Iran rattled by Washington's resolve
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
United States President Barack Obama's momentous decision on Thursday to scrap
plans to install a controversial missile defense shield in Eastern Europe has
been praised by Russia and a number of European countries. But in Iran, the
announcement has triggered worrying questions about why, and why now?
Washington denies that any secret deal has been made with Moscow. Still, some
analysts point to the possibility the US shelved planned anti-missile
interceptors in Poland and a huge radar in the Czech Republic in exchange for
the Kremlin abandoning its reluctance to exert pressure on Iran over its
nuclear program. If this was Obama's gambit, it may have backfired.
In a televised address after Obama's announcement, Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his position that additional
sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program would be a "serious mistake".
Still, the days ahead will be a better gauge of Moscow's true intentions.
The White House gave two official reasons for scrapping plans for the missile
shield. First, it claims to not foresee an immediate or near-term threat from
any Iranian inter-continental ballistic missiles. Second, the US is now
convinced that Iran is "hastening" its short- and medium-range missiles that
can be better intercepted by American ships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea.
Iranians may be forgiven if they take the US's official explanation with a
grain of salt. The announcement came ahead of a crucial meeting in Istanbul
scheduled for October 1 between Iran and the "Iran Six" nations - the United
States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany. The suggestion that the
decision and the negotiations have no connection does not seem convincing to
Tehran - and the rest of the world - will now watch Moscow's behavior toward
Iran very carefully. Any perceptible change in the established Russian attitude
regarding the Iranian nuclear standoff will be closely evaluated.
No matter what assurances Moscow makes to Iran that it has not cut a deal with
Washington, Tehran will likely maintain skeptical for the foreseeable future.
Many believe that Obama's decision will inevitably lure Moscow closer to
Washington's line on Iran and, at a minimum, test the resolve of Russian
officials who were unwilling to cooperate with the West due to the proposed
By instantly removing that barrier, the Obama administration has generated an
entirely new momentum for a coherent united front against Iran. Tehran has
hardly missed this point.
At the same time, by arguing that Iran is not at the moment a credible
strategic threat through long-range missiles, the White House has also
diminished Iran's image and delivered a heavy blow to its alleged regional
aspirations. Although Iran has always maintained that it harbors no ill
intentions toward Europe, the Iran-focus of the defense shield system was a
plus for Iran that has now been taken out of the equation. This is bound to
affect Iran's calculations for the nuclear talks.
There are innumerable consequences for all the parties involved. For example,
the US government may now act tougher against Iran to deflect domestic
criticisms that dropping the missile shield plan had increased the US's
vulnerability to "rogue regimes".
It is also now doubly difficult for Iran to consider freezing its nuclear fuel
cycle - a source of national pride, thus potentially hardening Iran's
The immediate impact of Obama's decision on the Istanbul nuclear talks may turn
out to be negative. It could lead to yet more inconclusive dialogue. Still, it
will take time for the ramifications of this "game-changer" to be tabulated by
With all eyes set on the October summit, the question is whether or not the
talks will prove more than a photo opportunity and achieve any meaningful
progress. As far as Tehran is concerned, the cards are now beginning to pile up
against it Iran as a direct result of a new air of US-Russia cooperation
facilitated by Thursday's decision. Experts have correctly anticipated a number
of windfalls in terms of arms limitation talks, with some predicting new and
deeper cuts in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US.
If the nuclear talks fail and the "Iran Six" opt for tougher sanctions on Iran,
Tehran would face the difficult task of coming up with the right formula to
offset the net losses stemming from the fallout of the US's decision. To some
observers, Obama has effectively stolen the thunder from Iran's bullish new
nuclear diplomacy. (Please see
Iran bullish ahead of nuclear talks, September 17, Asia Times Online.)
Iran will surely stick to its guns and maintain its position that it will not
negotiate on its uranium-enrichment capability. Any deviation from that line is
now hazardous to the government's integrity and foreign image; it would reflect
weakness on Iran's part, even as Tehran has been forthcoming with unprecedented
levels of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
At another level, Iran's overall national security calculus needs to now adjust
to a potentially weakened position at the negotiating table. This could be done
perhaps by conceiving even more direct links between the nuclear issue and
cooperation in regional security issues, namely in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In a world devoid of core concerns about the politics of alliance and
counter-alliance, Obama's move on the European missile shield would be welcomed
by all as a sign of weapons de-escalation. But with remnants of Cold War
mentality still in place - and Iran and Syria disquieted by what they see as
the US's patron-client relations with nuclear-armed Israel - there is no
alternative but for Tehran and Damascus to apply their own threat analyses to
the strategic ramifications of Obama's decision. Has the threat level to the
region increased or decreased as a result?
The next few moves of Washington and its Western allies vis-a-vis Iran leading
up to the Istanbul negotiations will speak volumes about their intentions at
the talks. Whether or not the group can corner Iran and impose stark choices
before it may depend on whether the rug underneath Russia's resistance to the
application of more pressure on Iran has been pulled.
And what will China do if it perceives an undue chumminess in Moscow-Washington
relations at a time when Beijing is incensed by signs of the US's meddling in
its affairs? It is possible that stronger Iran-China ties may develop in
response to these new developments.
One thing is certain: the sudden US decision to alter the strategic backdrop
for the nuclear negotiations with Iran will test Tehran's diplomacy and
strategic acumen. Tehran must adjust to the fact that improving US-Russia ties
will proceed in direct proportion to reductions in Russia-Iran relations.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.