- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

Last week, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote, “[T]he multi pronged squeeze on Tehran surprised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials, who seemed confident when I visited the country in September that they were in the driver’s seat and that it was the United States that was weakened and isolated.” Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns proclaimed, “We knocked them off stride and put them on the defensive.” A British official agreed that “[t]he Iranians have moved from cockiness to division and nervousness.”

Mr. Ignatius concluded that “the strategy of confrontation continues, and U.S. and European officials who haven’t had much to cheer about recently seem confident that it’s working.” There is nothing wrong with being optimistic. But it’s necessary to consider some other facts.

“Western officials see various signs of an altered political balance in Tehran: public criticism of Ahmadinejad’s management of the economy by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,” Mr. Ignatius argued. But let’s not forget that Mr. Rafsanjani lost the election to Mr. Ahmadinejad because people could not abide by his corruption. On Friday, however, Mr. Rafsanjani, said bullying tactics vis-a-vis Iran by Western countries would not work. “They will not get a result this way, it will just make problems for them, the world and especially our region,” he said. The Iranian regime does not seek nuclear weapons, he claimed. Mr. Ahmadinejad says the same thing, while suggesting wiping Israel off the map. No one believes Messrs. Ahmadinejad or Rafsanjani mean what they say. It doesn’t matter which one is president; there is no real difference between them.

A Western diplomat told me recently that nearly a year and a half ago, the Bush administration’s red line on a nuclear Iran was conversion; now, nobody is talking about it. The second red line was enrichment. On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had not heeded a demand by the U.N. Security Council to halt uranium enrichment by Feb. 21. Now, the Security Council members will try to agree on a second resolution requiring tougher sanctions on Iran. The problem is there is no existing example to give us the hope that sanctions ever worked.

Where does that put us on a nuclear Iran? Ahmadinejad said on Friday that Iran should stand up to the world and pursue its nuclear program. Iran is not backing down; in fact, those in power don’t seem scared. Tehran argues that it is not violating any agreement. “Iran considers that a suspension of uranium would be contrary to its rights, to the Non Proliferation Treaty and to international rules,” said Mohammad Saidi, deputy director of Iran’s atomic energy.

In the meantime, Iraq is the major priority for the Bush administration. Getting Iraq under control requires more than just sending more troops, the Western diplomat told me. It is evident that American policy-makers — whether they admit it publicly or not — are aware that the dire straits in Iraq raise the stakes.

Mr. Ignatius quotes Mr. Burns as saying: “We’re getting pinged all over the world by Iranians wanting to talk to us. The problem, says Burns, is that the Iranians haven’t yet said the ‘magic word,’ which is that they will actually suspend enrichment in exchange for the suspension of U.N. sanctions.” Iran has proven that it is a hindrance to U.S. success in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the limited withdrawal of his country’s troops from the south of the country closer to Iran. British troops are leaving not because the job is done, but because the job seems impossible to accomplish. Their vacancy will not be filled by the Iraqi security forces but by the insurgency, which has close ties with Iran.

The United States needs to talk with Iran about Iraq as advised by the Baker-Hamilton congressional group. Iran will not accept negotiations, either directly or through a third party, to please the U.S. in Iraq. They will surely want something in return.

Over the weekend, several news outlets suggested that either a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran is possible. Vice President Dick Cheney has said that all options are on the table; Israel has denied reports that they are preparing. The Bush administration also pays lip service to the idea of finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma through diplomacy. Yet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear last week that the president does not have the authority to launch a military strike on Iran without Congressional approval.

However, President Clinton used the military in Kosovo without Congress’ approval. Even the President doesn’t know what precisely will happen next, except that the decision he faces will be much more difficult than the one to go to war in Iraq. And if war is Mr. Bush’s ultimate decision, no one will win.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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