One dramatic development in relation to Iran has been the revelations that, according to the MoD’s own documents, the 15 British sailors and Marines captured by Iran last April were in waters that are not internationally agreed as Iraqi; the US and UK unilaterally drew a dividing line between Iraqi and Iranian waters – without informing Iran where it was; and that Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels were crossing this invisible line three times a week.
All this contradicts defence secretary Des Browne’s statement last June that there was “no doubt” that the sailors were “operating in Iraqi waters”.
The information was released to The Times (17 April) under the Freedom of Information Act.
Far from being seen as an enemy by the Iraqi government, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed to Baghdad at the beginning of March, the first regional head of state to visit. He was able to move around without the enormous security force needed by president Bush.
Then Tehran played a crucial role in bringing the Basra fighting (see Gabriel Carlyle’s article above) to an end.
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki had declared he was in “a fight to the end”. In fact, the battle ended with opaque negotiations in Tehran involving his coalition partners. Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia withdrew from the streets of Basra undefeated, holding onto all their weapons, defying Maliki’s demand for them to give up their medium and heavy weapons.
On the global level, Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of the UN Security Council, and continues to build centrifuges, though on 17 April the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei said the rate of increase was “not very fast” – with Iran running 3,300 centrifuges, up from about 3,000 last year.
Other experts have observed that the centrifuges are operating at only 20% of capacity because of technical problems.
Last summer, the IAEA agreed a “work plan” with Tehran to resolve outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities. All outstanding questions have been resolved – with the one exception of some documents alleged to demonstrate Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weaponisation.
Progress on this issue has been slow, partly because of Iran’s reluctance to even discuss the allegations, partly because it was only in February that the IAEA was authorised to show Iran the documents it possessed on alleged high explosive studies and an alleged missile re-entry vehicle. All the most important issues have been dealt with, and the IAEA stressed on 3 March that it “has not detected the use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies, nor does it have credible information in this regard.”
Interestingly, an opinion poll in six Arab countries in March found that Arab public opinion is remarkably comfortable with Iran’s nuclear activities.
The Zogby International poll found that more Arabs thought Iran’s nuclear activities were peaceful (46%) than thought they were aimed at developing nuclear weapons (39%, down from 51% in 2006). Respondents felt the most likely “use” of Iranian nuclear weapons (if developed) would be to “help Iran increase its influence regionally and globally” without firing them (45%). 31% thought they would be used against Israel. Only 8% thought they would be used against Arab states.
29% of those polled thought that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would have a negative impact on the Middle East; 12% thought it would not matter. 44%, a plurality, thought the outcome would be positive for the region.
67% thought there should be an end to international pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear programme.
Washington’s policy on Iran seems in disarray – in large part because of the revolt by the US intelligence agencies, symbolised in December’s National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had not had a nuclear weapons programme for several years.
While many observers (including some in Whitehall) feared that strong words from US commander in Iraq general David Petraeus about Iran’s role in Iraq could set the stage for a US attack, no such move has yet transpired.
Instead, former senior US diplomat Thomas Pickering revealed the existence of an unofficial “back-channel” of communication between Tehran and Washington, which the Bush administration “did not discourage”.
Pickering and his US colleagues have put forward proposals for breaking the nuclear deadlock, including setting up an international consortium to jointly manage and run uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.
The US and UK have refused to respond; Iran has said it will respond only if the proposal is offered officially.