x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ahmadinejad creates 'facts' and causes a stir

Counter intuitive as it might sound, the Iranian president's preposterous accusation that the US government orchestrated the September 11 attacks may be a sign that Washington and Tehran are heading back to the negotiating table.

Counter intuitive as it may sound, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's preposterous accusation that the US government orchestrated the September 11 attacks - a jibe described as "inexcusable" by the US president Barack Obama - may be a sign that Washington and Tehran are heading back to the negotiating table. Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks in the UN General Assembly, which prompted a walkout by the US and other diplomats, came after a week of statements stressing his government's willingness to resume negotiations over its nuclear programme, as the US and its allies have been demanding. "Possibly in October, we are prepared to talk," Ahmadinejad reiterated on Friday. "The door is open for talks and negotiations within the framework of justice and respect."

Not that his September 11th comments showed much respect, but those remarks were a calculated provocation aimed at putting the Americans on the back foot before the spin battle ahead. The Obama administration had spent most of the week claiming that the reason Iran is now willing to talk is that US sanctions have been more effective than Tehran expected. That's not how Iran sees it. They say that they accepted the nuclear fuel-swap deal proposed by Brazil and Turkey before the latest round of sanctions. It is that deal that is likely to form the initial focus of renewed talks between Iran and the P5+1 group, which comprises the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

Iran has major structural economic programmes not helped by western sanctions. Even if the sanctions were as effective as US officials claim, Iran would certainly be trying to pretend it is not negotiating from a position of weakness. But the punishments haven't been quite as effective as the Obama administration maintains - while the Security Council sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme and some of its military are universally implemented, the measures the US is claiming are most effective are the unilateral US and European sanctions targeting investment in Iran's energy sector and its ability to trade internationally. But those measures are being ignored by key players in Iran's economy such as China, Russia and Turkey, who continue to publicly denounce them at the UN.

At the same time, of course, creating the impression that Iran is being squeezed into negotiations may suit Mr Obama's domestic political needs. He's constantly under pressure from Republicans and hawkish pro-Israel elements of his own party to take an even harder line on Iran; presenting negotiations as the fruits of coercion may help him evade the charge of going soft on Tehran. In that light, Mr Ahmadinejad's calculated provocation makes it harder for Mr Obama to sell any negotiations to his domestic audiences. The Iranian leader believes the US needs a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff as much as Iran does. Earlier in the week, he'd said talks would resume because "there is no other alternative".

But if and when talks do restart, the Iranians will want to focus the conversation on the uranium fuel-swap deal that has been in play for about a year. Iran would export a substantial proportion of its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium fuel for fuel plates enriched to 20 per cent to power a Tehran research reactor used to create medical isotopes. But it's the continuing enrichment programme in Iran that most worries the West, because that gives Iran the ability to create weapons grade matériel. Indeed, Iran upped the ante following the breakdown of the swap deal by beginning to enrich small amounts of its own uranium to 20 per cent. In the process, Iran demonstrated its mastery of enrichment techniques that it would require to create bomb matériel.

Mr Obama and his allies want a broader commitment from Iran to take concrete steps to restore international confidence in the peaceful intent of its programme. But a key question facing the US and its allies is whether they're willing to accept Iran enriching uranium, under international scrutiny within the limits required for energy production. As the former US secretary of state Colin Powell put it bluntly last week in a TV interview: "Eventually we will have to deal with the reality that sanctions may not change the views of the Iranians on these issues and, therefore, let's see if we can find a way to see if Iran can have a nuclear programme that is fixed on power production ... you might have to live with an Iran ... that has a nuclear power capability but rigid enforcement constraints have been put in so they can't move up to a weapons-grade programme and the production of a nuclear weapon."

That may be a consensus view among realists in western capitals, but the formal position of the US demands that Iran not only suspend its enrichment activities in line with UN resolutions, but also that it forego enrichment altogether because of western mistrust. Mr Ahmadinejad may, ironically, have more room to manoeuvre than Mr Obama, the divisions in Tehran notwithstanding. Consider: The original goal of the US sanctions effort in 2006 was to prevent Iran from "mastering the technology" of uranium enrichment, because this would allow it to create bomb matériel. But Iran mastered that technology even before Mr Bush left office. If, as most intelligence assessments concur, Iran is not rushing hell-for-leather to assemble a bomb, but is focused right now on putting the means to build nuclear weapons within reach, then it has come close to achieving its goals. Proceeding to weaponisation would cost it the support of even the likes of Turkey, Brazil and China, and strengthen the hand of those in the West pressing for military action against Iran. A case could certainly be made for Iran pocketing its gains at this point.

By pushing past previous western red lines to create new facts on the ground by mastering the technology of enrichment, and upping the ante through measures such as enriching its uranium to 20 per cent, Tehran has strengthened its bargaining position.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at Tonykaron.com