Has Iranian President Mah moud Ahmadinejad won his first diplomatic victory since his disputed re-election in June?
Last Thursday, Tehran presented what it calls “an updated package” as the basis for fresh talks with the G+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, plus Germany).
On Friday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the package “unacceptable” but added that America would seek “an early meeting” and give the Islamic Republic until year’s end to make up its mind.
On Monday, Iran announced that fresh talks would start on Oct. 1. The official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that European Union foreign-policy czar Javier Solana accepted the date after studying the Iranian “package.”
If the proposed round — the first since last fall — occurs, Ahmadinejad could claim a diplomatic victory, for three reasons.
1) For the first time since the nuclear dispute started a decade ago, the agenda would be set by the Islamic Republic — not the big powers.
Even before his election, President Obama had promised “direct and unconditional talks” with the Islamic Republic. Yet he’s wound up with conditional talks — with Iran fixing the conditions.
Nor did Obama get the one-on-one talks he wanted. America will be “engaged” in a multilateral context, with China and Russia acting as “restraining powers” to prevent undue pressure on Iran.
2) Ahmadinejad has managed to engage the major powers on a range of issues — creating the impression that they acknowledge Iran as a partner in “a new global order.”
The Iranian leadership resents the fact that it’s shut out of the G-20 negotiations, which include such smaller powers as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and South Africa. Ahmadinejad likes to refer to Iran as “a world power” with “the right and duty to offer mankind an alternative vision.” His hope is to transform the 5+1 into a new G-7 — with Iran as a full partner.
The Tehran media describe his coming address at this month’s UN General Assembly in New York as a “blueprint for a new world order.”
3) Even if Ahmadinejad fails to secure a place at the top table through the 5+1 group, the talks could provide a mechanism for buying time. Weeks if not months could go to “clarify” aspects of the proposed “package.” Counterproposals could fly in both directions, consuming yet more time.
With those delays, Obama will have given Ahmadinejad at least a year free of pressure and more sanctions.
The consensus in Tehran is that Iran will reach the “nuclear threshold” in the next 18 months — meaning it would have the technical, scientific and industrial wherewithal to build a nuclear arsenal whenever the leadership so decides.
Once that threshold is reached, all talk of preventing Iran from getting the bomb would be academic. The issue becomes one of persuading it not to build nuclear weapons.
There are two reasons for Tehran’s self-assurance as it prepares for October talks. First, Ahmadinejad and his advisers are confident that the Obama administration has accepted a nuclear Iran, but dare not say so publicly for fear of the “Zionist lobby” in Washington.
Islamic Republic News Agency senior analyst Ata-Allah Bahrami puts it this way: “Leaving aside the literature of propaganda and judging by the real yardsticks of national interests and threats, the US has no problem with Iran’s nuclear project and does not regard it as a threat to itself . . .
“American [officials] have repeatedly spoken of accepting a nuclear Iran and tried to propose countermeasures. [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton has spoken of an American nuclear umbrella for the Middle East.”
Second, Ahmadinejad thinks that Obama is anxious to organize a US strategic retreat from the Middle East. With help from Iran, he could obtain an orderly retreat. With a hostile Iran, it could turn into a “historic catastrophe” for America.
Here is Bahrami again: “The United States’ extensive problems stem from its widespread military presence in the Middle East. Because Iran is the most powerful nation in the Middle East, the US, under any circumstances, would need Iran’s help to solve its problems.”
He adds: “The new proposed Iranian package reflects the new conditions in the region, a region in which the United States’ position is weaker than ever,” claiming that “Obama’s retreat from preconditions for talks with Iran is a positive move.”