Artful Iran outplays hesitant America

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: August 25 2006

Whatever else might be said about the Iranian regime, it has played its diplomatic hand adroitly. A calculatedly equivocal response this week to international demands that it suspend its nuclear activities was scarcely unexpected. It seems likely nonetheless to divide the United Nations Security Council.

After countless hours bargaining with their Iranian counterparts, European officials speak of a deeply frustrating process. The Iranians play by their own rules. In most international negotiations, diplomats will tell you, once agreement has been reached on the issues of principle, the details can be tidied up later. Not so with Tehran. Everything has be nailed down. Otherwise, as one official puts it: “You buy the car only to discover afterwards that you have to pay extra if you want the wheels.”

Sometimes the Iranian negotiating team, led by Ali Larijani, simply tears up the agenda. Mr Larijani billed his meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, last month as a quest to clarify the incentives offered by the west in return for an Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment. In the event, he devoted the entire closed-door session to an attack on American motives.

Tactical gamesmanship apart, the Iranians are adept at exploiting the strategic weaknesses of opponents. First it was the divisions between the Americans and the Europeans, more recently the gulf between western governments on one side and Russia and China on the other.

Iran’s disregard of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has been well documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency. For all their reluctance to force a confrontation with Tehran, Russia and China have never really challenged the proposition that it has pursued an illicit weapons programme.

But Tehran has often succeeded in framing the argument otherwise. The issue then becomes one not about breaches of the NPT, but about the sovereign right of all signatories to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. This theme has great resonance with non-aligned nations.

Washington has made the task easier. Almost everything the Bush administration has done in the greater Middle East, from the axis of evil on, has in one way or another benefited Iran. I remember a conversation with a prominent US neo-conservative on the eve of the Iraq war. The demonstration effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein, he said, along with the establishment of a flourishing democracy in Iraq, would isolate and weaken the Iranian regime.

Well, it did not work out quite like that. The shift in the balance of power in the region is well documented in a report released this week by Chatham House, the London-based international affairs institute. Iran has been the chief beneficiary, it says, of the US war on terror in the Middle East.

Just as US power and prestige has been weakened by the insurgency in Iraq, the overthrow of the Sunni regime in Baghdad eliminated Iran’s most dangerous enemy. Tehran has benefited similarly from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Its standing has been further enhanced by Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Iran has thus had a measure of success in cultivating relations with its neighbours, even those Arab Sunni states that are not natural allies.

Washington has also suffered from the confusion about its aims. Initially, it stood aloof from negotiations. That policy was reversed earlier this year when the administration said it would join talks if Iran suspended enrichment. But US intentions are still opaque. President George W. Bush has told at least one European leader that he is not at all sure he had been right to change course.

Such hesitancy allows Iranians to claim that negotiations are a feint – the real objective remains regime change. Hawks in Washington agree. That makes it an awful lot harder for the US to enlist the support of China and powerful non-aligned nations such as India and South Africa.

There is confusion, too, about the imminence of the threat. The best guess of US and other intelligence agencies seems to be that Iran is five years or possibly more from building a nuclear weapon. But, while some suggest that its uranium enrichment programme will soon take Iran beyond a crucial technical threshold, others say Iranian scientists are struggling with 1950s technology.

None of the above – and one could add to the list of Washington’s self-imposed handicaps a selective attitude to enforcement of the NPT – makes it sensible or right for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability. President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is not the sort of leader one wants armed with nuclear missiles. The artfulness of Tehran’s diplomacy and clumsiness in Washington have too often obscured the nature of the present Iranian regime.

A nuclear-armed Iran would be bad for everyone, including Tehran. History and geography leave Iran with genuine security concerns. But there is nothing to be gained that could not better be achieved through strong regional security arrangements and integration into the international community – and a lot to be lost.

By refusing to open direct talks, or setting preconditions for multilateral negotiations, the US inadvertently colludes with the hardliners in Tehran in obscuring this choice. Nothing suits Mr Ahmadi-Nejad better than the perception of US obduracy.

There are dangers, too, for Iran. It could yet miscalculate and overplay its hand. Mr Bush may judge he has little to lose in the twilight of his presidency. An uncompromising stance could otherwise emerge as a litmus test of a robust commitment to US national security in the 2008 presidential campaign. Military strikes on Iran could then be, if not the last act of this administration, the first mistake of the next.

The important thing now is that these choices, and risks, are clearly enunciated – not least to the Iranian people. Here, the US weakens rather than strengthens its case by setting conditions on talks with Tehran.