Wednesday, March 15, 2006

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Has Ahmadinejad jumped the shark?

Michael Slackman writes in the New York Times that both Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are catching some flak for their handling of the nuclear negotiations:

Some people in powerful positions have begun to insist that the confrontational tactics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been backfiring, making it harder instead of easier for Iran to develop a nuclear program.

This week, the United Nations Security Council is meeting to take up the Iranian nuclear program. That referral and, perhaps more important, Iran's inability so far to win Russia's unequivocal support for its plans have empowered critics of Mr. Ahmadinejad, according to political analysts with close ties to the government.

One senior Iranian official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the delicate nature of the issue, said: "I tell you, if what they were doing was working, we would say, 'Good.' " But, he added: "For 27 years after the revolution, America wanted to get Iran to the Security Council and America failed. In less than six months, Ahmadinejad did that."

One month ago, the same official had said with a laugh that those who thought the hard-line approach was a bad choice were staying silent because it appeared to be succeeding.....

Average Iranians do not seem uniformly confident at the prospect of being hit with United Nations sanctions.

From the streets of Tehran to the ski slopes outside the city, some people have begun to joke about the catch phrase of the government flippantly saying, "Nuclear energy is our irrefutable right."

Reformers, whose political clout as a movement vanished after the last election, have also begun to speak out. And people with close ties to the government said high-ranking clerics had begun to give criticism of Iran's position to Ayatollah Khamenei, which the political elite sees as a seismic jolt.

Now, this might be a case of wishful thinking reporting. Much like the hope a few years ago that Iran's regime would be overthrown in a democratic revolution, reports of a regime crack-up are intoxicating because we so desperately want them to be true.

That said, Slackman has a source who explains why Iran has found itself in the pickle it's in -- like Saddam Hussein before them, the Iranians counted on the Russians way too much:

[O]ne political scientist who speaks regularly with members of the Foreign Ministry said that Iran had hinged much of its strategy on winning Russia's support. The political scientist asked not to be identified so as not to compromise his relationship with people in the government.

The political scientist said some negotiators believed that by being hostile to the West they would be able to entice Moscow into making Tehran its stronghold in the Middle East. "They thought the turn east was the way forward," the person said. "That was a belief and a vision."

The person added, "They thought, 99 percent, Russia would seize the opportunity and back the Iranian leaders."

And herein provides a lesson that I might add to my small compendium of Princess Bride-level maxims of international relations that I plann on publishing in my dotage:
1) Never get involved in a land war in Asia;

2) All French diplomacy is predicated on maximizing the self-importance of France;

3) Never trust the Russians to be a dependable ally.

posted by Dan on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM


I don't know about Russia being a dependable ally, but the Iron Sheik and his clerical supporters probably overstimate the degree to which nations other than Iran are willing to ground their foreign policy on hostility to the United States.

Second, the Russians and Americans likely agree that Iranian denials of interest in seeking nuclear weapons are plain lies. A nuclear Iran under its current government might be a country the Russians would deal with, but it isn't obvious how helping Iran get nuclear weapons is in Russia's own national interest.

Finally, the Russians may feel that Tehran has been stringing them along. Their proposal to have uranium enrichment necessary for an Iranian nuclear power program done in Russia was not an unreasonable one from the Western standpoint; it was also the kind of "Russia as a Great Power" idea that President Putin has always been partial to. Iran could have accepted or rejected it, but engaging in several weeks of negotiations before turning it down would have irritated less sensitive governments than Russia's.

If there is a lesson in this for Americans, it may be to resist the temptation to assume that other governments always know what they are doing.

posted by: Zathras on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A Princess Bride maxim to live by. Suits almost any situation, especially 'diplomatic' ones.

posted by: dougf on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Great maxims.
"All French diplomacy is predicated on maximizing the self-importance of France"

Undoubtedly true, but uniquely french? Is there any country for which this doesn't hold?

posted by: JoeBloe on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

No doubt Russia found itself wondering how good an ally Iran would be when they kept stringing them along. But I bet when old crazy pants started spouting destruction and armagedon, is when they really started wondering if these were the neighbors that they wanted to be nuclear armed. Once they were done with Israel, Iran might start dictating what needs to be done in the south Caucasuses.

I'm sure China didn't like all that talk about an 'oil weapon' either.

posted by: ElamBend on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Joe: Normal nations' diplomatic overtures are based on their self-interest.

Self-importance is another matter, and while I'm no expert, there does seem to be a far stronger strain of that in Gallic diplomacy than elsewhere.

(For reasons which are uncertain, but the obvious, simple (and thus incorrect?) guess is post-Napoleonic and post-World-War insecurity about France's current lack of any sort of real power outside of mucking up the EU.)

posted by: Sigivald on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Russia's perfidity should not have caught the mullahs by surprise. Russia wants to keep Iran at the regional player stage, but not let them increase their influence unduly. A truly strong Iran would become a major player in Central Asia, an area with strong historical ties to Iran, and even, in the Tajiks, a closely related linguistic group. Putin has no intention of ceding Russian hegemony in Central Asia to anyone.

posted by: vanya_6724 on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Russia learned the value of being a dependable ally back in 1941 and hasn't forgotten that lesson.

posted by: Mike Schilling on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

This seems to be a case of Iran thinking that Russia and the US will behave as they did during the Cold War.

posted by: Chad on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Getting to the security council doesn't mean anything substantive will come out of the security council. Meanwhile Russian anti-aircraft artillery is being installed around Iranian nuclear plants.

Why does anyone expect Putin to be any more helpful to West here than with Syria or Hamas or Iraq?

posted by: Brendan on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Thanks for publishing this. Those traitors in the MSM never woould. This is why we need blogs to cover the news that paper like the New York Times would never cover!

posted by: republican on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Besides nuclear and weapons technology, the only thing that Russia has that the rest of the world wants enough to pay top dollar for is - oil. If Iran's oil supply should go offline due to sanctions or internal unrest (or attack by the west), then Russia's oil would be worth that much more.

So the ideal strategy for Russia would be to sell Iran enough nuclear technology to get it into to trouble, enough weapons to deter the west from attacking until they were absolutely desperate, and then egg on the Iranians while making no actual specific promises to come to their aid, which would spoil (what remains of) Russia's image with the west.

That would have worked for them with Iraq, too.

Hmmh, and what have the Russians been doing for the last 15 years or so ???

posted by: Jos Bleu on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

The NYTimes said that someone in Iran said that ... I say that is very interesting. Why should I believe it. Does the NYTimes recall the meaning of the term dezinformatsiya? I do not know what is going on Iran, but I am willing to bet that the NYTimes doesn't either.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Comments on Russian resources and betrayal

posted by: Amit Kulkarni on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

Is it time yet to decide whether russia has betrayed iran?

Doesn't it depend on what russia does in the Security Council?

posted by: J Thomas on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

There's utterly nothing in Russia's objective geopolitical position, or its political culture, or contemporary (criminalized) state structure, that would cause anyone to even consider them a potential ally of the US.

Like Iran, their economy is extremely dependent on energy exports. High oil prices hurt the US; for the Russian regime, they are a lifesaver. In fact, they have been the major, probably the only, prop to a spectacularly corrupt and incompetent Russian government. Putin addressing the G8 on his chosen theme of "energy security" is about as convincing as Andy Fastow, Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers holding a conference on Corporate Governance.

As to geostrategic position, any Russian government would seek to counteract if not roll back the rather amazing advance of US military bases and personnel deep within the southern reaches of the former Soviet empire. Russia of course views Iran as a potentially significant ally and will of course act in its own economic, political and regional interest.

Reagrding the Russian state, in our inattention and ignorance we have failed to grasp that it is a failing state that it is almost completely ineffective due to pervasive criminalization of ever agency that touches foreign policy or international relations, from the security services to the economics ministries to the military and the border patrols. How anyone could ever view this ramshackle version of Nigeria North as a "reliable partner" is beyond me.

posted by: thibaud on 03.15.06 at 10:48 AM [permalink]

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