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Cast Lead and Goldstone/Iran's Negotiating Strategy

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Update from AIJAC

February 5, 2010
Number 02/10 #02

This Update brings you a detailed analysis of the moral performance of the Israel Defence Force during Operation Cast Lead at the beginning of last year from a significant source - Professor Asa Kasher, a distinguished Israeli philosopher and expert on ethics. Professor Kasher looks at Israeli actions in terms of both jus ad bellum and jus in bello, meaning the morality of going to war itself, as well as the behaviour of the troops in fighting the war. He argues that Israel has actually established a moral standard to be emulated and incorporated into international law in fighting terrorist groups in civlian areas, and favourably compares Israel's actions in Gaza with US efforts during the battle for Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. For this long and detailed, but important, argument from a leading ethicist, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Jonathan D. Halevi, a former Israeli intelligence officer specialising in analysing Palestinian media and communications, looks in some detail at Hamas's response to the limited claims in the UN's Goldstone report about its conduct. As was widely reported in the media, Hamas claimed, absurdly, that it did not target civilians while it fired rockets at Israeli towns, but Halevi shows that there are many more interesting claims in their response including that: Hamas is entitled to target all of Israel as an "occupier", but any and all Israeli responses are illegal, the towns in Israel Hamas fired at were also "occupied territory"; and it is a war crime for Israel to attack absolutely anything in Gaza because anything might be civilian. However, the most interesting revelations are that Hamas agrees that  the Goldstone Report is biased against Israel, that the accusations against Hamas in it are not significant, while the Tawtheeq Palestinian legal organization, which wrote Hamas's Goldstone response and is headed by a Hamas operative, also supplied much of the information relied on by the Goldstone Commission. For all the details of Hamas claims, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Iran's Government suddenly hinted on Tuesday that it was open to the deal offered in October, and previously rejected by Teheran, to send most  its uranium abroad for enrichment. Analyst Jonathan Spyer argues that seems to be another attempt by Iran to again employ a favourite negotiating strategy - recalcitrance followed by last minute shows of flexibility, which averts confrontation, but never leads to any progress because Iran allows any new negotiations to peter out in endless bickering about details. However, Spyer suggests the tactic may be ineffective with most foreign governments this time around. For his review of the history of this Iranian tactic and the background to the latest offer by Iran, CLICK HERE.

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A Moral Evaluation of the Gaza War - Operation Cast Lead

Asa Kasher

Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 4 February 2010

  • In Israel, a combatant is a citizen in uniform; quite often, he is a conscript or on reserve duty. His state ought to have a compelling reason for jeopardizing his life. The fact that persons involved in terrorism are depicted as non-combatants and that they reside and act in the vicinity of persons not involved in terrorism is not a reason for jeopardizing the combatant's life more than is required under combat conditions.
  • The ethical doctrine which follows from the IDF Ethics Code mandates that, whenever possible, you must warn non-combatants that they are residents of a neighborhood where it is dangerous to stay. In Gaza, the IDF employed a variety of unprecedented efforts meant to minimize injury to non-combatants, including warning leaflets, phone calls, and non-lethal warning fire.
  • There is no army in the world that will endanger its soldiers in order to avoid hitting the warned neighbors of an enemy or terrorist. Israel should favor the lives of its own soldiers over the lives of the well-warned neighbors of a terrorist when it is operating in a territory that it does not effectively control, because in such territories it does not bear the moral responsibility for properly separating between dangerous individuals and harmless ones.
  • Proportionality is not a numerical comparison, but an assessment of existing threats and the measures that must be taken in order to avert them. Proportionality is justifiability of the collateral damage on grounds of the military advantage gained.
  • Compare the Gaza operation to the U.S. Marine operation in Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004. During the operation, about 6,000 Iraqis including 1,200-2,000 insurgents were killed. Of the city's 50,000 buildings, some 10,000 were destroyed, including 60 mosques. Thus, the U.S. left a trail of destruction in Fallujah far greater than anything Israel inflicted on Gaza. Comparing IDF activities to those of military forces of Western democracies is an essential part of any present attempt to use international law.
  • We in Israel are in a key position in the development of customary international law in this field because we are on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. The more often Western states apply principles that originated in Israel to their own non-traditional conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, then the greater the chance these principles have of becoming a valuable part of international law.
The "Just War Tradition"

On December 27, 2008, after sustaining eight years of rocket attacks, Israel launched a military operation against Hamas in Gaza. How are we to evaluate the Israeli incursion from a moral and ethical perspective?

As in any moral evaluation of a war, we must begin by distinguishing the "Why?" from the "How?" "Just war" theory distinguishes between jus ad bellum and jus in bello - between the moral justification for war and the moral justification for actions taken during a war. The decision to wage a war or to embark on a military operation is made by a government, by politicians. The implementation of that decision in the field, however, or the "How?" is determined by the military echelon. Generally speaking, a government is not to blame for the behavior of soldiers, and soldiers should not be blamed for the decisions made by the political class.

To ask "Why?" is to invoke several principles that belong to the "just war tradition." The first is the right of self-defense. From an external point of view, from the perspective of the relationships between states, a state has the right to defend itself against attack. From the internal point of view, namely from the perspective of the relationship between a state and its citizens, a government has the duty to defend its citizens. A state must protect its citizens from acts of violence because it must preserve the conditions that enable it to exist; foremost among them is the preservation of the lives of its citizens. A democratic state is therefore under an obligation to defend its citizens' lives. Thus the state has a right vis-à-vis the enemy and a duty vis-à-vis its citizens. This is the distinction between a state's right of self-defense, which relates to what is beyond its confines, and a state's obligation of self-defense, which relates to what is within its confines. Both are applicable in our case, since beginning in 2001 over ten thousand Kassam rockets and mortars were launched from Gaza into Israel, endangering the lives of the citizens under attack.

Second is the principle of last resort, which dictates that if a dispute can be solved without resort to military force and inflicting casualties, then the parties are obligated to do so. The use of military force is justified, in other words, only if all other alternatives have been exhausted. Here, too, Israel is presumably in the right, for rather than launching an offensive immediately after the first Kassam rocket struck Sderot, the country waited eight years, during which it pursued other solutions, both military and political. Israel's long abstention from any large-scale military response in the face of this aggression presumably meets the principle of last resort.

Third, the probability of victory principle dictates that a military operation may be launched only if it has a reasonable chance of successfully achieving its aims. Such operations may not be initiated merely as a symbolic gesture of bravery. If there is no chance of victory, the use of military force is mere bloodshed. Yet here we must distinguish between classical wars like World War II and the Six-Day War in which victory meant the elimination of a military threat, and asymmetric counterterrorism or counterinsurgency warfare against a non-state entity, like the type Israel faces against the terrorist militias of Hizbullah and Hamas. In the latter, victory means significantly improving the security situation in the southern part of Israel by damaging the enemy's armaments infrastructure and crippling its ability to carry out terrorist activities. Here again, last year's incursion into Gaza met the pertinent condition.

The Moral Standards of the Israel Defense Forces


In inquiring into the moral standards of a military force - which is not the same as addressing the standards of an individual - three independent questions come to the fore. One concerns the basic values on which the military force acts and the code of ethics according to which it behaves. A second level concerns the translation of such values into practice by means of doctrines, regulations, and rules of engagement. Values are abstract, doctrines are more concrete, while rules of engagement are quite concrete. Finally, there is the question that relates to the behavior of the troops on the battlefield.

As specified in a document called "The Spirit of the IDF," the values of the Israel Defense Forces, much like the values of the American and British forces, are impeccable. For example, there is the basic value of protecting the human dignity of every human being, even the most vile terrorist. How do we protect the human dignity of a terrorist? By considering whether to kill him or capture him or leave him alone.

An additional, uniquely Israeli value is that of the sanctity of human life, both of our troops, our citizens, and other human beings. It appears in an explicit form in no other military code of ethics.

The military code also enshrines a fundamental value known as "purity of arms," which actually means the purity of the usage of arms. Soldiers may use force only for accomplishing their mission, and nothing more. Anything you do with your gun which is not defending the citizens by accomplishing your specific mission is deemed immoral.

In my view, no military code of ethics is morally superior to the code of ethics of the IDF.

A View of International Law

We turn now to that part of international law that concerns warfare. This was elaborated in the seventeenth century by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius on the foundations of a very long philosophical and theological tradition - the "just war tradition." Later it took the form of the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Conventions.

Strictly speaking, international law does not apply to the situation Israel faced in Gaza. Its provisions were intended to guide a military conflict between armies with clear chains of command in which all the troops wear uniforms, bear arms openly, and are responsible to the civil government of a certain state. Terrorist militias like Hamas, however, are not guided by a state. Hamas acts from a territory which is a political entity, the Palestinian Authority, but which is not a state. Moreover, Palestinian terrorists, deliberately and constantly, blur the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, both among the Palestinian population and among the Israelis they target. The classical assumption of mutual observance of the norms of warfare never holds in the war on terrorism.

How then can international law meant for classical warfare apply to nontraditional wars? One way is by means of creative interpretations of international law. The problems with such an approach, however, are immediately apparent. Whose interpretation prevails? The interpretation of the Supreme Court of Israel? The U.S. Supreme Court? The Marine Corps' Judge Advocate Division? Somebody within the United Nations?

An Ethical Doctrine for Combating Terrorists

Israel should take a different approach, for it is interested in extending international law rather than replacing present provisions by other ones. Extending international law entails creating new principles in the spirit of the "just war tradition" by attending to fundamental principles, and not merely reinterpreting a certain clause in a certain convention. As it happens, Major General Amos Yadlin and I, as a first step in such a direction, put forward a document that offers an ethical doctrine for combating terrorists. This document was published in the Journal of Military Ethics in 2005. Here are some elements of it.

Usually, the duty to minimize casualties among combatants during combat is last on the list of priorities. We firmly reject such a conception. In Israel, a combatant is a citizen in uniform; quite often, he is a conscript or on reserve duty. His state ought to have a compelling reason for jeopardizing his life. The fact that persons involved in terrorism are depicted as non-combatants and that they reside and act in the vicinity of persons not involved in terrorism is not a reason for jeopardizing the combatant's life more than is required under combat conditions.

What we need instead of the crude and now impractical distinction familiar from the case of regular wars is a scale of involvement in terrorist activity: There are people who are directly involved, those who are indirectly involved, and those who are not involved at all. The second two categories may never be targeted. An operation may only target those who are directly involved, i.e., only if they play a significant role in creating an otherwise unavoidable danger.

So our doctrine allows targeted killing when it is necessary to stop a certain operation against the citizens of Israel and when the role played by the target is crucial to the operation. This is not a form of punishment. The only body that can impose punishment is the court. This is meant only to stop an ongoing act of terrorism. Nor is such killing a form of deterrence. Killing for the sake of deterrence is something akin to terrorism. According to our doctrine, it is impermissible to kill for deterrent purposes alone. Israel killed Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, for instance, not to achieve a deterrent effect, but because they posed a significant threat to Israeli lives. Deterrence has been an ensuing byproduct.

Our doctrine also draws a distinction between three different standards of conduct to guide a soldier in any military action: (a) a standard he should follow when facing a group comprising enemy combatants and no one else; (b) a standard he should follow when facing a group of enemy non-combatants who are not participating in the fighting and are not in proximity to enemy combatants; and (c) a standard he should follow when facing a mixed group of combatants and non-combatants.

The Gaza operation mostly took place under conditions that required the application of the third standard of conduct. In the third situation, "just war tradition" theory posits the "double effect" principle. According to this principle, when we are seeking a goal that is morally justified in and of itself, then it is also morally justified to achieve it, even if this may lead to undesirable consequences - on the condition that the undesirable consequences are unavoidable and unintentional, and that an effort was made to minimize their negative effects.

The Need to Warn Non-combatants

Our doctrine mandates that whenever possible, you must warn non-combatants that they are residents of a neighborhood where it is dangerous to stay. The responsibility for minimizing injury to non-combatants entails the responsibility to separate them from terrorists and to remove them from the area of combat. In Gaza, the IDF employed a variety of effective efforts meant to minimize collateral damage, including widely distributed warning leaflets, more than 150,000 warning phone calls to terrorists' neighbors, and non-lethal warning fire (the so-called "knock on the roof") - unprecedented efforts in every respect.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer attacked our doctrine on the grounds that such warnings are not enough. "In such cases," they wrote, "some civilians never leave, despite repeated warnings - because they are old and sick, or because they are caring for relatives who are old and sick, or because they are afraid that their homes will be looted, or because they have no place to go."

Now under such circumstances, should Israel send in troops in order to find out whether there are non-combatants in addition to the terrorists or not? Our doctrine says Israel was not required to send in troops because the mixture of terrorists and non-combatants is a mixture not under our moral responsibility in a territory over which we do not have effective control, as in Gaza. In a state of effective control, the responsibility for distinguishing between terrorists and non-combatants is placed upon Israel's shoulders. We do have effective control over Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and many other places, so there we do jeopardize the lives of police when necessary to prevent criminal acts without harming the neighbors. That is their duty.

But there is no army in the world that will endanger its soldiers in order to avoid hitting the well-warned neighbors of an enemy or terrorist. When Israel does not have effective control over a territory, the moral responsibility for distinguishing between terrorists and non-combatants is not placed upon its shoulders. Gaza was not under our effective control. Therefore, one does not have to jeopardize the lives of the troops in such circumstances just for that sake. If you look at non-combatants in a territory where one does not have effective control and have already made a series of warnings that are known to have been effective, then the lives of the troops come first.

In sum, Israel should favor the lives of its own soldiers over the lives of the well-warned neighbors of a terrorist when it is operating in a territory that it does not effectively control, because in such territories it does not bear moral responsibility for properly separating between dangerous individuals and harmless ones, beyond warning them in an effective way. The sick can wave white flags, their relatives can do it too. The person who is afraid his home would be looted does not create by his odd behavior a reason for jeopardizing soldiers' lives. The person who does not know where to go is a myth.

Understanding Proportionality


A word about proportionality. Many critics of the Gaza operation charged that, since very few people were killed by rocket attacks on Israel's population, while many people were killed by the Israeli response, this response was disproportionate and, therefore, contrary to international law. However, the way the term "proportionality" has been employed in public discourse is usually wrong. First, the number of Israeli casualties is not a reliable measure of the threat posed by enemy rockets. A Grad rocket hit a Beersheba classroom on December 31, 2008; had the missile hit the school when classes were in session, dozens of schoolchildren would have been killed. Luck does not diminish the threat posed by an attack. Proportionality is not a numerical comparison, but an assessment of justifiability of the collateral damage made by the military advantage gained.

An example: At the beginning of the Gaza campaign, a police headquarters was hit because so-called policemen were part of the Hamas security forces and some of them were suicide bombers and others were firing rockets. They were not innocent people involved in traffic control. They were part of a Hamas security force that acted like a reserve unit, and during military warfare you are permitted to hit reserve units that are going to enter the battlefield. The portrayal of those people as if they were all innocent policemen is misleading. Even if some of them were innocent, their attack was utterly justified by the military advantage gained by attacking them. (We assume that warning these innocent individuals would have been futile.)

Were some soldiers trigger-happy in Gaza? Perhaps. But was there a policy of trigger-happiness? On the basis of two kinds of indirect evidence, we can say that there was not. First, if there had been a policy of trigger-happiness, there would have been many thousands of Palestinian casualties. Second, if there had been a policy of trigger-happiness, then the distribution of men, women, and children among the casualties would have closely resembled their distribution in the population. But that is not the case. The vast majority of casualties in Gaza were men; women and children comprised about a sixth of the casualties.

Comparing Israel's Conduct in Gaza to U.S. Conduct in Iraq

Compare the Gaza operation to Operation Phantom Fury, which the U.S. Marines launched in Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004. Many of Fallujah's 350,000 residents fled the city before the operation, leaving an estimated 3,000 insurgents behind. During the operation, about 6,000 Iraqis including 1,200-2,000 insurgents were killed. Of the city's 50,000 buildings, some 10,000 were destroyed, including 60 mosques, each of which was used to store substantial quantities of armaments and munitions. Even according to Palestinian figures, which are unreliable, 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza operation. Thus, the United States left a trail of destruction in Fallujah that was far greater than anything Israel inflicted on Gaza. So there is no basis to claim that Israeli conduct of anti-terrorist warfare is less restrained than that of other enlightened states.

We compare Operation Phantom Fury and Operation Cast Lead not in order to use the results for casting a shadow on the former or praising the latter. We compare the operations because the way democratic states conduct their military activities is what should interest us, rather than some creative and often hostile interpretation of the conventions, as a step towards instituting customary international law.

Customary international law accrues through an historic process. If states are involved in a certain type of military activity against other states, militias, and the like, and if all of them act quite similarly to each other, then there is a chance that it will become customary international law. We in Israel are in a key position in the development of law in this field because we are on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. I am not optimistic enough to assume that the world will soon acknowledge Israel's lead in developing customary international law. My hope is that our doctrine, give or take some amendments, will in this fashion be incorporated into customary international law in order to regulate warfare and limit its calamities.


Investigations

When claims are made with respect to IDF conduct during the Gaza operation, no matter by whom, the IDF should investigate them, even if they appear to be fabricated. A commander may not ignore allegations about his troops; this is required professionally, ethically, and morally.

The IDF is a serious organization, interested in improving its activity on all levels - professional, military, legal, moral, and ethical. All military actions carried out during the Gaza operation should undergo a professional, thorough, and detailed investigation, just like any other non-routine and complicated professional operation. The IDF has an obligation to investigate itself just as any other professional organization would. This standard applies to a physician after an operation, an engineer after completing a bridge, and a commander after military activities. If some troops are suspected of breaching the law, then let the military police investigate. Indeed, there are significantly many ongoing investigations. Nothing more is required.

*     *     *

Prof. Asa Kasher is the Laura Schwarz-Kipp Professor Emeritus of Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University in Israel. He is co-author of the Israel Defense Forces Code of Ethics, "The Spirit of the IDF: Values and Basic Principles," 1994. His research covers a broad range of topics in philosophy and ethics, including military ethics and medical ethics, and philosophy of language, as well as issues of Jewish identity. In 2000, Professor Kasher was awarded the Israel Prize for his work in philosophy and ethics. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on November 26, 2009. The article was written in conjunction with the Global Law Forum sponsored by the Legacy Heritage Fund.

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Hamas' line of defense


Jonathan Dahohah Halevi analyzes Hamas’ response to Goldstone’s charges

Ynet.com,
Feb. 4, 2010

Israel has recently delivered to the United Nations Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon its official response to the UN’s fact finding mission to Operation Cast Lead, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone. Hamas’ government is also preparing to submit its official response before the grace period of six months set to the parties by the Goldstone committee is over.

In sharp contrast to the genuine fears expressed by Israel, Hamas does not seem to feel any threat in the legal arena. On the contrary, Hamas demonstrates self-confidence based on the understanding that the Goldstone committee strived only to incriminate Israel and all other limited references to the other side were just for lip service without any legal significance.

Musa Abu Marzouq, Hamas’ second in command, said in this regard in an interview to al-Mashahid al-Siyasi newspaper (December 8, 2009) that “All paragraphs in the Goldstone report convict Israel and totally exonerate Hamas from any misconduct... Likewise, the (Goldstone) report exonerated Hamas from all other accusations mentioned by Israel and even when the (Goldstone) report is dealing with the rockets which were launched from the Gaza Strip it speaks about military groups without naming Hamas.”

Hamas’ line of defense vis-à-vis the Goldstone report has been shaped by a group of Palestinian jurists headed by Diya Al-Din Muhsin Al-Madhoun, former legal adviser to Ismail Haniyeh (Hamas prime minister) and today chairman of the Tawtheeq (documentation) organization that was the key factor assigned by Hamas’ government, on which the Goldstone committee relied for sources of information in its fact finding mission. In series of interviews to the media, Madhoun elaborated as follows Hamas’ main legal arguments of its would-be response to the Goldstone report assumed to be delivered in the near future to the UN secretary general.
 
The armed struggle is legitimate

Madhoun asserts that all historic Palestine is an occupied land and that the international law legitimizes the right of self defense and resistance of the Palestinian people, who are living under 61 years of occupation. Therefore, Madhoun argues that “resistance operations conducted by the Palestinian resistance organizations, including launching rockets and mortar shells at the occupying Zionist forces, and all other military operations, are legitimate according the international law under the principle of defending our people and liberating our occupied land.”

Israel has no right to self defense


Madhoun entirely rebuts Israel’s claim for self defence, arguing that it constitutes a grave violation of the Palestinian people’s right for self defence as reflected in its armed struggle to liberate the land of Palestine. And in his words (translated from Arabic): “the war against Gaza was illegitimate... as the international law rules that there isn’t legitimate defence (of the occupier) against the legitimate defence (of the occupied) embodied in the defence through struggle.”

Hamas didn’t want to kill Israeli civilians

According to Madhoun, Hamas and the other “Palestinian resistance organizations” were systematically prudent in implementing the international law and avoided intentionally targeting Israeli civilians. Referring to the many hundreds of rockets which struck Israeli communities during the war, Madhoun explained that the Palestinian organizations launched the rockets only at “military targets,” such as tanks positions, military airports and concentrations of Israeli military forces on their way to invade the Gaza Strip. He finds evidence in the low number of Israeli fatalities totaling only three people who were killed by the “inaccurate rockets when they missed their original targets.” Furthermore, Madhoun stressed that Hamas spared the lives of Israeli civilians, claiming that if they were targeted dozens of them may have been killed.

Rockets were launched only at occupied territories

Madhoun argues that Israel’s claim that Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations launched rockets at its sovereign territory is groundless. Relying on UN resolution 181 (known as the Partition Plan for Palestine), but without accepting it, Madhoun said that all rockets targeted only areas which were designated to the “Arab state” by the UN resolution, and as Israel has no internationally recognized borders with the Palestinian territories, their areas are still under conflict. Consequently, he concludes that Israel violated the rights of the Israeli civilians for security in settling them illegally in this military disputed area and thus risking their life.

No legitimate targets in Gaza

Madhoun unconditionally negates justification for any Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. In addition to the aforementioned arguments denying Israel’s right for self defence, Madhoun noted that t international law prohibits attacks on any target when there is a doubt whether it is combatant or civilian. “My stand is that all targets bombed in the Gaza Strip are under the category of doubt”, he said.

Goldstone’s accusations against Hamas are meaningless

Madhoun regards the Goldstone report as a one sided document against Israel, saying that more than 500 pages were dedicated to describing a myriad of widely documented accusations against Israel, while for the Palestinian side only 10 pages were allocated and even they didn’t include any evidence or documentation. Confidently, he asserts: “I can say as a jurist that all allegations mentioned in the (Goldstone) report do not mount to significant accusations of violating the humanitarian international law and the (Hamas) independent investigative committees will prove it.”

War criminals only in Israel

Madhoun boasted of Hamas’ cooperation with international jurists, human rights organizations, the Goldstone committee and UN delegates, which helped in establishing the argument that Israel committed war crimes. The next stage in Hamas’ strategy, according to Madhoun, is prosecuting Israeli “war criminals” worldwide and submitting lawsuits to the International Criminal Court against Israel.

Tawtheeq organization, headed by Madhoun, is backed by the Law Committee of the Palestinian parliament and its Hamas members include Dr. Yunis al-Astal who advocates the extinction of all the Jewish people, Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabia, who urged suicide attacks in Jerusalem, and Jamila al-Shanti, who identifies with terrorist attacks against Israel.

The reality is illusive and strikes time and time again in our faces. A declared terrorist organization, which adheres to the Islamic law (sharia) as the only source of legitimacy and promotes ideology of genocide, receives legal support from human rights organizations and internationally respected jurists in its lawfare waged against a democratic state.

Even more peculiar is Judge Richard Goldstone’s decision to rely without reservations on Tawtheeq and its experts in preparing its report, while they publicly make a travesty of the international law and argue that Israel violated the Palestinians’ rights to kill Israelis in the armed struggle for the liberation of the land of Palestine and to destroy Israel.


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Analysis: Iranian quickstep: 1 step forward, 2 steps back

By JONATHAN SPYER

Jerusalem Post, 04/02/2010    
Latest Ahmadinejad statement suggests that Teheran still believes it can find a few partners for the dance it has been performing since 2003.
 
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week told Iranian state television that “we have no problem sending our enriched uranium abroad.” 

In so doing, Ahmadinejad appeared to agree to the long-standing plan for the export of the greater part of Iran’s enriched uranium stocks.

Recent experience with the diplomatic methods of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggests that this statement is the latest instance of Teheran’s favored approach to diplomacy.  The Iranian tendency is to seek to offset confrontation at the 11th hour by appearing to show flexibility. Once crisis is averted, the regime relies on differences over the details to make sure that nothing actually happens. It is the diplomacy of one step forward, two steps back. Thus is further time bought for the Iranian nuclear program.

The hitherto seemingly inexhaustible international patience at Iranian maneuvering, meanwhile, has recently been showing signs of at last wearing thin. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the latest convert to the cause of renewed sanctions. Brown said on Tuesday that “What we now, I think, have to do is accept that if Iran will not make some indication that it will take action – we have got to proceed with sanctions.”  

It remains to be seen if the latest Iranian move will revive the spirits of the advocates of “engagement.” Ahmadinejad’s statement relates to the IAEA proposal that Iran should ship its low-enriched uranium abroad, where it would be converted into fuel rods for an Iranian research reactor producing medical isotopes.

The purpose of the IAEA proposal was to call Iran’s bluff. Iran has long claimed that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes. Very well, then, said the IAEA – let other countries take charge of converting Iranian low-grade uranium into material fit only for domestic use. Of course, this proposal depends on the assumption that the Iranians have been entirely honest in revealing all their supplies of enriched uranium. If they have not, and if a substantial amount remains outside of the purview of international observers, then the exercise becomes meaningless. Still, let us assume in this regard that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s well-known tendency toward honesty and transparency has prevailed, and that as such the proposal to export a large percentage of Iran’s known supplies of low enriched uranium is not entirely devoid of content.

In considering the seriousness or otherwise of Ahmadinejad’s statement, it is worth looking back to October last year, when the export proposal was first tabled. The apparent Iranian flexibility at that time came two weeks after the revelation of a secret uranium enrichment plant in the town of Qom on September 21. At the time, there was international excitement as Iranian representatives in Geneva agreed “in principle” with the proposal for the export of uranium. It was agreed that the details would be worked out at a subsequent meeting in Vienna.

That was on October 2. At the meeting in Vienna on October 19, the proposal was further clarified. A draft proposal was formulated. At the end of that month, Iran began to retreat from its apparent acceptance of the proposal.  On November 18, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki unambiguously rejected it in the following terms: “Definitely, Iran will not send its 3.5 percent-enriched fuel out.”

The tentative December “deadline” came and went. On January 20, Iran confirmed that it rejected the export proposal as formulated in Vienna.

In other words, a skeptic might conclude, the international anger resulting from the Qom revelation made a bit of momentary cooperation from Iran advisable. Once the moment had passed, normal service could be resumed. The Iranian parliament and Guardian Council a week ago approved an Ahmadinejad endorsed bill to cut food and energy subsidies. The move, while significantly reducing government spending, stands to sharply increase prices and possibly lead to rising inflation. Political unrest is ongoing in Iran, and the regime is reported to be unnerved by the failure of its initial attempts at repression to douse the flame.

At such a moment, the last thing the regime needs is renewed sanctions. It is therefore an opportune moment for the reappearance of the reasonable Teheran of last October – to kick the ball down the road again for another few months.

Will the “international community” play ball?   There are currently indications of a hardening US stance. A bill to target Iranian fuel imports is working its way through Congress. New sanctions may be discussed at the Security Council later this month. In the absence of renewed UNSC sanctions, the administration may set about trying to build a “coalition of the willing” for further moves against Iran.

But it is deeply questionable if any of this will prove sufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear drive.

In the meantime, the latest statement by the Iranian president suggests that Teheran still believes it can find a few partners for the dance it has been performing since 2003: one step forward, two steps back – all the way to a nuclear Iran.

The writer is senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.


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