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reflections

May 3, 2006 | 10:49 GMT

Geopolitical Diary: Iran's Two-Pronged Strategy

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Iranian leaders were busily bombarding the airwaves with statements about the nuclear issue on Tuesday — a rhetorical blitzkrieg that is part of both a near- and long-term game Iran is playing to secure its position in the Gulf region. The day began with national security chief Ali Larijani saying Iran does not need and did not request talks with the United States regarding Iraq. He said the talks were Washington's idea and that "so far, these discussions have not taken place." That statement was followed by another, issued by Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh — the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization — who said Iranian scientists have enriched uranium at close to 4.8 percent purity, deemed sufficient to yield nuclear fuel. Aghazadeh said Iran will not pursue enrichment levels above 5 percent. Building on that announcement, Larijani (who is also Tehran's lead negotiator on nuclear talks) told CBS Evening News that since Iran had reached the enrichment threshold, "This is a whole new ball game and this requires a new solution, we cannot [continue] with the solutions of the past." In other developments, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the ultraconservative Persian daily Kayhan that Russia and China had indicated to Iran that they would not support international sanctions or military action related to Tehran's nuclear program. Mohammad Ghannadi, deputy head of the Nuclear Research and Technology agency, said three new uranium deposits have been discovered in the central regions of Khoshoomi, Charchooleh and Narigan and that the government is working on mining them. And finally, Iranian Energy Minister Parviz Fattah said the parliament has allocated $200 million for the construction of a nuclear reactor, details of which are soon to be released. On a related note, there was some tough talk from Rear Adm. Mohammad Ebrahim Dehqan, a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who threatened that Iran would target Israel if the United States does something "evil" — a thinly veiled reference to military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. But at the same time, a nuclear scientist spoke of the possibility that Iran might recognize the Jewish state at some point in the future. In an interview with Italy's Il Giornale, Dr. Rahman Garmanpoor, a manager of the Iranian nuclear program, said that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's notorious anti-Zionist statements have been intended for domestic consumption — a way for the new administration to consolidate its hold on power. The 35-year-old scientist went on to say that Tehran has been posturing on the nuclear issue and would stop when it realizes it can push no further. Oil markets clearly are very sensitive to developments in Iran, and Deputy Oil Minister Mohammad Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian warned during a visit to New Delhi that crude prices might rise to more than $100 a barrel by winter, given concerns about potential U.S. military strikes and Iran's inability to increase supplies in the near term. Obviously, high oil prices help Iran financially but — more importantly — they hurt the Americans and complicate matters for the Bush administration, thus giving the Iranians greater room to maneuver on both Iraq as well as the nuclear issue. On the pricing front, Saudi Arabia — that unlikeliest of all Iranian allies — may have aided Tehran on Tuesday, when Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi warned about the possibility of more jihadist attacks against the kingdom's oil facilities. Riyadh likely is trying to keep oil prices at their current highs for as long as possible for the Saudis' own sake, but given the law of unintended consequences, the statement could wind up aiding the kingdom's Persian rival as well. In any case, the rash of statements from a whole host of Iranian officials is Tehran's way of strengthening its negotiating position in the run-up to public talks with Washington, which are anticipated in the near future now that there has been some agreement on the formation of a full-term Iraqi government. Through a carefully calibrated mix of defiant posturing, progress reports, outright threats and even a conciliatory gesture, the Iranians are trying to limit the real and perceived options available to the Bush administration. The Iranians know that they are approaching the final stages of the negotiations with the United States on Iraq, so they have to give it their best. Not only does Iran want to secure the best possible deal with regard to the future of Baghdad, but there is a need to ensure the nuclear issue remains viable of its own accord. Put differently, the Iranians are not prepared to mothball their nuclear program now that the end game is approaching on the issue of Iraq. It is true that Tehran has used the nuclear issue to engender a false sense of crisis — leverage that it can exploit to its advantage on the Iraq front. But Tehran also needs to build the issue to a point of critical mass — enabling it to reignite nuclear fears in its pursuit of future goals, or even possibly to develop weapons at some point if need be. Talk of nukes has been useful to Iran as it pursues certain guarantees in Iraq — but conversely, the issue of Iraq also has allowed the Iranians to push ahead on the nuclear front, which may be useful in and of itself.
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