Optimists may interpret Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for new talks with the United States and Europe about his country’s nuclear program as a sign that international sanctions are working. But the notion that Tehran is looking for a way out of the nuclear standoff is exactly what Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs who actually run Iran want Washington to believe. With pressure mounting on the Obama administration to implement sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank–a measure that would set in motion a limited embargo on the country’s export of oil–the Islamist regime is hoping to give the president an excuse to back away from the confrontation.
Despite his tough rhetoric on the issue, the Iranians know Obama is caught between two competing dynamics that are both linked to his re-election.
On the one hand, the president knows if he fails to ramp up the pressure on Iran to disavow its nuclear ambitions, he will be handing the Republicans a cudgel with which they can beat him during the campaign as well as endangering his hold on the Jewish vote. Yet on the other hand, implementing an oil embargo–something the administration has already signaled it is uncomfortable with–could result in a spike in oil and gas prices and help send an already shaky economy into another tailspin. Since the president has already sent notes to Iran asking them to return to talks, it could be the Iranians are hoping they can parlay a new round of pointless diplomacy into another year of delay they can use to enrich more uranium and get closer to their nuclear goal. They are clearly hoping Obama will seize upon new talks as a way to finesse his way out of his re-election dilemma.
Given the increasingly muscular tone the administration has taken toward Iran lately that would seem to be a vain hope. But the Iranians remember that Obama came into office convinced the power of his personality could transform the issue. It took the president a full year before he realized this “engagement” policy with Iran would get nowhere. What followed was two years of diplomatic efforts to forge an international coalition to pressure Iran. Though the president again took credit in his State of the Union speech for accomplishing this task, Russia, China and Turkey have all refused to play along and remain opposed to further sanctions, a factor the Iranians are counting on to restrain Obama’s actions. The Iranians have always treated negotiations as a tactic with which they hope to run out the diplomatic clock until the day when they can announce a successful nuclear test, an achievement that may render them invulnerable to pressure.
The administration has, in effect, painted itself into a corner on Iran. It can’t back down now without appearing weak and perhaps obligating Israel to undertake a unilateral attack to prevent Iran from building a bomb. Yet, it fears further sanctions and seems at times to be more worried about the use of force against Iran — by Israel or the West — than it is about the Iranian nuclear threat. Thus, it may hope to try to talk its way out of this problem even if it only means putting off a decision until after November.
That scenario is exactly what Ahmadinejad is hoping will prevail in administration counsels. If it does, it will be a signal victory for Iranian diplomacy and their nuclear ambitions.