Obama playing a weak hand with Iran

September 15, 2009

The announcement that the major powers, including the United States, are going to open talks with Iran on Oct. 1 ought to be a source of rejoicing. After all, isn’t this what much of the world has been urging for several years, while the European Union conducted a frustrating, low-key dialogue like the warm-up band at a rock concert?

So why is there so little excitement about the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany sitting down at the table for comprehensive talks with the Islamic Republic?

Well, it’s partly because the idea of talking to Tehran has been tarnished by the deaths, mass arrests and mass trials that followed Iran’s disputed presidential election in June. No one in the West is keen to confer legitimacy on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who sanctioned the crackdown on his opponents. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy put it last month, the Iranian leaders who told you the election was straight are the same ones telling you that Iran’s nuclear programme is purely peaceful.  

Another reason is that the West has made all the concessions to get Iran to the table. It has dropped a long-standing demand that Tehran freeze the enrichment of nuclear fuel, which Western countries believe is intended to develop a weapons capability. That means Iran’s centrifuges will continue spinning at full speed while it spins out the talks in slow motion. And Iran has taunted Western governments by trumpeting that it is not prepared to negotiate at all on its inalienable right to nuclear technology.

Furthermore, by setting the meeting for Oct. 1, Iran has removed the risk of action at the annual United Nations General Assembly session this month to press ahead with tough sanctions against it. Instead, Ahmadinejad will be able to grandstand in New York, giving diplomatic “high fives” to other radical anti-Western leaders from around the developing world while Obama makes his first address as president to the world forum.

Obama is playing a weak hand because the United States is bogged down militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Russia and China are holding back agreement for further sanctions. His main joker is a double-edged sword — the fear of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear programme. He needs to juggle Israel’s impatience and its suspicion of what it sees as Western weakness with the need to convince Iran it faces a credible military option.

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev made a contribution to putting pressure on Tehran on Tuesday by saying Moscow did not rule out further sanctions. But Iran must be feeling it can play the diplomatic process to bolster the government’s international — and thus domestic — standing while advancing towards the point when it has a so-called break-out option. That is the technical capability to make a crude nuclear device within a short period if it so chooses, without actually building or testing a bomb.

While Iran may pay a higher economic price for getting there, it seems unlikely that the agreement to start talks with the major power will divert it from its course.

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