The US' Iran policy has changed several times since late May, confusing the international media as well as leaving countries involved clueless as to what to do next.
On November 4, 1979 Iranian students occupied the US embassy in Teheran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in response to US giving political asylum to deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The US broke diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on April 7, 1980 and imposed sanctions against the oil-rich nation.
US President George W. Bush labeled Iran one of the "axis of evil" countries soon after he took office in 2001. After the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, the US deployed military forces in the Gulf area and toppled the Taliban regime in Iran's eastern neighbor Afghanistan and Sadam Hussein in neighboring Iraq to the west, while frequently talking about attacking Iran with military force.
When the Iran nuclear issue emerged in 2002, foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany (then known as the EU3) visited Teheran together and asked the Iranian government to sign the Safeguard Agreement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with the International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for a light-water reactor.
Iran signed the document on December 18, 2003 and suspended production and installation of centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. It then suspended its uranium enrichment project in November that year.
The Bush administration was very unhappy about the EU3's move and demanded that Iran stop all nuclear activities for good. Under US pressure, EU3 told Iran to give up all activities concerning uranium enrichment, resulting in the abrupt termination of negotiations between EU and Iran.
It is fair to say that US-EU3 pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue played a role in young and headstrong Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as Iranian president in June 2005. Not long after formally taking office in August 2005, Ahmadinejad resumed uranium enrichment in a show of steely resolve against US-EU bullying.
The Iran nuclear crisis gave rise to the "P5+1" mechanism comprising the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which came up in June 2006 with a proposal designed to encourage Iran to suspend uranium enrichment but received only a "gray" reply from Teheran.
Against this backdrop, the UN Security Council passed the Resolution 1737 on December 28, last year and the Resolution 1747 on March 24, this year, asking all member countries to take necessary measures to stop selling items and technology that could help Iran's uranium enrichment and development of nuclear weapons delivery systems.
The two resolutions also list 23 entities and 27 individuals, whose activities outside Iran should be monitored and reported to a special committee set up by the UNSC.
Both resolutions demand Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activities within 60 days, but was ignored by Teheran. Immediately speculation mounted that the US would launch air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. The rumors set global oil prices soaring and stock markets shaking.
Four days after the 60-day deadline set in the Resolution 1747, US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi Qomi held bilateral talks in Bagdad on May 28. The meeting lasted four hours and was focused on the Iraqi security situation, but drew intense attention and positive comments from the international media.
Crocker told reporters after the meeting "the talks were businesslike".
This author finds these words particularly thought-provoking. On July 24, Crocker and Qomi held another meeting in Baghdad and agreed to form a US-Iran-Iraq tripartite committee to advance efforts to restore stability in Iraq.
Senior US and Iranian diplomats holding bilateral talks openly qualifies as a breakthrough, 27 years after the US severed its diplomatic ties with Iran and has helped other parties involved in the nuclear issue make progress in their negotiations with Iran. On June 22, chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani held talks with IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in Vienna and agreed to work out an "action plan" in two months to resolve the issues not yet settled during the IAEA's inspection of Iran's nuclear project. Larijani then met with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Lisbon the next day for a "positive and constructive talk".
On July 12, Iran and IAEA reached an agreement over the modalities of inspection. Thus, IAEA representatives have visited Iran twice since early August to talk about a timetable for the implementation of the "action plan".
On August 21, IAEA deputy director general Olli Heinonen and his Iranian counterpart Javad Vaeedi made a joint announcement in Teheran that they had reached an agreed working plan for resolving the lingering issues over nuclear inspection, including a timetable for the actual implementation of the agreement.
On August 27, the IAEA published at Iran's request the full text of the agreement, which includes items such as the inspection of Iran's Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and the heavy water research reactor in Arak, plutonium experiments and adding more inspectors.
Iran has reiterated in the document that it is just a politically motivated and baseless allegation by US intelligence agencies that Iran has a "Green Salt Project" on high explosive testing and missile re-entry vehicles.
The US has always held a negative attitude toward IAEA-Iran cooperation, though it was also negotiating with Teheran at the same time. On August 15, the US media reported that the US government planned to list Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization.
The Iranian side warned Washington that the Gulf would become "hell" for Iran's enemies if they were to attack the Islamic Republic. However, a senior Iranian diplomat laughed at the media report, calling it a "propaganda game" of the US.
After Iran and IAEA reached an agreement on lingering issues concerning nuclear inspection on August 21, US representative to the IAEA Gregory Schulte said the agreement "has real limitations".
Some IAEA officials expressed in private their disagreement with Shulte's comment, saying it is unrealistic to expect Iran now to comply on the whole package of demands by the Security Council, all at once, when they remain under sanctions.
Why does the US keep threatening Iran while negotiating with the Gulf country? One popular explanation is that the United States' recent proposal at the UN to subject Iran to more sanctions ran into objections, and by mounting threats against Teheran the Bush administration can placate the "hawks' within its ranks who want to use force against Iran on the one hand and pressure other parties concerned for more efforts to push a new resolution on further punishing Iran through the UN Security Council on the other.
But, can the US achieve the above mentioned goal? It is very difficult to find a definite answer to the question. To most countries of the world the US is one of those most ready to change policies in a heartbeat. That means any country set on following the US must be prepared for any negative consequence brought by sudden changes in US policies. There have been quite a few examples of this.
The US insists Iran's nuclear project could be connected to nuclear proliferation, though Washington's stand on preventing nuclear proliferation has not been exactly consistent. When India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, the US was the first to demand worldwide sanctions against New Delhi, but it was also the first to go back on its words not long afterwards.
When the Bush administration took office, it went a step further by being the first nuclear power to sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with India, which is yet to join the non-proliferation system, and is expected to implement it soon.
Needless to say, many countries that followed Washington's example and cornered India would not have done so had they known the US would change its non-proliferation policy so easily.
Sometimes US secret diplomacy also puts other countries in embarrassing situations - finding Washington shaking hands with their enemies overnight and themselves left in the cold. The US has severed diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly 30 years, but no one is certain their bilateral ties will not take a surprising turn one of these days. One such example can be found in the "Irangate" incident exposed during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Right now, no one can absolutely rule out the possibility that nuclear talks between the US and Iran may branch out to cover steps to improve bilateral relations.
So, countries concerned should think rationally about any negative impact from a US policy shift before deciding whether to go along with any US initiative. Nations should exercise caution as the US urges the UN Security Council to place further sanctions against Iran while continuing to negotiate with Teheran.
The author is a researcher at the China Foreign Affairs University
(China Daily September 6, 2007)