NEW DELHI - Now that the Western powers have reached a deal with Russia and China to refer Iran's nuclear activities to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), a serious escalation of tensions with Tehran is in the cards.
While Russia and China are sending diplomats to Tehran, according to the Russian Information Agency, there is little hope of a breakthrough before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets on Thursday and Iran has already signaled defiance.
If Iran does not respond to the Russo-Chinese diplomatic initiative there is every chance of a confrontation developing that could further destabilise an already volatile situation in the Middle East, say security analysts here.
A turning point could come at the IAEA meeting in Vienna , called to discuss the issue of Iran's nuclear program, which United States and European Union leaders suspect, is meant to produce nuclear weapons.
The agreement among the U.S. the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain), and Russia and China came after hours of talks in London which began Monday evening.
This is the first time that Russia and China have joined the West in demanding that Iran resume the suspension of all uranium enrichment activities, including "research" restarted earlier this month, when it broke the seals at a facility in Natanz in the presence of IAEA inspectors.
However, Russia and China have imposed the condition that the UNSC would not act on the Iran issue, for example, by ordering sanctions, for at least a month. Another IAEA meeting is scheduled for March, where the agency's director general is expected to submit a comprehensive report on Iran's activities.
''In reaching this agreement in London, Russia has obviously beaten a retreat from its earlier position resisting an early referral of Iran to the Security Council,'' says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) here.
This deal also marks a shift from a Russian offer to enrich Iran's uranium on its soil, for use in the nuclear power reactors Tehran is building. It also differs from Moscow's more recent proposal to have the Iran issue sent to the Security Council as a matter of information, not for action.
The Russia-China-U.S.-EU-3 agreement has been interpreted as a signal that Moscow and Beijing would vote for a Western-sponsored motion in Vienna, rather than abstain, as they did in September, when the IAEA Board held Iran guilty of "non-compliance" with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory.
Even if there is no vote at the IAEA this week, it is clear that the U.S. and the EU are moving towards a stand-off with Iran. Sooner or later, Iran is likely to be confronted with punitive measures. The West accuses it of 'defiance'. But Iran says it scrupulously abides by its commitments to the NPT and the IAEA.
''If Russia and China vote against Iran this week in Vienna, it is virtually certain that India too will follow,'' holds Mitra Chenoy. ''In September, India broke ranks with the Non-Aligned Movement and voted for the U.S.-sponsored motion. This time around, the Indian government has been under great domestic pressure to abstain. But it can now cite the London agreement and fall in line with the U.S. at Vienna.''
New Delhi is keen to vote with the U.S., despite domestic opposition, in order to finalize and implement a nuclear cooperation deal initialled with Washington last July. This would effectively legitimize India's nuclear weapons and help resume civilian nuclear commerce with it.
Iran cites the Indo-U.S. agreement as an instance of ''double standards'' and hypocrisy. ''India would like to avoid a vote on the Iranian nuclear issue'' at Vienna, but will cast its ballot against Iran ''if it is called upon to make a choice,'' the well-informed 'The Hindu' newspaper reported Tuesday.
If there is a vote this week, it is likely to isolate Iran. ''But Teheran is certain to retaliate if the Security Council reprimands it or imposes sanctions on it,'' argues Gulshan Dietl, a West Asia expert at JNU.
''Iran may not act immediately, but it will probably have a calibrated, step-by-step response. For instance, it could first stop executing the Additional Protocol it signed with the IAEA, which allows intrusive inspections. Later, it could throw out IAEA inspectors. Still later, it could consider even tougher measures. Tehran knows it holds a number of high-value cards in its hand,'' Prof. Dietl adds.
The greatest card is Iraq, where Iran wields enormous influence both through the Shia-majority government, and in society at large. The U.S. is already in deep trouble in Iraq and faces a military stalemate. Iran could create serious difficulties for the U.S., which has 140,000 troops in Iraq.
''No less important is Iran's influence in Afghanistan,'' says a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, who requests anonymity. ''Historically, Iran has had close links with and a role in Central and Western Afghanistan. It also enjoys a special relationship with the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. Iran can cause another quagmire for the U.S. in a neighbourhood still infested with al-Qaeda and Taliban elements.''
Not to be minimised is Iran's influence in Syria and Lebanon. The Hamas's victory in the recent parliamentary elections in Palestine further strengthens Iran's regional clout.
''In the short run too, sanctions on Iran could be counterproductive for the West,'' argues Dietl. ''An oil embargo will hurt Iran, but it will hurt the economies of several European countries and Japan too. In the long run, what is to prevent an isolated and embittered Iran from walking out of the NPT and pursuing its own nuclear weapons programme, like North Korea did?''
Israel has repeatedly declared that it would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. The U.S. has reportedly drawn up contingency plans for a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. But this option is fraught. It may only set back Iran's nuclear pursuits by a few years. Iran's key atomic facilities are well-protected and buried deep underground.
''The tragic thing about the crisis caused by the West's short-sighted approach and its double standards,'' says Dietl, ''is that it is completely unnecessary. Iran has been willing to subject all its nuclear activities to the most intrusive possible inspections. But the U.S. has refused to take up Iran's offer and missed a chance to keep its activities under check.''
The opening of the locks at Natanz for research activities does not alter the ground situation materially. But the U.S. has exploited this to precipitate a confrontation which is hard to win.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service