Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Power is Real - But So Are the Fears

Bronwen Maddox, The Times Online:
Iran scored one clear success yesterday in the long-running wrangle over its nuclear ambitions when Russia made clear that the US and Britain will struggle to get its support for sanctions, even if Tehran continues to offend.

At the same time, a new report from Chatham House, a leading London think-tank, argues that the strength and complexity of Iran’s links with Russia and its neighbours underpin its new confidence. Its most striking observation grabbed headlines yesterday, because of the embarrassment it implies for Tony Blair and President Bush. Iran, it says, has been the “main beneficiary” of the Iraq war. But that is mainly because there is little competition for that title; few have done well in any sense. READ MORE

Iran has benefited, the authors argue, because the US removed Saddam Hussein and the Taleban, both hostile to Iran, and nothing much has filled the gap. Iran is now more influential in Iraq than the US.

The authors warn the US from conflict with Iran, lest it force the coalition to quit Iraq abruptly, which they argue it could do. The US’s predicament in Iraq is, they say, a key reason why Iran seems so surefooted in spinning out the nuclear saga to its advantage.

On the surface, Iran’s response to Tuesday’s deadline in the nuclear negotiations, was uncompromising. It gave no hint that it would suspend uranium enrichment, as the US and Britain insist. But it wrapped up its response in a bundle of counter-demands. Those have stalled the response, presumably just what it wanted.

According to an analyst close to the Government, Iran asks for “clarification” on the help it would get in civil nuclear power, including the sale of light water reactors. It also wants to know if the US will lift sanctions that ban the sale of nuclear kit to Iran, and it wants trade deals by named dates.

This isn’t an outright rejection of the United Nations’ demands for it to curb its work. But it still counts as playing hardball, before the UN deadline of August 31 for it to stop the controversial work.

The strength of the report from Chatham House (otherwise known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs) is that it makes clear how Iran’s confidence is rooted in its role as a regional power, and how hard it works at maintaining relations with other countries.

Russia and China are allies of expediency, the authors argue. They are shrewd about Iran’s complex relations with Turkey, and argue that “should Turkey’s accession prospects be derailed, then Turkey is likely to pursue far more independent and nationalistic policies, including with regard to Iran”.

But the report is too dismissive of US and British accusations that Iran is stirring the conflict in Iraq. Similarly, it gives little weight to the Arab fear that Iran will forge a “Shia crescent” of influence through Baghdad to Lebanon, arguing, not convincingly, that Iran is not much interested in this, and that its focus is stability.

Above all — an omission in a report on Iran’s tactical thinking — it avoids a judgment on whether Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons (something the regime denies).

The report notes that President Ahmadinejad has emerged as President by courtesy of Iranian democracy. Iran and Israel are the only countries in the region, it says, where “it is possible for a complete outsider to get voted into the highest office”. Egypt, the US’s stalwart ally, does not compare, never mind Saudi Arabia.

In this, and elsewhere, the report appears sympathetic to Iran although not to Ahmadinejad, much in the way that writers who call themselves “pro-American” now often take pains to say that they are not pro-Bush. But the separation of sympathies is false. The central question about Ahmedinejad, and Bush, is whether they are aberrations. More likely, they are the shape of the future.