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    Middle East
     May 28, 2010

Diplomacy falls on deaf ears
By Sreeram Chaulia

By persuading Iran to transfer abroad 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in return for higher enriched nuclear fuel for use in a reactor, Turkey and Brazil have stolen the diplomatic high ground from Western powers at a crucial juncture.

A negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear imbroglio is in the best interests of the Middle East and for global energy security. That Turkey and Brazil, two non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, could gain the trust of Iranian interlocutors and convince them to enter into the fuel exchange deal is testimony to the expanding diplomatic prowess of these two countries. They are growing in stature for offering good offices as third party, neutral intermediaries in conflicts not directly affecting them.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who leaves office this year after two successful terms, has brilliantly piloted his country towards great power status by proactive diplomacy. When tensions between Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia were peaking in 2008, Lula stepped in as a pragmatic middleman with goodwill across the left-right ideological divide in Latin America.

In his quest to secure Brazil permanent membership of the UN Security Council, Lula also realized that his country has to be seen as playing a global role as a problem-solver, rather than as a state narrowly confined to enhancing its own economic growth and military muscle.

To this end, he forayed into the Israel-Palestinian conflict through a high-profile diplomatic mission in March 2010, emphasizing Brazil's clean slate as a non-colonial outside power willing to nudge the two estranged sides back to the table.

Lula not only aspired for Brazil to achieve an equal footing with members of the Middle East Quartet through Track I diplomacy, but also floated lighter proposals like soccer games pitting the Brazilian national team against a mixed Israeli-Palestinian eleven. The quartet is a forum involved in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that comprises the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN.

Although Turkey is not a developing country like Brazil, it has earned a distinct reputation as a reliable Middle Eastern stopover for parties involved in the multiple conflicts across the volatile region. Ankara has mediated in the bitter Israel-Syria face-off to solve a linchpin-like bilateral dispute that could set off a virtuous cycle of settlements. Turkey has also approached the polarized Palestinian armed factions and suggested that it might be better placed than Egypt as a universally likeable third party in these internecine feuds.

Brazil and Turkey are thus redefining themselves as responsible participants in international politics through early recognition of their respective strengths and timely entries into seemingly intractable conflicts. The irony of the current logjam over Iran's nuclear program is that Brazil and Turkey could wheedle something out of Tehran, whereas US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had already thrown up his arms in the air in a leaked secret memorandum admitting that the US had no effective strategy.

As smartly positioned and attitudinally astute states, Turkey and Brazil have expanded options for the international community when Washington has been clueless about how to even understand Iran, leave alone rein in its nuclear ambitions. The Barack Obama administration began on a conciliatory note towards Iran last year but it has lost its way to the point that old hardliner tactics have returned as the mainstay of US policy towards Tehran.

Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh recently referred to "a serious trust deficit for the last 30 years" between his country and the US. This deficit was expected to shrink with Obama's rise, but from the Iranian perspective, the reverse has happened.

Obama's sweet talk was camouflage to overthrow the ayatollah-dictated regime, since special operations by the US security establishment against Iran that were inherited from the George W Bush era do not appear to have been halted.

The intelligence consultancy firm Stratfor revealed in February last year that Israel had launched a "covert war" with American cooperation to disrupt Iran's nuclear program and decapitate "key human assets" driving it. The mysterious bomb attack assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, in January occurred against the backdrop of post-election protests and was represented in the West as a possible act by the Iranian regime to rid itself of an opposition supporter. But Ali-Mohammadi's stature as a senior theoretical nuclear physicist suggests he was more likely on the hit-list of Western agencies.

The New York Times published a report on Tuesday that said the US military high command in the Middle East was expanding clandestine activities to prepare the ground for "possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate", as laid out in a "secret" directive by the chief of America's Central Command, General David Petraeus. The exact details of the order, which authorized "specific operations in Iran", are unknown, but the saber-rattling comes across as ironfisted blackmail of the Iranian establishment and defeats possibilities of frank diplomatic talks with Washington.

With advancing war plans as apparent backups, Western powers have sounded a dismissive verdict on the Turkey-Brazil swap plan as "too little, too late" and are pressing ahead by mooting yet another round of UN sanctions. Such behavior reconfirms that Washington and its allies possess nothing creative to break the deadlock.

Turkey and Brazil, on the other hand, may not have changed the Middle East through some stroke of genius, but they can claim credit for generating the opening needed to eventually rid the world of the possibility of another nuclear-armed state.

Sreeram Chaulia is an associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University.

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