reflections

Aug 31, 2009 | 01:55 GMT

5 mins read

Ahmadinejad's Stalling Tactic

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
THE "P-5 PLUS 1" COUNTRIES assigned by the G-8 to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue have called a subministerial-level meeting in Frankfurt for Sept. 2. The six countries are the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The issue will be sanctions that might be placed on Iran if Tehran does not come to the table for talks on its nuclear program. This is the first step in a series of meetings that will culminate later in September with the G-8 meetings. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he was creating a commission to re-examine Iran's relations with the United States. The Israelis say they have assurances from the United States that strong sanctions will be imposed against the Iranians if they do not come to the table with a positive response on demands to halt their nuclear program. The United States has not denied Israel's statement. The French are talking up the need for stronger sanctions, and the British are clearly on board — particularly after the buffeting Iranian-British relations has taken since the Iranian elections in June. The Germans have endorsed stronger sanctions, but it is not clear how far they are prepared to go, and the Russians and Chinese clearly don't want to have anything to do with it. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced over the weekend that he was creating a commission to re-examine Iran's relations with the United States. Ahmadinejad has been under domestic attack in the last few days, indicating the crisis among the Iranian elite is not over. He has the presidency, but he remains under attack and is striking back, calling for the prosecution of opposition leaders who have attacked him, the Iranian president. Undoubtedly, one of the lines of attack is that Ahmadinejad has placed Iran in a vulnerable position by being excessively critical of the United States. Ahmadinejad's critics need to be careful as to how they frame this attack; one of Ahmadinejad's claims has been that his critics have been in the service of the United States and the United Kingdom, so attacking him on this issue could actually benefit him. Nevertheless, the general idea — that he is reckless and has brought down more heat than warranted — has more than a little weight. Creating the commission, therefore, serves two purposes. First, it buffers Ahmadinejad against his domestic critics, demonstrating that he is prepared to be cautious and thoughtful. Second, it creates a framework for allowing the Russians, Chinese and possibly the Germans — none of whom want to see sanctions, and one of whom (Germany) doesn't want to see a crisis — to argue that no one should act hastily, since Iran is clearly thinking through its response. It is tempting to see this as a delaying tactic, and it probably is. (Iran also has invited International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back in to inspect nuclear facilities — an obvious delaying tactic to make Iran appear cooperative.) But it must be remembered that Ahmadinejad has been focused first on the elections and then on the crisis that resulted from the elections. It is not an unreasonable idea that he has not really thought through a response, given his circumstances. We should not try to make too much of this point, of course, since regardless of the crisis there is a strategic decision to be made that is binary: Agree to come to the table on the nuclear issue, or don't. The matter becomes complex only in the event that Tehran does not come to the table. In that case, delay tactics come to the fore. Crisis or not, Ahmadinejad does not want to appear precipitous in his actions. He has three audiences. First, there are the Iranians who charge that he is dangerous. He wants to undercut them. Second, there are the countries that oppose sanctions, particularly Russia and China. He wants to give them all the ammunition he can to delay and split the P-5 Plus 1. Finally, there are the U.S. and European publics. The Europeans really do not want to see another crisis in the Middle East. The U.S. public can be split, even though there is an anti-Iranian core. It is President Barack Obama's own supporters who are most likely to want to go slow on sanctions. As Obama weakens politically, he may be less inclined to ignore them. Thus, announcing this commission just before the kickoff meeting of the P-5 Plus 1 makes sense. It works for all of Ahmadinejad’s audiences and commits Iran to nothing at all. There will be more such gestures on all sides as the coming month's crisis ratchets up.

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