The Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact revolutionary to the politics of sixth century B.C.E. Persia, is suddenly playing an active role in the politics of twenty-first century Iran. The Cylinder, believed to be the world’s first declaration of rights, was commissioned by the Persian ruler Cyrus following his conquest of Babylon. Obviously, this object holds a great deal of importance in the heritage of the Persian people and consequently was set to be placed on exhibit in Iran’s national museum starting this winter. However, reports have come out that the British Museum, who possesses the Cylinder, have now delayed the loan in order to continue a research project that they have already begun. According to the English institution, the aim of the project is to compare the Cylinder to two other artifacts that were recently discovered and are believed to date back to the same period.
The Iranian government, in response, has stated that the move to delay the loan is not due to academic reasons, but rather is a politically motivated decision based upon British opposition to the ever-growing mess that is the Iranian nuclear stand-off with the West. That’s probably a fair assumption on their part, as this decision comes in the wake of President Mahmoud Amahdinejad’s call for a resumption of his country’s uranium enrichment program, producing uranium enriched up to 20%. I ran through the nuclear fuel cycle in a previous blog, but for the sake of those that are not nuclear physicists: nuclear fuel (read: enriched uranium) for civilian purposes like nuclear power need be enriched only to about 3%. Fuel for a bomb requires enrichment up to 90%. So it’s probably safe to assume that pushing for 20% and beyond equates to the flexing of political muscle.
But what can the episode about the Cyrus Cylinder teach us about the overall political climate, and perhaps, what’s to come?
Well from what I can tell, there are three potential scenarios of which this event could represent the beginning. The first of which is simply the black-and-white scenario; that is, that the artifact’s loan to Iran is being delayed simply because of the reasons already set forth by the British Museum. If the archeologists and researchers for the British have suddenly stumbled upon new objects that necessitate comparative study with the Cylinder, why shouldn’t they be granted a longer period of with which to complete their work? The museum has contended that the Cylinder could still come to Iran as early as this summer, so in essence, what’s the problem? Put another way, if all this represents is an academic tug-o-war, then there really isn’t anything more to read into.
But what if it actually is a politically motivated act? What if the delay of the loan is actually an extension of British foreign policy toward Iran and is just one of many sanctions the U.K. wishes to impose in response to the nuclear programs of the Islamic Republic? I suppose this one could just be called sanctions scenario. The sanctioning and further sanctioning of Iran from the beginning of the nuclear debate has been the initial reaction of the West and will likely be the next one, at least to a point. For example, economic sanctions prohibiting exports to Iran, engaging in business with the Iranian oil industry and working with Iranian-owned banking institutions have been launched by the United States, and similar actions have been taken by other governments in the so-called “P5 + 1” (U.S., Russia, China, U.K., and France + Germany, or the group of nations leading the protest against Iran’s nuclear program). Now prohibiting the loan of a renowned artifact doesn’t exactly qualify as a typical economic or trade sanction, but it does have a similar effect of waging protest against government activity. The fact that members of the Iranian government have now publicly acknowledged the delay of the loan and even linked it to the United Kingdom’s opposition to their nuclear program is a testament to this possibility. From here, further and more severe actions would be taken by P5 + 1 if the Islamic Republic does not choose to scale back their enrichment efforts and return to the negotiating table. However, in the end, if sanctioning is the name of the game, it stands to reason that that is all that would come about in this scenario. Just this past week, it was reported that the Iranian Foreign Minister stated publicly that a final agreement between their leaders and the Western nations was nearly reached, but this report was dismissed, namely by Germany, as nothing nearly as constructive as it sounds. Sanction, negotiate, fail-to-agree, repeat. And so on.
For the sake of argument, let’s take this one step further and explore one more “what if?” This one I’m going to refer to as the super-paranoid scenario. What if the refusal to loan out the artifact is just the beginning of the end of negotiations with the Iranian government? What if, in the coming weeks and months, the world watches as negotiations are called off completely and replaced with missile strikes and a buildup of troops along the borders of Iran. What if the current war of words just suddenly became an actual war? It doesn’t seem very likely, given that many of the nations involved in the P5 + 1 are just getting out of a costly war in Iraq and are still involved in an equally costly war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the English media group Telegraph reported just yesterday that the conservative political Tory party in the U.K. would support military action against the Islamic Republic. While an offensive is officially regarded by the U.K. as “inconceivable” (with similar sentiments echoed by other P5 countries), the further this pressure cooker continues to run, the more unsettlingly possible it seems to become. I’m an optimist, so I’ll throw my lot in with the diplomacy scenario and hope that a compromise spontaneously appears and the situation is diffused, but who knows. The only thing that we can really be sure of based upon this episode is that anything could happen in the days ahead.