Iran Sits Pretty in World’s Hottest Region

Despite the best efforts of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to make Iran an international pariah, the Islamic Republic keeps wracking up one diplomatic victory after another.

One month after the surprise election victory of hardline President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran finds itself in a substantially stronger position to resist the U.S. campaign to isolate it as part of a strategy of “regime change.”

Last weekend’s three-day visit by U.S.-backed Iraqi President Ibrahim Jaafari to Tehran, where he was warmly received by the regime’s top religious and government officials, was only the latest, albeit the most spectacular, of a series of events that underlines Iran’s growing leverage.

That his visit, which followed a series of high-level meetings between the two countries that produced a military-cooperation accord among other agreements, included a prayerful pilgrimage to the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and arch-foe of the “Great Satan” itself, must have stuck deeply in the craw of neoconservatives and other hawks here who had long assumed that a “liberated” Iraq would gratefully cooperate in ousting the mullahs in Tehran.

The hawks, who welcomed Ahmedinejad’s victory in the belief that an ostentatiously hardline president would put to rest the notion that there was a “moderate” faction the West could deal with, have still not given up hopes for achieving regime change – be it through a U.S.-supported “democratic revolution” à la Ukraine and/or by military strikes on selected nuclear and political targets that would foment a popular uprising.

Despite a greater-than-expected turnout and landslide victory by the winner, the hawks have continued to argue that “the country is ripe for revolution,” as Jeffrey Gedmin, the neoconservative director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, wrote in the current Weekly Standard.

But even if – and most Iran experts here dismiss Gedmin’s opinion as more ideological than informed – internal unhappiness with the Islamic regime has reached an all-time high, the international context is significantly more favorable to Iran in any confrontation with the U.S. than it has been for some time.

While Washington’s military campaign in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq were designed in part to intimidate Iran, Tehran actually emerged with as a big winner, according to most regional observers.

“Its two greatest regional enemies, the Ba’athist government in Iraq and the Sunni extremist regime in Afghanistan, were both smashed without Iran having to fire a shot,” notes Anatol Lieven, an analyst at the New America Foundation.

“Now, it has governments in Afghanistan and still more in Iraq that are basically very sympathetic to Tehran and Tehran’s view of regional affairs” – an observation given much more force by last weekend’s festivities in Tehran.

And even though Iran suddenly found some 160,000 U.S. military troops just next door, that, too, was not necessarily as daunting as the hawks had thought it might be. After all, Iran’s unspoken potential to make life much more difficult for many of its new and already overstretched U.S. neighbors has always given it a certain amount of leverage.

But in recent weeks, Iran has found its position getting stronger, sometimes even with Bush’s seemingly unwitting assistance.

The Bush administration’s agreement this week to sell India advanced nuclear technology despite Delhi’s boycott of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), for example, has created the perception of a double standard that Iran is likely to use to its advantage both in negotiations with the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany) and in fending off U.S. efforts to get the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against it for allegedly violating the NPT.

“Iran will argue how can it be penalized for minor transgressions of the NPT, which it has signed, when India, a nuclear power, gets full nuclear cooperation from the U.S. when it is not even a member,” noted Arjun Makhijani, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

“How can you argue that Russia can’t sell [nuclear] reactors to Iran after this?” said Joseph Cirincione, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace. “That’s what Iran is going to count on.”

Bush, of course, approved the nuclear deal as part of a diplomatic effort to promote India as “a major world power in the 21st century” and, more specifically, as a counterweight to China (whose growing demonization by Republicans in Congress and Sinophobes in the Pentagon also helps Iran by diverting attention to an even bigger “threat”).

But conferring on India regional superpower status to contain China may further shield Tehran, which has long-standing and close ties to New Delhi, from Washington’s more aggressive designs.

The fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his delegation, despite having been given the red-carpet treatment at the White House this week, reportedly rejected all appeals to reconsider their support for the proposed multi-billion-dollar “peace pipeline” that will transport Iranian gas to India via Pakistan offered clear evidence that Delhi has no intention of acting as Washington’s pawn on the global chessboard.

“The Indians will not be corralled into any kind of containment policy regarding China and Iran, but especially Iran,” said Rajan Menon, a foreign-policy expert at Lehigh University. Given the strength of its own relationship with Iran and its large Muslim population, he said, “The U.S. would risk a break with India if it actually attacked Iran.”

The fact, of course, that Iran is an oil and gas exporter at a time of record prices (in part due to the instability in U.S.-occupied Iraq) and growing great-power competition for energy resources is also a major factor in Tehran’s increasing clout. In addition to India, China, which late last year signed a 25-year, $100 billion gas deal with Iran, has a great deal invested in Iran’s stability.

“China sees Iran as a very important part of its energy strategy, and it’s powerful enough to stand up with them if they need support at the UN Security Council,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who advised former President Jimmy Carter on the National Security Council. “For its part, Iran sees China as a potentially very valuable ally.”

Nor is it just China. Russia, which continues to support Iran’s civilian nuclear program nuclear plant, is also more likely to support Iran at the Security Council, less for love of Tehran than because it has become increasingly alienated from Washington over the past year, according to Wayne White, director of the Middle East Institute (MEI) and a former top State Department expert on the Gulf.

That alienation was on display earlier this month when Russia and China encouraged the four other Central Asia members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to call on Washington to set a deadline for withdrawing from military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, both SCO states.

The bases, which have been used to support U.S. military and intelligence operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and which some have suggested could be used in similar ways against Iran, was widely seen as the opening shot by both Moscow and Beijing in a concerted effort to roll back strategic gains made by Washington in Central Asia in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

“Without even having orchestrated some master plan, Iran is sitting pretty in Central Asia at the moment,” said Menon, who recalled Russia and Iran helped broker a peace accord ending the civil war in Tajikistan in 1994. “It’s a multipolar region, and the fact that we’re having problems with so many players gives the Iranians a lot more running room.”

Meanwhile, the rapidly fading likelihood that Turkey will be admitted to the EU in the wake of the French and Dutch rejection of the EU Constitution, as well as growing concerns in Ankara about both Kurdish unrest in a weakened Syria and its own Kurdish insurgency, offers yet another opening to woo a key neighbor whose alliance with Washington has been under unprecedented strain for more than two years now.

These diplomatic advances have contributed to growing self-confidence inside Iran, particularly among the new generation of leaders, including Ahmadinejad, who “have grown up with the idea that Iran makes its own decisions and takes its own path regardless of what outsiders think,” according to Sick. “From inside Iran, there’s a sense that everything is breaking for us.”

“What I worry about is that they will conclude that they don’t need to worry so much about compromise, and that could be very dangerous,” he went on. “They do still have to think about their neighbors, which at this point includes the U.S.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.