filled; the 65 others will be decided in run-off contests set for April. Since 75 per cent of those elected are said to back Khamenei, the position of the erratic president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, already eroded, has been further weakened. This makes it difficult for him to contest policies adopted by Khamanei.

Ahmadinejad has been sharply criticised over the past year for trying to expand the powers of the presidency in a system where the final say rests with Khamenei, the spiritual leader of the republic, and the clerical bodies that remain supreme. Ahmadinejad has also been accused of promoting a ‘deviant’ version of Islam that features populism and Persian nationalism.

Although the new parliament has a representation of 20 associated with the reformist trend which seeks better relations with the west, the reformists are unlikely to have any influence. Most reform candidates were banned from contesting and supporters boycotted the vote. However, their call for voters to stay away from the polls was largely ignored since the turn-out was 64 per cent as compared to 57 per cent in the 2008 poll. This is touted as proof of the legitimacy of the regime.

Poor turnout

Campaign posters urged people to cast their ballots as a means of defying western sanctions and threats to attack Iran and deliver a ‘slap’ to the faces of the US and Israel, Iran's main antagonists.  Parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, Khamenei’s man, said Iran's enemies had bet on a poor turn-out ‘to place more pressure on Iran’ to capitulate to the demands of the US/Israel to halt its nuclear programme which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes, but Tel Aviv and Washington argue that it is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

However, legitimacy is not a concern with the western powers that have clamped punitive sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. Sanctions have compounded the negative effects of the regime's  mismanagement of the economy and the downturn has given rise to public discontent.

While Europe is set to ban the import of Iranian crude if there is no progress to resolve the standoff over the nuclear programme, the sanctions regime is already impacting Iran’s export. For example, a shipment of Iranian crude bound for India had to be cancelled last month because European insurers refused to provide coverage for the vessel carrying it. Sanctions on insurers and a ban on dealings with Iranian banks, making it impossible to pay, could shut down oil deals between Iran, India  and other countries seeking to get round the sanctions regime.

Tehran is also under terrific pressure from Israel - and to a lesser extent the US - which has vowed to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if the clerical regime does not halt, suspend, or reach a deal with the west on its nuclear programme.

Spurred by the tightening of sanctions and Israeli threats and strengthened by the victory of the ultra-conservatives in the legislature, the regime has called for the renewal of dialogue with the west.  Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saad Jalili has offered to rejoin talks with the group dubbed the ‘P-5 + 1,’ the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, UK, Russia, China and France - and Germany. In a bid to encourage these powers to engage, Iran has signalled that it could permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the Parchin military base where, it is said, simulated nuclear warhead tests were carried out.

The IAEA also seeks to ascertain that none of the enriched uranium Iran possesses has been diverted to a clandestine weapons programme and to secure information on work on a weapons programme abandoned in 2003.

European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton quickly accepted Jalili's offer. The test of the intentions of both sides will come if and when meetings take place. Iran is conflicted: Khamenei has repeatedly denied that Iran is developing nuclear weapons which he regards as "a sin as well as useless, harmful and dangerous," but he does not trust the west which he believes seeks regime change.

The west, led by US president Barack Obama, is also conflicted: Obama, who does not want to be dragged into a third disastrous conflict, is under pressure from Israeli political and military wings if sanctions do not bring Iran to heel in coming months.  This past week, Obama issued a plea for time to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear programme peacefully but Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his powerful allies in Washington continue to beat the war drums. 

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