Tehran plays trump card against Washington push

news4_.jpgCAIRO — Iran’s president threw a deft trump card into his standoff with the West on Monday when he dispatched a letter to US President George W. Bush proposing “new solutions” to the crisis — a diplomatic overture that vastly complicates US hopes for UN Security Council sanctions to punish the Islamic regime.

Some analysts also saw the letter as a signal of a possible power struggle in Iran.

While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not disclose what he wrote to the American leader, the letter’s very existence appeared to offer Russia and China handy additional justification to block the US sanctions drive while diplomatic channels remained open. Both countries hold Security Council vetos and already were hotly opposed to sanctions.

US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton dismissed the letter as an attempt to break international pressure.

“It doesn’t surprise me that it comes on a day like today in a week when they expect a vote on a resolution. The Iranians are always interested in talking right before somebody puts the squeeze on them,” he said. “Then once the squeeze lets up a little bit … back they go to the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, called Ahmadinejad’s move “an astute negotiating ploy.”

 “It’s harder for the Americans to get 15 votes [a unanimous result] in the Security Council if they are seen as not willing to talk to the Iranians,” the former State Department official said.

The letter was particularly noteworthy, he said, as a possible window on a power struggle inside the Iranian hierarchy.

“Just two weeks ago Ahmadinejad said there was no need to talk with the Americans about Iraq,” Fitzpatrick said.

“But now you have Ahmadinejad coming on board. It may represent evidence of internal jockeying over who can deliver the Americans.”

Washington was on record wanting its ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to talk with the Iranians about curbing Tehran’s influence inside its chaotic western neighbour.

Many figures now at the top of Iraq’s political and religious leadership spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule and there is growing concern that Iran has gained undue influence in Baghdad through the former exiles.

As unexpected as the Ahmadinejad letter was in the international community, it shocked some Iranians as well.

“I lost a bet when the news of the letter appeared. Given Ahmadinejad’s hard-line stance, I bet friends Iran would never initiate peaceful steps with the United States,” said Hamid Ghargouzloo, a 57-year-old engineer who trained at Texas State University in El Paso during the 1970s.

Farhad Kafi, 68, praised Ahmadinejad’s overture and voiced a yearning for better ties with Washington as he walked past the former US embassy in Tehran.

“It was a wise and brave decision. I know it will take time for Iran and United States to get along. It doesn’t matter what the letter says, it could be the end of the hostility,” he said.

The Ahmadinejad letter also stands to win him time — a most valuable commodity if Iran is, as Washington asserts, trying to build an atomic bomb.

So far, Iran has been able to enrich small amounts of uranium to a level that, in sufficient quantities, could fuel a nuclear reactor to generate electricity. By virtually all estimates, Tehran will need several more years to make a nuclear warhead — a goal it denies holding.

But if Iran is trying to buy time, the Ahmadinejad and others in the government and scientific community need only to look to North Korea, which managed to stall US and international intervention as it successfully constructed several warheads even as it further crippled is economy.

Regardless of motivation, however, Ahmadinejad has used the nuclear issue to whip up national pride and build support for his hard-line stance in a nation where his sharply anti-American and anti-Western policies were thought to have waning support.

His angry rhetoric and insistence on Iran’s right to enrich uranium had, to a degree, managed to divert the attention of an overwhelmingly young population that was believed disenchanted with Ahmadinejad’s puritanical Islamic fundamentalism.

Having played that hand successfully, it is hard so see a face-saving way out of the confrontation if Ahmadinejad does not get something back from Washington after this much publicised missive to Bush.

Washington has appeared disinclined to give any ground to the Iranians, apparently believing Ahmadinejad cannot withstand internal and international dynamics it believes are working against him.

But Ahmadinejad is flush with oil money and has stymied American attempts, so far, to inspire a widespread international boycott of Iran. With additional trumps in his hand, the Iranian leader may have found a way past the US stone wall and towards a dialogue that could produce a satisfactory result for both sides.

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