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Watching the Genie Dance - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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“They wanted to cut us down, we turned them into pygmies!” This is how the newspaper Kayhan sees the outcome of last Friday’s talks in Geneva between the Islamic Republic and the 5+1 group.

Kayhan, known as the organ of the radical faction, believes that Iran has won “total victory”, and, implicitly, should regard the next phases of the negotiations as a formality.

At first glance, Kayhan’s triumphalism is not misplaced.

Under pressure from President Barack Obama, the 5+21 group (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), appear to have all but abandoned three resolutions that demand Iran to terminate its uranium enrichment programme.

Obama is always careful not to mention those supposedly “mandatory” resolutions. Nor is he asking Iran to scale down, let alone terminate, any aspect of its nuclear programme.

Obama’s chief objective is to woo the Islamic Republic in the hope of turning an adversary of over three decades into a partner, if not an actual friend, sometime in the future.

He wants full “engagement” with Iran, even if an eventual marriage is out of the question.

Obama’s decision to scrap the United States’ plans for building a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic could not have displeased Tehran.

That Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was granted a visa to visit Washington cannot but be regarded as a friendly gesture on the part of the Obama administration.

Obama’s refusal to support the post-election protest movement in Iran is another signal that the new administration wishes to distance itself from its’ predecessor’s confrontational stance.

Obama has personally intervened to prevent the passage of a new law by the US Congress imposing new sanctions on Iran, including a ban on the sale of gasoline.

Thanks to Obama, the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme is being transformed from one of prevention into one of inspection.

The major powers, led by the US, no longer wish to force the Iranian atomic genie back into the bottle. All they are asking for is for a chance to watch the genie’s macabre dance.

Before the Geneva talks, opponents of President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad were accusing him of pursuing “adventurist policies that could lead to sanctions and war.”

Now, however, it is clear that there will not be any sanctions while no one, not even Israel, could contemplate war as long as talks continue.

And, these talks are designed to continue and continue.

A lower-level encounter is planned for the end of this month. Then we will have the new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the end of November. Another session, expected early next year, will examine that report and suggest confidence-building measures. Foreign Minister Mottaki is already talking of a summit of the 5+1 plus Ahmadinejad some time in 2011.

Whether we like it or not, Obama has offered Ahmadinejad a major diplomatic victory, one that the Iranian leader could use against his domestic opponents by claiming that his radicalism has achieved results that the supposed “moderation” of his predecessors could not.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s radicalism and his inability to know when to change gear might yet squander his victory. (At one point, he described his policy as a train surging ahead at top speed with no clutch, no brakes and no reverse gear.)

In politics and diplomacy, as in other fields of life, excess is always the enemy of success.

The story of the Islamic Republic is full of episodes in which excess produced tragedy. Khomeini, having seen his revolution triumph in a few months and with minimum cost in human lives, ordered a few summary executions to establish his radical credentials. But he did not know when to stop. The result was tens of thousands of executions, often without a trial, that transformed many of his former allies into enemies.

In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter was full of admiration and awe for Khomeini. He wrote letters to the ayatollah praising him to the skies. He also promised to resume arms sales to Iran and help Iran become the major link in a “green Islamic belt” designed to choke the USSR to death.

The fact that Carter was at the White House at that time was a gift from the “Hidden Imam” to Khomeini.

The ayatollah did not realise that.

By not knowing how to curb his excess, Khomeini drove Carter out of the White House, losing the best American friend that his Islamic Republic could have hoped for.

Barrack Obama is a reincarnation of Jimmy Carter.

He, too, wants to be a friend of the Islamic Republic only if its leaders let him.

From his public statements, it is obvious Obama regards the United States as an arrogant power that has wronged many weaker powers, among them Iran. He has hinted that he wants to atone for real or imagined past misdeeds of the country he now leads.

In the case of Iran, he seems prepared to surrender provided he is allowed a minimum of dignity.

He may also believe that the real or imagined threat of a nuclear-armed Iran could help him on other issues.

For example, it might persuade Israel and the Arabs to bury their own separate hatchets in the face of a bigger threat to both. Turning the Islamic Republic into a partner, if not a friend, would also reconfirm his belief that his eloquence could achieve results that all of America’s military might would not. Taming the Islamic Republic- something that five successive US presidents failed to do- could ensure Obama’s re-election in 2012.

Right now, however, there are signs that Ahmadinejad is tempted to demand more and offer nothing, even if that meant derailing a process that favours the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad’s office has just published a book with the title of “America is Coming to An End “, spelling out a strategy of “total humiliation” for the “Great Satan.”

The book, recalling Khomeini’s notorious phrase “America Cannot Do A Damn Thing!”, claims that there is no reason why the Islamic Republic, presented as ” the rising power”, should give any quarters to the US, described as ” the sunset power.”

This was how Ahmadinejad behaved in last June’s presidential election. He was not content with just winning a second mandate. He wanted to win with the biggest number of votes in Iran’s history, while humiliating his opponents by making them lose even in their native homes. For him enough was not enough; he wanted more.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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