Thursday, March 09, 2006

Iran's Tactics Start to Backfire

Paul Hughes, Reuters:
Grudgingly admired in the past by the West for its negotiating skills, Iran may have misjudged its recent confrontational tactics in the nuclear standoff. Miscalculating both its own bargaining strength and world resolve on the nuclear issue has weakened Iran's familiar blend of brinkmanship and conciliation, diplomats and analysts say. READ MORE

But despite its apparently uncompromising stance, Iran is risk-averse and will probably redouble efforts to defuse the dispute in the coming weeks, they add.

"The regime is ultimately cautious and tends to prefer a controlled crisis as opposed to full confrontation," said a senior European Union diplomat in Tehran.

"The problem is, they've been so explicit about their red lines and what they won't concede on that they have made it very hard for themselves to reach any kind of compromise. In that sense, perhaps, they've mishandled things lately."

Experienced diplomats say that while the tactics employed by Iran's nuclear negotiators have changed little, their style has been transformed compared with the team in place before hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August.

"With (former top negotiator Hassan) Rohani there was more of a dialogue. He was very keen to know how we would react if Iran did this or that," said another senior Western diplomat.

"With the new team it's more of a monologue. We just shout our prepared statements at each other and leave," he said.


Explicit threats issued by Iran on Wednesday to inflict "harm and pain" on Washington and possibly to curb oil exports, do more harm than good, analysts said.

"Everyone knows what Iran can do to harm Western interests if it chooses, but by saying these things they will only goad the Americans into tougher action," said one Iranian political analyst, who asked not to be named.

President Ahmadinejad's threats to "wipe Israel off the map" and comments doubting the scale of the Holocaust have solidified Western views, closing differences Iran had earlier exploited.

And, as the failed attempts to strike a last-minute deal with Russia over uranium enrichment showed, even sympathetic nations have grown skeptical about Iran's ploys, diplomats said.

"People have become more cynical about Iran's tactics because we've seen them employ the same methods time and time again," said the EU diplomat.

Thus, where Iran's efforts to strike a new deal with the EU and Russia might have prospered in the past, "now we can see that they were just trying to get away with the appearance of compromise in order to avoid the Security Council without really giving up anything," the diplomat added.

Diplomats expect Iran to resume very shortly efforts to strike an enrichment deal with Russia and the EU, but strong voices within the leadership are believed to oppose compromise.

"They base their argument on the theory that the U.S. is determined to confront Iran over its nuclear case at some stage and it's better to confront them now from a position of strength," said a strategic consultant in Tehran.


High oil prices and relentless instability in Iraq, combined with Iran's ability to stir up trouble in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, do weigh on Western policymakers' minds when contemplating tougher action against Tehran.

Iran can also draw comfort from the anti-sanctions posture of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, but by pursuing its confrontational stance it may overplay its hand.

"They do have cards to play but they may be overestimating how far they can push this. It's a high-stakes situation now," said the Western diplomat.

Frustrated European diplomats had openly expressed admiration in the past of Iran's negotiating ploys, which for almost three years kept it out of serious trouble despite mounting evidence of an 18-year cover-up of its nuclear work.

"They're seriously good. It's like they're playing chess and can see all the moves ahead," a diplomat at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said in 2004.

So far, internal dissent about the choice of negotiating tactics has been muted, with influential moderates such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani merely reiterating Iran's determination to seek atomic technology for peaceful use.

Public opinion also remains broadly supportive, spurred on by a compliant local media that focuses on the West's perceived unfair treatment of Iran's nuclear case.

But, analysts say, dissenting voices may emerge if sanctions are imposed or military strikes appear more likely.