e505cf4b7e088210VgnVCM100000e56411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q2No new president - but a new red line for negotiations?d505cf4b7e088210VgnVCM100000e56411ac____No new president - but a new red line for negotiations?It's a lot easier to brand a country as a rising menace when its president is a sabre-rattling provocateur than when he is a soft-spoken, reasonable conciliator.<p>Israel's leaders and the hawks within the Obama administration will have breathed a sigh of relief as the returns from Iran's presidential election pointed to a decisive win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They had feared that a win by his chief rival, the more pragmatic Mir-Hossein Mousavi, would have made it more difficult to rally international support for sanctions against Iran - after all, it's a lot easier to brand a country as a rising menace when its president is a sabre-rattling provocateur than when he is a soft-spoken, reasonable conciliator. An editorial in the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot on election day put it bluntly: "Mousavi is bad for Israel."</p>
<p>The election turned largely on domestic issues, primarily the economy. Mr Mousavi ran against Mr Ahmadinejad's mismanagement; Mr Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as a friend of the poor fighting an entrenched, self-serving political elite. A victory for the challenger would certainly have changed the climate in which negotiations with the West are handled, and eased the path of diplomacy. It would not, however, have altered the basic shape of the stalemate. Both candidates were committed to continuing Iran's nuclear programme, which they insist is purely for peaceful purposes.</p>
<p>The Obama administration's planned outreach is directed more at the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, than at the president. And it is accompanied by US efforts to ratchet up sanctions, because the administration's Iran policy chief, Dennis Ross, believes that diplomacy must be backed by intensified threats if it is to succeed. That position would not have changed even if Mr Mousavi had won.</p>
<p>While Mr Ahmadinejad's win underscores support for a defiant position, the Supreme Leader has made clear that he is not interested in Mr Obama's new tone if it doesn't signal an end to Washington's sanctions and its support for covert action against Iran's regime. Mr Ross's "bigger carrots, bigger sticks" approach to diplomacy is likely to fail, because most observers of the Iranian regime have concluded that it perceives such an approach as nothing more than going through the motions in the expectation that talks will fail - but that having held them will strengthen the US case for harsher coercive action. And Mr Ross has argued that such efforts will show that the US "went the extra mile".</p>
<p>Despite sharp differences in their approach to handling the West, the substance of Mr Ahmadinejad's and Mr Mousavi's positions on the US nuclear demands may not have been all that different. Both men insist on Iran's right to nuclear energy, including the right to enrich uranium to fuel its reactors. Iran denies any intention to weaponise its nuclear material, which is currently under the scrutiny of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency - and representatives of the Supreme Leader have, at various points, signalled a readiness to negotiate over extending and tightening that monitoring regime to satisfy western concerns over the potential for nuclear material to be diverted into a bomb programme. (Thus far, the IAEA certifies that no such diversion has taken place.)</p>
<p>The real question determining the outcome of the US-Iran nuclear standoff was never who will be Iran's president, but rather whether Washington - and also Israel - is prepared to live with continued uranium-enrichment on Iranian soil, albeit under greater scrutiny.
Until now, the US and Israel have made enrichment, rather than weaponisation, the red line. That's because the capability to enrich uranium to the lower levels used in reactor fuel can be converted, within a matter of months, to create bomb-grade materiel. Neither the US or Israel believes Iran is currently creating weapons-grade materiel or building a bomb; their concern is that Iran's nuclear energy programme has given it the capability to quickly build a nuclear weapon if it breaks out of the inspection regime.</p>
<p>The former US president George W Bush defined the objective as preventing Iran from "mastering the technology" of enrichment, but Iran has long ago passed that threshold. Indeed, by insisting that Iran continue to develop its enrichment infrastructure even while talking to the West, Mr Ahmadinejad took a page from the playbook of the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who urged his countrymen to build West Bank settlements as "facts on the ground" in defiance of Washington's opposition and the Geneva Convention. Sure enough, Washington is now prepared to accept that many of those same settlement blocs will remain in Israeli hands in any future peace agreement.</p>
<p>Iran's enrichment capability may also have become a "fact on the ground" in Washington's mind. For months now, reports have suggested that the Obama administration is weighing the acceptance of uranium enrichment in Iran, but under stricter monitoring and safeguards. In an interview with The Financial Times last week, the chairman of the US Senate's foreign relations committee, John Kerry, dismissed the Bush administration's demand for Iran to forego the right to enrich uranium as "ridiculous" and "unreasonable" in light of the rights guaranteed to a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty. "They have a right to peaceful nuclear energy and to enrichment in that purpose," Mr Kerry said, arguing that the US should adopt a "realistic" perspective that focuses on preventing Iran from weaponising nuclear material.</p>
<p>Mr Kerry noted that Israel might have a different bottom line from the US, however, and its leaders have long made clear that they won't tolerate even a "breakout" capacity in Iran, demanding that Tehran be forced to dismantle its existing enrichment facilities - a position Iran's leaders are unlikely to accept.
The Obama administration is unlikely to declare its negotiating bottom line before talks begin, but it's a safe bet that any serious interaction will quickly demand that it answer the question of whether the Bush bottom lines still hold. Mr Ross has pressed for tougher measures such as new banking and petroleum sanctions in the hope that throttling the Iranian economy will force Tehran to concede. Friday's election is just the latest sign of how unlikely an Iranian retreat on enrichment is. If the Obama administration ends up combining diplomatic overtures with harsher coercive measures behind a demand that Iran forego its enrichment of uranium, it could find itself on a path to war whatever its best intentions.</p>
<p><i>Tony Karon is a New York based analyst who blogs at rootlesscosmopolitan.com</i></p>