Middle East — 25 August 2006

The on going saga between the West and Iran, over its nuclear programme has once again surfaced in the wake of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, with Iran declaring its intention to continue with producing enriched uranium. This has resulted in a mixed response from the international community, China and Russia have called for a diplomatic solution, no real change in their previous positions and the US has called for the UN to take a tougher line against the Iranians again echoing previous hard line positions. In order to stem international pressure, Iran’s nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani has promised ‘serious’ talks with the West over its nuclear programme. However, it remains unclear if the West is willing to negotiate with Iran while its nuclear programme remains active and it is also unclear what the Iranian’s are willing to offer in order to deal with the demands of the international community. However, the recycling of this saga indicates dilemmas being faced by the US and the Iranians, both jostling to attain the best possible outcome to satisfy strategic goals and objectives in the Middle East.

There is no doubt that the power of Iran has increased post 9/11 as a result of drastic foreign policy mistakes by the US. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq has increased the influence of Iran; Chatham House has echoed this view in a new report. The report argues that Iran’s role in the Middle East has increased to such an extent that it now eclipses traditional regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In addition, with Hezbollah seen as an Iranian proxy, it adds to the political weight of the Iranians in the region. All of these facts have raised alarm bells with the US neoconservative strategists, who realise the need to deal with the strategic dilemmas being posed by the growing weight of Iran. The nuclear stand off provides the US with the prime opportunity to prevent a further potential strengthening of Iran via the acquisition of nuclear weapons and to contain Iran by working with her in order to deal with the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, what we are likely to see is an abandoning of the US hard line policy of not negotiating with Iran; this has been evident through the statements of leading players in the US government. The US realises that its influence in the region is being challenged by Iran and the fact is that US foreign policy, along with its non-engagement stance has added to Iran’s prowess, as a result making it necessary to approach and negotiate with Iran.

On the other hand, Iran also has an interest in speaking with the US, in order to guarantee regime security. The conservative elite in Iran is facing mounting internal economic and social pressures, threatening internal stability and external pressures being imposed are not helping the situation. As a result, the call for serious talks with the West by Larijani can be understood in this context, that of Iran’s willingness to compromise in order to preserve security. In addition, the development of a strategic partnership with the US in the region would be in the interest of Iran, as one saw in the 1960s and 1970s under the Shah. Therefore it is likely that Iran, will suspend its nuclear programme not indefinitely but for a short period of time to test the economic and security promises which are being made to Iran, as outlined in the Vienna programme of incentives which were delivered to Iran by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Salano.

Therefore Iran’s nuclear programme can be viewed as a smokescreen, behind which the US and the Iranians are working to achieve strategic goals, in order to preserve their interests in the region. The failure of both actors to achieve their goals will result in this nuclear saga continuing into the near future, adding to instability which already exists in abundance in the region.

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