Sep 8, 2009 | 02:08 GMT

5 mins read

Iran's Maneuvers as the Deadline Approaches

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 HEAD OF THE INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Monday that the IAEA and Iran were in "stalemate" over Tehran's nuclear program. While IAEA inspectors had been given access to two sites, access to other sites and other data had been denied. ElBaradei said that Iranian leaders should "respond positively to the recent U.S. initiative," meaning that they should come to the table for talks. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that while he was prepared to "continue our work in the framework of global regulations and in close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency," he wanted to see a change in approach, asserting that "the nuclear issue is off the table" from Iran's point of view, and that other issues should be the basis for talks. He did not specify which issues. Ahmadinejad also suggest that leaders from the P-5+1 group (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany) visit Tehran. We are now less than three weeks from the G-8 meeting that had been set as the deadline for talks with Iran to be under way. The Iranians are, if anything, hardening their position. We are now less than three weeks from the G-8 meeting that had been set as the deadline for talks with Iran to already be under way. The Iranians are, if anything, hardening their position. ElBaradei is now providing cover for whatever the G-8 is preparing to do. The IAEA has taken different positions at different times on Iran's level of cooperation, but ElBaradei's comment on Monday was one of the harsher statements from the agency — and it came on the heels of a report stating the IAEA had not been given sufficient access and answers to rule out the existence of a clandestine weapons program. The invitation for the P-5+1 leaders to visit Tehran is interesting. In diplomacy, when you do not want to have talks and you do not want to admit you don't want to talk (in this case, because you do not want sanctions placed on you), one traditional strategy is to argue over where the talks would take place. On the surface, the Iranian proposal is reasonable: Why shouldn't talks about Iran take place in Iran? On the other hand, the last thing the United States and its allies want is to allow Tehran to use the meetings to make it appear in Iran that the P-5+1 officials came to Iran hat in hand. Making a visit to Iran is not the best way to announce sanctions. Yet — and this is the clever part – the Iranians have now offered to have talks. This would put the six Western negotiating countries in the position of turning down an offer of talks over the trivial question of where the talks will take place. The location gambit is obviously not new to the diplomatic game, and even a trumped-up dispute cannot distract from the underlying disagreement over Iran's nuclear program for long. But it is a delaying tactic, and for years now Iran has been playing a delaying game with the West. (Such a strategy has been central to North Korean foreign policy for the better part of two decades; it is not without its value.) Also working in Iran's favor is the fact that the P5+1 is hardly a united phalanx. It is representatives from the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, commissioned by the G-8 to speak to Iran. It contains the Americans and British, who are taking hard lines, and the Russians and Chinese, who seem to oppose further sanctions. The Iranian offer would give the Russians and Chinese a perfect opportunity to disrupt the talks — simply by suggesting that the group take Iran up on the offer. The Iranians are completely aware of these tensions and are using them carefully. But there are obviously deep tensions in Iran more opaque than those on the other side. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami attacked Ahmadinejad publicly this weekend, and an Iranian reformist Web site reported that security forces raided former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's offices — searching for evidence implicating individuals who have been held on charges related to post-election demonstrations. The status of the power structure within the regime is not entirely clear at this time, but Ahmadinejad appears to be pushing forward on matters of foreign policy. Aside from the proposed meeting in Tehran — suggesting that Iran is interested in using delaying tactics to prevent tensions with the West from escalating into conflict — Ahmadinejad appears to be staying the course at the moment, moving ever closer to potential confrontation. What is most interesting to us is not the step-by-step negotiations. It is the relative indifference around the world to what is going on, as if this were simply a new edition of an old game. We continue to believe that the United States cannot afford to let this deadline slip, and we see no evidence of the Iranians ultimately capitulating on the main issues. The severe sanctions that are being discussed must include blocking Iran's gasoline imports, and the Iranians will reply to that. Yet public discussion and oil prices seem indifferent. They could be right. U.S. President Barack Obama might let the date slip, or some diplomatic magic might allow for cover. Or the Iranians might come to the table and talk endlessly. Or the P-5+1 might fragment. There are a lot of ways this might end, but for the moment, no one is turning the wheel on this collision course. Remember this: The Israelis think they have a promise from the United States for crippling sanctions on Iran, and keeping the Israelis under control is a core U.S. strategy.

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