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NATO’s Iran ‘threat’ conundrum

Posted by seumasach on November 17, 2010

Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Asia Times

17th November. 2010


Ahead of its much-anticipated summit in Lisbon this weekend, the 28-nation military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in a conundrum – to name or not to name Iran as a threat. Either way, there will be unwanted side-effects.

On one hand, not identifying Iran as a threat, as requested by some Iran-friendly nations such as Turkey, which reportedly is primed for a NATO missile defense system “eyeing Iran”, would make it harder to justify locating missiles pointed at the Islamic republic. It would also increase the suspicion of the Russians, who are attending the summit like a solicitor general with a long list of questions to settle before Moscow can nod to what it continues to portray as a “strategic threat” to Russia.

On the other hand, NATO, which is about to adopt the costume of a new “conceptual doctrine” that, in fact, reeks of Cold War thinking thinly disguised by its self-promoting noise of a “new NATO”, must manufacture new enemies in need of containment/deterrence or it is doomed to the illogic of a Cold War anachronism.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul has warned against fingering Iran. “Mentioning one country, Iran … is wrong and will not happen. A particular country will not be targeted … We will definitely not accept that.”

With its traditional foe, the Warsaw Pact, dissolved into history, NATO continues to struggle with fashioning a new identity, a raison d’etre. But to date it has come up short, thus the incoherence of its architecture of a “new concept” for the 21st century that turns out to have a great deal of continuity with the “old” alliance, nuclear-based, concept – this at a time when a clean break with the defunct past is called for.

Taking a step forward in the form of a direct liaison with the United Nations, while two steps backward by maintaining the nuclear posture and rejecting bids to globalize itself, the Western alliance is seemingly unaware of the perils of the defective steps it is about to “institutionalize” in the coming days. The biggest of these is institutionalizing “emerging threats”, to borrow from a new NATO report by a high-level group of experts led by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

United Nations member states, particularly from the developing nations, ought to resist the UN’s infection by NATO until it eschews the present aggressive posture that is threatening to the security interests of many non-NATO nations. Despite lip-service to the UN charter, NATO’s nature as an alliance and its current flurry of “out-of-area” operations – such as anti-piracy in open seas, training in Iraq, and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan – have clear sub-groupist connotations that rub against the grain of the UN’s spirit of collective security.

“NATO may be ‘eyeing’ Iran, but almost all Russian experts agree that its real target is Russia – considered to be too big for its own sake by some NATO specialists who say that today’s Russia covers nearly 80% of the former Soviet Union,” says a Tehran University political science professor who specializes on Iran’s foreign affairs. Russia “has already named NATO as its biggest security challenge and that perception will not melt away in Lisbon because of some diplomatic niceties.”

To return to the subject of NATO’s conundrum, its Afghanistan policy, which calls for luring Tehran toward greater cooperation in support of Kabul and against the Taliban, collides with its European policy of missile defense. This policy has the enthusiastic backing of new members from the former Soviet bloc, who dread Moscow’s power and have no qualms about NATO’s prioritizing of “energy security” at the Lisbon summit.

Clearly, the NATO leadership wants to have it both ways, enlist Iran on regional security issues – above all Afghanistan – while assigning it to functional enemy status, whereby the required rationalization for a US-dominated missile defense system in close proximity to Russia can materialize, thus the (small) carrot of getting Moscow involved in the Afghan theater.

If Russia under the fiercely pro-Western President Dmitry Medvedev plays into the hands of NATO strategists, then it may soon discover that the pay-off has been too low and the side-effects, such as the unraveling of the (anti-NATO) Shanghai Cooperation Organization, are too high.

On a smaller scale, Turkey, a NATO member that is asserting a bigger role as a vital bridge to the turbulent Middle East, faces a similar dilemma. While it is opposed to Iran being singled out as a “threat”, if it agrees to NATO’s plan for installing an anti-missile defense system, then Ankara’s heavier weight might translate into greater diplomatic leverage to demand more forcefully its insertion into the Iran nuclear talks, in light of the decision by the European Union to reject Iran’s proposal to hold the next round of talks in Turkey.

“Lady Ashton the EU’s foreign policy chief vetoed a seat for Turkey by signaling her preference for an alternative location in either Vienna or Geneva,” says the Tehran professor. He was alluding to Turkey’s role in the April 2010 “Tehran Declaration” signed by the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Brazil that foresaw the direct participation of Turkey in the “nuclear swap deal” for a Tehran reactor.

A number of Tehran’s foreign policy experts have wondered aloud why President Barack Obama, who sanctioned a mediating role for both Turkey and Brazil this year, has turned cold toward what is clearly a successful third-party mediation?

Inevitably, some Tehran editorials have complained that the US’s real intention is to drag out the nuclear standoff, which benefits the US’s strategy of lucrative arms sales to Persian Gulf states and to justify its and NATO’s “protective role” against the perceived Iranian menace.

The chief problem with this “enemy perception of Iran” is that it tends to view Iran through the Cold War lens of a zero-sum game, whereas in reality Iran and the West have substantial shared interests, such as with respect to combating drug trafficking and terrorism, Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s stability, etc, denoting a partial strategic overlap.

Unfortunately, in their move to rationalize the European ballistic defense system, NATO’s heads are now on the verge of sacrificing those shared interests.

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