By Kaveh L Afrasiabi (CASMII | Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention)

The United States and Iran have reached a critical juncture, facing the alternative of further tension and escalating conflict spiraling toward military confrontation, or dialogue, diplomatic engagement and reciprocal compromise.

In light of the recent slew of sanctions after sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and others, it seems that chariots are blazing down the fork in the road toward more conflict. However, there is a glimmer of hope for a diplomatic solution in the form of a “double swap”.

This refers, on the one hand, to progress being made for a new round of multilateral negotiations on a nuclear fuel swap for Iran’s medical reactor in Tehran, which should take place in the coming weeks. On the other hand, a swap of prisoners could see the release of three American hikers being held in Iran in exchange for several Iranian nationals held by the US.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Sunday said the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) director general, Yukiya Amano, would soon set the date for negotiations between Iran and the Vienna Group, adding that the Islamic Republic was ready to take part in talks that were based on the Tehran nuclear fuel swap declaration, the official news agency IRNA reported.

Iran, Turkey and Brazil signed an agreement on May 17, dubbed the Tehran declaration, in which Iran committed to giving 1,200 kilograms of its 3.5% enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 20% enriched uranium to be used as fuel in the research reactor. Iran officially responded in late July to questions about the declaration from the Vienna Group, which includes the United States, Russia, France and the IAEA.

On the surface there is no direct link between nuclear fuel swap talks and the fate of US and Iranians in captivity. Yet, it makes growing sense to bring the latter into the loop of current negotiations over the fuel exchange, albeit informally. A (near) simultaneous double swap would spell confidence in the increasingly dangerous Iran crisis and break some significant ice, thus acting as catalysts for broader negotiations on the nuclear standoff.

Iran could free the three American hikers and receive its US-held Iranian nationals even prior to the inking of a fuel swap agreement, thereby improving the poisoned climate in Iran-West relations that is not conducive to any nuclear agreement. If the US continues with its refusal to make a prisoner swap, then the chances are Iran will act on its threat to putt the three hikers on trial and give them the long jail sentences for which Iran’s hardliners have been pushing.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31 and Josh Fattal, 27, are said to have entered Iran illegally just over a year ago. The three were arrested after they reportedly strayed into Iran from across the border with Iraq.

The predominant mood in Tehran is more in favor of a mutually satisfactory deal that would not be domestically troublesome for President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has expressed his desire to see the three Americans go home.

There is a feeling among some politicians that the three have been adequately punished and should be released in the spirit of Islamic clemency and as a gesture of friendship toward the American people. Certainly, there is a public relations value against keeping the Americans much longer and in favor of softening Iran’s image through their release, an image hardened by the recent news of the sentencing to death by stoning of a female accused of adultery in Iran. The latter is yet another reminder that the Iranian government needs to work assiduously to achieve legal evolution (for more on this see Iran: Case for legal evolution, Asia Times Online, December 4, 2008).

Tehran appears to have taken the Vienna Group’s objections to the Tehran declaration into consideration. Specifically on the matter of the nuclear fuel swap proposal:

1 Through the Turkish intermediaries, Iran has let the other side know that it is prepared to halt its uranium enrichment at 20% if the swap deal is agreed on.

2 Iran is tilting in favor of changing technical aspects of the Tehran declaration to make it feasible for reasonably timely delivery of fuel rods to Iran.

3 Iran may even consider a temporary “standby option” whereby actual uranium enrichment would be replaced with the “dry spinning” of centrifuges, to demonstrate its determination to de-escalate the nuclear crisis and build confidence. In return, Western nations would pause on their sanctions drive.

With or without an Iranian agreement to limit or cease its enrichment program, the fuel swap should logically speaking move toward a successful resolution, since its absence has both profound deleterious implications for Iran-IAEA relations, given the IAEA’s obligation to assist Iran in such matters, as well as for the larger nuclear standoff.

Time could be running short as the drumbeats of war on Iran get louder, especially in light of a recent statement by US chief of staff Admiral Mike Mullen that the US had prepared a plan for attacking Iran. This does, though, increase the “buffer” value of the three Americans. Some Tehran pundits now draw comparisons with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which released dozens of Western hostages after keeping them as “shields” following the US-led invasion in 2003.

“Who knows, if Saddam had kept those Western hostages, maybe the invasion would not have happened, or at least have been postponed,” said a Tehran University political science professor on the condition of anonymity. Does it mean that Iran is contemplating using the Americans as its version of “human shields?” Not quite, but then again they are not without such value either, so goes the argument.

The stark choices of forks in the road could not possibly be more pronounced, but without doubt the path to peaceful resolution goes along the contours of a “double swap”.

Original source: Asia Times

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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