The wrong time to admire martyrdom; soft treatment for 'psycho' Prabowo. By Hamish McDonald.

Iran’s finger on the button of nuke deal

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives  a speech in Tehran last week.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives a speech in Tehran last week.
Credit: Anadolu Agency
Iran has started to bargain in a serious way in the lead-up to tomorrow’s deadline to move beyond the temporary halt to its uranium enrichment program agreed with the big powers last November. 

A pronouncement from the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears to have freed up Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to offer an extended freeze of activity at current levels for several years, allowing it to make low-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear power reactors, combined with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. A key step would be immediate conversion of the fuel into the oxide needed for fuel rods, without construction of a facility to convert it back into a gas for further enrichment. The trade-off would be international treatment as any other signatory country of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty engaged in a peaceful nuclear power program.

For the concerned powers (and in the wings, Israel), it will all come down to a fine judgement on how much “breakout” time remains with Tehran – the time it would take to make a dash to produce enough highly enriched uranium for at least one bomb. Zarif is suggesting his offer means a breakout time of a year, compared with the three to four months capability now.

With this progress, the haggling may now go on for some time. Mothballing of part of Iran’s array of 22,000 enrichment centrifuges and abandonment of any plans to reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium could be further steps. 

This is a deal that could have been reached several times over the past two decades, and is probably the best we can expect. Of course, for US neocons still yearning for military strikes and “regime change” such a deal will go down as more evidence of Barack Obama’s “weakness”. 

1 . The wrong time to admire martyrdom

Japan’s right-wing nationalists are glowing from the praise heaped on the Imperial Navy’s wartime submariners by Tony Abbott during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit this month.

The 1942 midget-sub raid on Sydney Harbour and the full military honours accorded the dead crewmen were a rare moment of chivalry in an otherwise brutal war. It gets a display in the Yushukan, the museum attached to the contentious Yasukuni Shrine to the war dead in Tokyo, which generally portrays Japan’s war as a noble liberation of the Asians. 

But Abbott was stretching it when he declared: “Perhaps we grasped, even then, that with a change of heart the fiercest of opponents could be the best of friends.” Or perhaps not. In 1952, when Japan was smashed and defeated, Australia was still keen on getting the ANZUS Treaty as much as a protection against resurgent Japanese militarism as against the communist powers. 

In later decades some Western writers have portrayed a certain nobility in the Japanese soldier’s expectation of the same treatment they meted out: Laurens van der Post in his prison-camp story (1963) that was turned into the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence in 1983; Australian POW Kenneth Harrison in The Brave Japanese in 1965; Harry Gordon in his account of the Cowra breakout, Die Like the Carp!, in 1978; J. G.Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984), a novel based on his internment in Shanghai; and Henry Frei’s account of the fall of Singapore from the viewpoint of ordinary Japanese soldiers, Guns of February (2004).

But the soldier’s code of the Imperial Army was an inhuman distortion of the mediaeval samurai ethic. It was essential for the shockwave attacks employed with great effect in the early part of the war, and later for the human-guided bombs in the kamikaze defence of the home islands in 1945 (for which Abe’s father, Shintaro, was lined up as a volunteer when surrender finally came). With its promise of enshrinement as a war god for death in battle, it more resembles the eager martyrdom of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant than anything a modern democratic society should be admiring.

2 . Soft treatment for ‘psycho’ Prabowo

Indonesia remains poised in transition as it waits for its electoral commission to deliver the official result from the July 9 presidential election, which is due by Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the flow of bombast and insults from Prabowo Subianto, the noxious former special forces general who seems to have lost according to preliminary counts, continues like the volcanic eruptions occurring across the islands. 

What surprises many foreign observers is what a gentle time he’s had from the opposing side led by Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi”. Okay, a Jokowi campaign manager, former general A. M.Hendropriyono, called Prabowo a “psychopath” but that was a bit of pot calling the kettle black as “Hendro” himself has a few large human rights abuses on his record, albeit carried out in a calm mental state as far as we know. 

Another former senior army colleague unloaded against Prabowo to your columnist, but unfortunately not for attribution. His opinion is that all the accusations of human rights abuses against Prabowo − in Timor-Leste, abducting and torturing student protesters, etc − are “99.9 per cent correct”. As a superior officer, he saw Prabowo’s record of service in the army. Prabowo had failed the psychological test for admission to the Armed Forces Academy, but was admitted after pressure from his father, a senior minister for former leader Suharto. Even then he’d been held back from graduating for a year because of “indiscipline”. In 1983 he’d attempted a coup against the then military chief, General Benny Moerdani.

Then there’s the Prabowo record in business. His $US148 million wealth is built around a plantation and paper-pulp operation that was a distressed asset of jailed Suharto crony Bob Hasan, bought at a highly discounted price from a government agency with a loan from a state-owned bank. Earlier this year his employees were on strike, claiming they hadn’t been paid in five months. A British mining company has meanwhile gone to arbitration over the effective confiscation of its coalfield in East Kalimantan by the local bupati (regional chief), a Prabowo political ally, who then gave it to Prabowo’s Nusantara group.  

Indonesians are also gentle about marital troubles. Prabowo’s marriage to Titiek, one of Suharto’s daughters, ended the year Suharto fell from power in 1998. Since then he seems to have kept to a largely all-male household, surrounding himself with a trio of young aides he calls his “Jedi”. An overture to Halida Hatta, daughter of the late founder of the Indonesian republic, Mohammad Hatta, got her hopes up a few years back until she realised it was just her political cachet he was chasing. The lack of a candidate first lady has been a negative in a country where, at least since first president Sukarno’s polygamy, the leader is expected to have a model family. 

This led to an effort by some of Prabowo’s supporters to get him back together with Titiek. Four days before the election, reporters rushed to Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque in the expectation of a ceremony. No one showed, however. For her part, the lady was having none of it. That day she flew out to Paris to get away from the attention.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 19, 2014 as "Iran’s finger on the button of nuke deal".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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