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Sep 25, 2008 | 01:57 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Changing Agendas on Iran

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.
On Thursday a big meeting involving the United States, Russia, The United Kingdom, France, China and Germany is supposed to be held in New York to discuss another round of sanctions on Iran for its alleged noncompliance in coming clean about its nuclear program. Washington had spent the past two weeks increasing its rhetoric against Iran and was intending for this meeting to add another layer of pressure on the clerical regime in Tehran. But the Russians have quite thoroughly sabotaged those plans. In a rather blase manner, the Russian delegation announced on Wednesday that the six-nation meeting on Iran had not been included in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's U.N. General Assembly agenda. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman earlier said, "We see no 'fire alarm' which would require us to put off other things in the extremely busy week of the U.N. General Assembly and meet in emergency (session) on the Iranian nuclear problem." In other words, the Russians simply couldn't be bothered by the issue. It is no surprise that the Russians are attempting to scuttle U.S. policy on Iran. After all, playing defense for Tehran in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) requires very little effort on Moscow's part to take the steam out of Washington's pressure campaign. Compared to finishing Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant or shipping S-300 air defense systems to Iran, blocking votes in the UNSC is a low-cost way for Russia to prevent a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that would allow the United States to free itself from the Middle East theater and focus on a Russian threat in Eurasia. While the Iranians are more than happy to have the Russians cover for them in the UNSC, the United States has grown weary of playing Iranian negotiating games. STRATFOR believes that the Iranians have used the threat of a nuclear program to extract concessions from the United States on Iraq, where Iran faces a historical opportunity to consolidate Shiite influence in the heart of the Arab world. But after five years of playing cat and mouse with Tehran, the strategic interest that the United States previously saw in making a deal with Iran on Iraq is fading. Simply put, the United States has already firmly placed the region's Sunni powers in its camp, and the added utility of making up with Iran is not as tempting as it seemed a few years ago. Now, Washington is far more concerned with the need to shift gears from the Middle Eastern theater so it can actually deal with the Russian re-emergence. And Washington has little time or patience to delve much further into open-ended negotiations with the Iranians. Before, the Iranians had two surefire ways to compel the United States back to the negotiating table. One was through its nuclear program, but it seems Iran has pushed the credibility of this issue a few steps too far. Despite the defiant rhetoric from Iran on uranium enrichment, the Iranians do not appear technologically capable of coming close to producing an actual nuclear device, or they would have done so already — and even if they could, Iran remains a generation away from turning a nuclear device into a ruggedized, deliverable weapon. If the case were otherwise, the United States would be acting a lot more concerned about dealing with the Iranians right now. Another Iranian tool was to use the threat of civil war in Iraq against the United States. In late 2006, this was certainly possible. Iran, through trained Shiite militias, had the option of turning the screws on Washington in Iraq by instigating Shiite militia attacks on the Sunnis, leading to an eruption of communal violence that threatened to fatally compromise the U.S. position in Iraq. But, through complex negotiations and military force, the United States steadily rearranged the Iraqi chessboard. Now Washington backs the same Iraqi Sunni militants that it was previously fighting — a strategy that not only cornered al Qaeda in Iraq, but threatened Iran with the long-term prospect of a resuscitated Sunni regime in Baghdad. One of Gen. David Petraeus' major successes was to engage various Shiite factions selectively and turn many of Iran's allies against each other. Within that strategy was planted the kernel of the current security environment, one that has evolved further and further away from bloodshed and Iranian control. The picture now looks very different in late 2008. None of this is to say that the Iranians have run out of options — far from it — but they have lost the ability to impose their will automatically on Iraq's Shia. If Tehran's credibility in Iraq is damaged, its ability to instigate civil war in Iraq as a negotiating tactic is not the reliable tool it once was — and the loss of credibility and power from attempting such and failing would be extreme. Iraq is not "over" — there are still 150,000 or so American troops, Iran still has plenty of leverage, and there are very real issues to work out. But we seem to be sliding tentatively into a situation where the United States is willing to settle for less than it initially wanted due to Russian circumstances, while the penalties for not cooperating with the Iranians are becoming less onerous. Bigger policy shifts have been generated from less.

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