Obama's outstretched hand encourages Iran's quest for the bomb.
The way the Obama administration portrays them, this week's talks between Iran and the so-called 5+1 group of nations represent a diplomatic breakthrough. Indeed they do—for Iran, that is.
The group, consisting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, talked to the Islamic Republic for almost five years with no results. The U.S. played a key part throughout—first indirectly, then with a high-level presence. Until Mr. Obama entered the scene, the talks had a clear purpose: First, to persuade the Islamic Republic to stop uranium enrichment, or to face additional U.N. measures. Second, to offer Tehran inducements to abandon its nuclear ambition. Mr. Obama's policy of the "outstretched hand" has changed all that. Using what diplomats term "creative ambiguity," the new administration has tried to circumvent U.N. resolutions by offering unconditional talks.
Sources in Tehran say neither of the two letters that Mr. Obama has written to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demands compliance with U.N. resolutions. The view from Tehran is that Mr. Obama has already accepted Iran's nuclear program as fait accompli.
As Iran's official news agency, IRNA, put it in an analysis on Sept. 14, "Based on real indicators of its national interests and possible threats, America has no problem with Iran's nuclear project."
It went to note that "[America's] extensive problems originate in that country's military presence in the Middle East. And, since Iran is the most powerful nation in the region, America will have to cooperate with it under any circumstances."
Iran's clarity going into the talks contrasts with Mr. Obama's uncertainty.
"Iran wants its regional supremacy to be recognized by America and the West," says Hussein Pour-Ahmadi, an advisor to the Iranian foreign ministry. "Once Iran's regional dominance is acknowledged, Iran would be ready to help with regional security."
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly claimed that Iran's nuclear program is non-negotiable. Iran enters the talks assuming that the negotiations that began five years ago have ended, and that a new process is about to start. The mandate in Geneva for Saeed Jalili, Iran's top negotiator, now is to assert Iran's claim of a share in global leadership. The Islamic Republic resents that some small Third World nations are invited to the G-20 summit while Iran, the self-proclaimed regional superpower, is excluded.
"Our package covers a range of issues such as energy security, reducing poverty, economic development, nuclear disarmament, fighting terrorism and protecting the environment," Mr. Jalili told reporters in Tehran on Wednesday.
Confident that the nuclear issue is off the table, the Tehran leadership has just revealed the existence of a hitherto secret plant for uranium enrichment. In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA, the Islamic Republic last week told of a new facility, built in a mountain stronghold southwest of Tehran. This could operate 3000 centrifuges.
Earlier, the man in charge of Iran's nuclear project, Ali-Akbar Salehi, had made another startling revelation. In a 5,000-word press release, the nuclear czar reported the existence of "a generation of new and much more efficient centrifuges." He offered no details and, more significantly perhaps, did not say why these superior machines were not being used to enrich uranium instead of the old and inefficient ones operating in Natanz.
The two revelations reinforce suspicions that Tehran may be running a parallel nuclear program of which the IAEA has no knowledge. And yet, Mr. Jalili's brief is to talk about everything except Iran's nuclear program. Iran analysts dub this the "Bikini Strategy"—showing everything except the most interesting parts.
Paradoxically, Mr. Obama's outstretched hand may have made a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem more difficult. The perception in Tehran is that Mr. Obama, who has apologized for America's unspecified misdeeds against Iran, is acting from a position of weakness mixed with a desire to score points against his predecessor.
Over the past months, Iranian think tanks have organized a number of seminars on the coming talks. The participants have been divided into two camps, the first advising that Iran go for full victory over the American "Great Satan". Their argument is that the world has already entered a post-American era and that Mr. Obama's weakness and naïveté offer an opportunity for driving the U.S. out of the Middle East.
Last week, advocates of that view published a collection of essays under the title "America Is Coming to an End". The book, published by Ahmadinejad's office, claims that Mr. Obama's election indicated American popular support for a "strategic global retreat". They claim that the world is looking for "an alternative vision" that only Iran can offer.
Or, as Hamid Mowlana, former American University professor and current advisor to Ahmadinejad, says: "Today, only two men count: Ahmadinejad and Obama. As American influence fades, Iran must assert leadership with Ahmadinejad's message of justice."
To persuade the Islamic Republic to climb off its high horses was never easy. If the "End of America" camp wins the debate in Tehran, that task could become even more difficult.
The other view in Tehran says the Islamic Republic should not press its advantage too far. According to Manuchehr Muhammadi, a foreign ministry advisor, Mr. Obama has already acknowledged the Islamic Republic's regional power status.
Therefore, it would be counter-productive to inflict diplomatic humiliation on Washington. The Khomeinist regime committed such a mistake with President Jimmy Carter in 1979, after Mr. Carter went out of his way to give Khomeini everything he wanted. Mr. Carter's humiliation was a factor in Ronald Reagan's election victory. Advocates of this view argue that Iran should offer Mr. Obama a fig leaf to let him claim success where George W. Bush failed, though without conceding an inch on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Tehran's reading of Mr. Obama's intentions may be off the mark. For the time being, however, the outstretched hand, far from persuading the regime to consider changing its trajectory, has encouraged its nuclear quest.
Mr. Obama may have encouraged those in Tehran who urge an even faster pace in developing a nuclear arsenal, and all with the best of intentions.
Mr. Taheri's new book, "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution," is published by Encounter Books.