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Iran, the United States and the mirror effect

There is a curious mirror effect in the attitudes of Tehran and Washington. Conservatives in Tehran tend to see the United States as a ravenous wolf and conservatives in Washington have branded Tehran as part of an ‘axis of evil’. The distance between Washington and Tehran is dangerous for both countries. Now that there is some resolution with respect to DPRK, some sort of resolution is needed with respect to relations between Washington and Tehran. What are Washington’s plans? Opportunities for détente have been bungled in the past thanks to the United States over-estimating its military power. What will it take to give diplomacy a chance?

Any public statement by the Iranian President has to be treated with interpretative care. Any speech, by any politician usually addresses more than one audience. Ahmadinejad is seen as a demagogue, though in making such judgments there is a need for care. Persian rhetorical style does not necessarily correspond to Western models of political discourse. He needs to maintain his revolutionary credentials and his support amongst working class Iranians. He has also understood that by raising the rhetorical stakes, he can gain significant international attention and this helps to divert attention away from internal problems faced by a deeply conservative regime. He is listened to by far too much and at the same time, not at all. Dialogue is essential. There is a huge gap in understanding between Washington and Tehran and such gaps are dangerous. There is a need to recognize the dangers that Iran poses: the threat to Israel and the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the Middle East. Its possible direct or complicit involvement in Iraq is treated with some skepticism beyond military circles. Iran’s official line is that it supports the Iraqi government and that a fundamental condition for peace is the withdrawal of American forces. There is also a need for diplomacy. The United States has encouraged the Europeans (Britain, Germany and France) to talk with Tehran. The imposition of sanctions by the Security Council in December as a result of a negative response from Tehran to the European initiative puts a constraint in place. The talks with the DPRK have also benefited from the support of China and Russia. Is a similar process possible for the Iranian issue? Ahmadinejad is talking about being in favor of ‘logic’ and of accepting unconditional talks, to be held under ‘just conditions’. The IAEA is still making efforts to edge the Iranians into talks. Such may well be possible with a concerted effort. His tone is to be assessed as conciliatory. Wendesday's talks in Vienna with the IAEA may lead to a significant outcome.

President Bush has been at pains to let it be known that the United States is not preparing to attack Iran. In describing ordinary Iranians ‘as good people’ he is clearly acknowledging that there are people in Iran who do not support Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is equally aware that there are many people in the United States who do not support George Bush. Iran is aware that it is being prepared as a ‘scapegoat’. Tit-for-tat exchanges such as are taking place over detained Iranian diplomats lead nowhere.

Bush has authorized the build up of American defense forces in Iraq and in the Gulf, placing aircraft carriers within easy reach of prospective Iranian targets. Washington has also acknowledged that the military has contingency plans for knocking out the country’s military structures. According to the BBC, there are two developments that would ‘trigger’ a US attack. Iranian involvement in a deadly attack on US forces in Iraq and steps towards the creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb. The publicity and indeed uncertainty surrounding the intentions of the United States must cause concern in Tehran. The next round of sanctions will be financial and such sanctions have a history of effectiveness. It remains to be seen whether the physical presence in the Gulf and the threat of further UN sanctions taken together will persuade Tehran of the need to talk. Tehran’s call for ‘unconditional’ talks may not be enough of a move, but if there is more to come, then let’s hope that the signals are recognized in Washington. The lack of regular diplomatic contact is a hindrance to the interpretation of events. If we only talk to people that we agree with or if we only talk to the mirror, we often miss the obvious.