Sometime before the end of this month, the Obama administration would have to tell the world whether it still regards “unconditional engagement” with the Islamic Republic in Iran as a realistic option.
Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have repeatedly said that they expect “something” before the end of September.
The new administration was prepared to wait almost nine months for Tehran to decide what to do with Obama’s “stretched hand” of friendship.
Initially, Obama and Clinton had pinned their hopes on Iran’s presidential election in June. It would have been nice if the quintessential “troublemaker”, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had lost to Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the man who had sought normalisation with the US back in the 1980s.
When that did not happen, Washington pinned its hopes on the theory that Ahmadinejad, weakened by the post-election crisis, would seek normalisation to bolster his position at home.
Those who follow Iranian politics would know that the American calculations were dicey at best.
Had Mousavi won, he would have been forced to protect his flanks against attacks by radicals who have turned anti-Americanism into a religion.
On the other hand, the fact that Ahmadinejad has been weakened by the post-election crisis may make it harder to welcome Obama’s stretched hand.
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly promised “total victory”, comparing his administration to a train surging ahead with no clutch let alone a rear-gear.
All this does not mean that Ahmadinejad seeks confrontation for the sake of confrontation. Far from it. A shrewd tactician, he has offered to meet Obama and debate him in public in New York during the forthcoming General Assembly of the United Nations.
He may even agree to “unconditional talks” that would give the Islamic Republic more of the precious time it needs to speed up its uranium enrichment project.
Obama has already given Tehran nine month of tranquility during which the controversial project has raced ahead in defiance of three mandatory resolutions issued by the United Nations’ Security Council. If talking to Obama could provide another nine months or even a year of further tranquility, Ahmadinejad would be foolish not to seize the opportunity.
From the start Ahmadinejad has based his strategy on a sober cost-benefit assessment.
And, so far, he has been proved right. The benefits of defiance outweigh the cost. Iran is close to reaching the “nuclear threshold” or “surge capacity”, something that Iranian strategists, both under the Shah and during the Khomeinist period, have dreamed about since the 1960s.
The cost of defiance has been some sanctions many of which are routinely violated by most countries including China, Russia and such European Union members as Austria, Greece and Spain.
The Khomeinist regime is of the type that does not, indeed could not, stop unless it hits something hard on its way. So far, however, its experience has been that of “a knife cutting through butter”, as Ahmadinejad likes to say.
But what would constitute “total victory” for Ahmadinejad at this stage?
His first demand is for a total and unreserved apology from the United States for decades of alleged intervention in Iranian affairs.
In 1999 and 2000 President Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeline Albright offered the required apology on a number of occasions. And earlier this year Obama offered his own apology during his speech on Islam in Cairo.
There are signs that Ahmadinejad might be prepared to accept all those apologies as adequate and not to press for a fresh mea culpa by Obama.
For the past two weeks, the official news agency IRNA has been running a long analysis by two of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy advisors who interpret a number of remarks by Hillary Clinton as “tantamount to an apology to Iran.”
Current propaganda in Tehran is clearly aimed at persuading public opinion that the Americans have already apologised to the Islamic Republic. The fact that the US has not been presented as the arch-conspirator in the current crisis is a sign that Ahmadinejad wishes to keep open the option of talking to Washington.
Ahmadinejad’s next key demand would be the recognition by Obama of the Islamic Republic’s position as “a supra-regional power” that “must be consulted on all key issues of international life on the basis of full equality.”
“Iran wants the West in general and the US in particular to recognise it as the region’s superpower,” says Dr. Hussein Pour-Ahmadi, a foreign policy advisor to the president. ” Accepting the legitimacy of Iran’s regional role and position is the key to positive engagement in the Middle East.”
Ahmadinejad’s third demand would be a return of the Iranian nuclear dossier to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would require the US to present a new resolution to the UN Security Council canceling the previous resolutions and inviting the IAEA to negotiate remaining differences with Iran. Such a move would transform Ahmadinejad into a hero, at least within the divided Khomeinist camp, possibly even saving his troubled presidency.
But what would Ahmadinejad be prepared to give in exchange for all that he expects from Obama?
The answer from Tehran is: nothing of substance- at least in the short term.
“The US should recognize Iran as an equal partner in international affairs and acknowledge its position” says Dr. Manuchehr Muhammadi, an advisor to Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, ” However, the US should not insist that the Islamic Republic of Iran change its policies or behavior.”
Judging by the mood music in Tehran, Ahmadinejad is prepared to offer Obama a photo opportunity that the new American president could sell as his first diplomatic victory. In exchange, Ahmadinejad would expect Obama to recognize the Islamic Republic as the regional “superpower”, giving it a veto on key issues of the Middle East including Afghanistan, Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Thanks to recent events in Iran, engaging Iran is no longer about the controversial nuclear dossier. It is about saving Ahmadinejad whose troubled presidency may be heading for even deeper waters. The hand that Obama has stretched out to Iran may turn out to be a lifeline thrown at a drowning Ahmadinejad.