'Same old tricks'
by MEA CYRUS in London
31 Oct 2009 04:14
The tactic though has been the same all along: Appear to be saying Yes, when it's really going to be a No in the end. The Yes is to show that the Iranians are listening receptively, to demonstrate that they are stepping away from their previous defiant approach -- but they are only waiting for a "break out" opportunity. "It's the same old tricks," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency, said at an EU Summit in Brussels. "A back-and-forth for further talks."
The Iranian government wants to test President Barack Obama's resolve. In a recent trip to Iran, everyone was asking me, "How serious a type is this Obama fellow?" On one occasion, when I replied that Obama's presidency has opened a "fast closing window of opportunity," one high-ranking official told me, "You can be sure we'll find a way around him as we did before." He was referring to outmaneuvering President Bush and his tough stance on Iran. In that case, Iran turned soft and even accepted the extra measures put in place by the IAEA. But when all hell broke loose in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq, the Ahmadinejad administration turned the tables on the former American president and his EU allies. That's what it hopes to do again.
One thing is clear though: Iranian politicians are feeling the pressure of sanctions and facing a divided country that is showing little signs of forgiveness for all of their sins in the wake of the June presidential election. The government faces with dread each calendar event that it used as an opportunity to invite people into the streets to shake their iron fists at the United States and its allies. Now the much-touted 13 of Aban anniversary of the U.S. Embassy seizure is one big problematic mess it is probably wishing away.
People's disaffection for the regime and the ongoing protests are further damaging the image of the clerics. The Iranian government has never been this weak internally and that is affecting its posture externally on the nuclear front. For the first time an Iranian president has refused to attend the Tehran media exhibition, apparently afraid of people turning their backs on him, or worse, shouting the popular slogan of the past few months: Where is your 63 percent, liar?
Many observers viewed the Iranian team's quick tacit acceptance of the IAEA plan in Geneva, which the American president referred to as a "constructive" round of talks, as a sign of the pressure on the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad. They both know the current situation is very sensitive and one that can spiral downward very easily. That may be one reason that Ahamadinejad and his nuclear team have not been active in the usual ways, by rallying people around "our inalienable nuclear rights." Instead, Ahmadinejad now talks about cooperation and the readiness to trade nuclear fuel.
He even lashed out at his opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi for going public with criticism of his policy. Mousavi said that Ahmadinejad's adventurism has put Iran in a tight spot: It has to make an impossible choice between accepting the IAEA plan, which in Mousavi's view would undermine decades of investment in Iranian scientists, or refuse it, in which case a fresh batch of sanctions would be leveled at it. In response, Ahmadinejad said some commentators who have suddenly become revolutionary figures won't be allowed to stand in the way.
The Iranian government is dragging its feet in meeting the demands of its own people, and also those put to it by the international community by giving mixed messages and pursing contradictory approaches. It's less a matter of buying time than testing whether Obama, like Bush, can be passive and pushed toward inaction. It would be ideal for Tehran if they could play the same game with Obama. The only problem is that Obama does not really talk tough, and so they can't talk tough either. The clerics' tactic is to stretch Obama's patience thin by killing time until he starts talking tough, giving them an opportunity to act accordingly. In this game, Iran's top card is to keep America and others tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to keep Israel in check by Hezbollah and Hamas. Testing means prolonging the process: either you get the best deal out of it, or Obama becomes Bush! The top brass in Tehran knows it's going to be difficult for the new Nobel Peace Laureate to act too tough though. And that's probably the way they're hedging their bets.
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