Two factors in the timing of Iran’s new offer of negotiations have been largely ignored in the U.S. media. These factors have substantial explanatory value. One is an Iranian-sponsored initiative of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) nations to obtain a new UN ban on military strikes against nuclear facilities. The other is the ongoing internal dissent in Iran, which is expected to crescendo on Friday, September 19, with a mass demonstration by reform supporters.
Iran has been working the NAM proposal for some time now, and with official support from more than 100 NAM members, it intends to submit it to the IAEA, as the UN’s cognizant body, when the IAEA’s membership convenes for a general conference on September 14. (The NAM letter of support submitted to the IAEA is here.) Tehran’s official protestations aside, the proposal is an obvious bid to trigger a UN showdown—pitting NAM nations against the U.S., UK, and France on the Security Council—over any strike on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States. The offer of negotiations from Iran is timed to present the appearance of a cooperative attitude as IAEA takes up the strike-ban initiative.
Meanwhile, Iran’s reformers continue to protest the June election and the regime’s handling of its aftermath, from Basiji brutality to the show trials and torture decried by dissenters and Western pundits. Michael Ledeen reports that all references to opposition leaders Mousavi and Karoubi were banned in the Iranian press as of September 12, a Soviet-style measure that seems thus far to be performing contrary to the spirit of its intention, if not the letter. Scheduled on September 19, “Qods (Jerusalem) Day” is a “monster demonstration” against the regime by reform supporters, which observers expect to represent a decisive, showdown-level event.
September is thus a big month for Tehran’s mullahs. The regime would like to retrieve the political initiative, internally as well as abroad, with a string of diplomatic successes: blunting the West’s strategic focus on Iran’s nuclear program with a new round of negotiations; getting IAEA to endorse the strike-ban proposal; and showcasing Ahmadinejad’s visit to the UN General Assembly this month with, as Emanuele points out, an impression of Iranian initiative and global leadership. The timing of Tehran’s offer of negotiations is neither random nor, as Jennifer drily observes, a response to toughness from the Obama administration. It is part of a comprehensive strategy.
The objective of the strategy remains the same: developing nuclear weapons with which to wield deterrent power and hold Israel and other American allies at risk in the Middle East. Iran wants to negotiate today because that is the best means of forestalling action (including tougher sanctions) against its nuclear program, an interim goal that all Iran’s policies are oriented to. We can assume Netanyahu and Russia’s leadership had their discussion last Monday with full understanding of that reality. We may wonder, however, if that understanding extends to Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. State Department.