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Iran : An unprecedented deadlock

Not more than a year ago, in an effort to prevent a positive outcome to the secret talks between Tehran and Washington, Moscow would use unexplained delays in the Bouchehr nuclear plant delivery as a lever to dissuade Tehran to continue in the discussions. Tehran always backed out to save the plant. Now allied to Washington since the abandon of the U.S. anti-missile project in Eastern Europe, Moscow reused the Bouchehr lever but this time to encourage Tehran to continue the dialogue with the Americans. For the first time Tehran did not back out. | Understanding the Russian miss |

The Mullahs’ game | The Bouchehr plant is the alibi of the Iranian enrichment program, justifying Tehran’s need to produce nuclear fuel rods for its reactor and future plants to come. It is obviously a pretext for only the maker of the reactor knows the exact formula for the adequate fuel. The Mullahs pretences make them even more ridiculous for they are incapable of starting the reactor already delivered by the Russians without their assistance. Before such incompetence it is difficult to imagine that the Mullahs would be able to attain one day a military nuclear technology on their own.

Beyond this excuse, and beyond the Mullahs efforts to build a presumed nuclear bomb (which would be insignificant in a conflict opposed to the American nuclear force), it is an effort to go against Washington’s will. Tehran is certain that the U.S. would back off to avoid another war that would be forcefully unpopular and would present a risk in oil deliveries from the region. It is obviously a bluff  : the Mullahs pretend to be playing cards that they do not have in their hands, and like any bluff they are hoping that Washington will fold .

In the case of the Mullahs the game is not simply poker, but the capacity to confront the U.S. in their regional hegemony. The stake being military, the bluff is also of a military nature. In the absence of a powerful army, the Mullahs have axed their bluff on the possibility that they may have a weapon of mass destruction. In order to achieve the illusion they needed to put forward a nuclear program by accompanying it with an opaque game of intrigues. In this light, the Bouchehr plant’s need to be fuelled was a perfect pretence. However, all the actors knowing that this pretence was technologically impossible, the bluff flopped.

The Russians’ game | A close ally of Tehran, Moscow quickly understood that if the plant was delivered to the Mullahs, it would raise the stake and therefore give Tehran an advantage in their discussions with Washington and result in lifting the heavy sanctions on the regime’s economy. Freed from the sanctions, Iran would quickly supersede Russia and become Europe’s major natural gas supplier. That is the reason why Moscow’s efforts have gone towards preventing a normalisation in relations between the Mullahs and the U.S. This normalisation is tributary to an appeased dialogue between the two nations or a success of the Mullahs’ bluff. Moscow has combated either situation with a policy of punishments towards Tehran every time a dialogue attempt was made without a Russian participation, by refusing with various implausible excuses the delivery of the Bouchehr plant.

Moscow’s approach was to obtain a multilateral dialogue with Tehran. A Russian presence alongside Washington and its allies in a nuclear dialogue with Tehran would permit them to prevent a solution to the crisis. Moscow has since played a very ambiguous role in the dialogue, sincere, protecting, menacing and accomplice at different moments.

The Mullahs did try shaking off the Moscow hold by physically menacing Russian engineers. However, because of their own anti-appeasement strategy that called for sanctions, they were incapable of keeping the line and had to run back to mean Moscow’s protecting arms to avoid further sanctions.

The new game | Until last august, Moscow thus imposed its will upon the Mullahs to prevent a positive outcome to the negotiations with Washington. Surprisingly in September, Moscow announced an incredibly quick delivery of the Bouchehr plant. In fact, a few days earlier, Russia had exchanged their umpire role with Tehran against the abandon of the Eastern European anti-missile project by Washington for a much softer version and their right to maintain a military presence in Georgia. As of September 2009, Moscow has ceased to be nuisance in Washington’s strategy of sanctions combined with compromising offers towards Tehran. The Bouchehr joker thus lost its interest in the Russian game.

The malicious Russian lever on Tehran was then recycled into a secondary tool in Washington’s policy of limited sanctions combined with offers to pursue dialogue with the Mullahs. When Washington decides to intimidate Tehran, its new ally Moscow declares their support for new UN sanctions, and when the U.S. ally decides to let Tehran regain a deceitful optimism, Moscow declares the contrary.

However, the Bouchehr lever taken out of its original context did not work as an incentive with Tehran when Washington’s emissaries were negotiating that Tehran accept an exchange of their uranium stock for Franco-Russian fuel rods. The Bouchehr plant added in the deal as a welcome gift was not a high enough stake for Tehran to fold.

Yesterday, while the IAEA, now under American influence, put the accent on the absence of a clear aim in the Iranian enrichment program, Moscow suspended work on the Boucher plant giving more weight to the IAEA report. A guileful mean that was used to counter Tehran’s master trump has now become an important argument in the atomic agency’s report. A report so muffled that it leaves Tehran enough space in case the Mullahs wish to come back to the negotiation round table. In response, Tehran has not moved an iota on their previous positions, proving the inefficiency of the Washington strategy.

In conclusion, a previous frozen configuration due to occult American and Russian interests and old reflexes inherited from the Cold War has ceded to a newer configuration absent of any Russian interests. However, this new configuration is as deadlocked as the previous one. The deadlock will remain as long as Washington does not realize that the American approach is inefficient and mostly that the American interests are incompatible with the reality.

The french version of this article :
- Iran : Une configuration figée inédite
- (17 NOVEMBRE 2009)

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