PERIGUEUX, France, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- From the point of view of Washington and Tel Aviv, Tehran's latest offer of "serious talks" on nuclear matters is not being taken seriously. Iran's cat-and-mouse game over its nuclear project continues and the deadline of Aug. 31 for Iran to stop enriching uranium is just a week away.
But from Tehran's point of view the diplomacy is going rather well, despite (or perhaps because of) Iran's evident role in the dangerous brinkmanship that its client Hezbollah has staged this summer in Lebanon. The fact that Hezbollah seems to have got away with it and Israel has been discomfited has boosted Iran and left the Bush administration looking even less capable of directing the affairs of the Middle East.
A detailed new report issued this week from Britain's top foreign policy think tank, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says "Iran's influence in Iraq has superseded that of the United States, and is increasingly rivaling the U.S. as the main actor at the crossroads between the Middle East and Asia."
Moreover, the report says, the Bush administration has directly helped strengthen Iran to become a major regional power.
"The war on terror removed the Taliban and Saddam Hussein -- Iran's two greatest regional rivals -- and strengthened Iran's regional leverage in doing so," it says, adding that "Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah has reinforced Iran's position as the region's focal point against U.S.-led policy."
Iran's role within other embattled areas in the region like Afghanistan and southern Lebanon has now increased hugely, says the report, which was prepared with considerable input from British officials and diplomats, as well as academics and regional experts.
"While the U.S. has been playing poker in the region, Iran has been playing chess. Iran is playing a longer, more clever game and has been far more successful at winning hearts and minds," says Nadim Shehadi, one of the report's authors and a fellow of the Institute's Middle East department.
The report stresses that the Bush administration and its allies have yet to appreciate the extent of Iran's regional relationships and standing -- a dynamic which is the key to understanding Iran's newly found confidence and belligerence towards the West. As a result, the U.S.-led agenda for confronting Iran is "severely compromised by the confident ease with which Iran sits in its region."
"While the U.S. may have the upper hand in 'hard' power projection, Iran has proved far more effective through its use of 'soft' power," the report says. "The Bush administration has shown little ability to use politics and culture to pursue its strategic interests while Iran's knowledge of the region, its fluency in the languages and culture, strong historical ties and administrative skills have given it a strong advantage over the West."
This is not what the Bush administration wants to hear, least of all from the foreign policy establishment of its closest ally, and just a week away from the deadline by which Iran is supposed to stop enriching uranium -- or else.
The problem is whether the "or else" is remotely credible, given the obvious reluctance of China and Russia to help the Bush administration out of the briar patch. China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing "has always believed that seeking a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic talks is the best choice and in the interests of all parties concerned." And a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Russia will continue "seeking a political, negotiated settlement concerning Iran's nuclear program."
Not much sign there of a solid international front against Iran, despite Tehran's track record as detailed by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a proven cheat on nuclear matters.
It is increasingly clear to Tehran that the United Nations Security Council is not about to authorize any serious measures that might bring pressure on Iran to inhibit its sovereign right under the non-proliferation treaty to develop and build nuclear power stations and to run them with enriched uranium.
Study the small print of the NPT and the most remarkable features of this keystone treaty on the control of nuclear technology are how little it can do to prevent countries from going nuclear and how much they can get away with while staying within the letter of the law. The treaty's controls against proliferation are quite feeble -- just ask Saddam Hussein's Iraq, North Korea or Iran, to name just three of those who made giant strides towards nuclear power status while supposedly constrained by the NPT. And if Iran decides to walk out of the NPT, there is nothing under international law that the United States can do about it.
Moreover, the international controls that are available can prove surprisingly flexible when it suits the United States. Under the deal that President George W. Bush negotiated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India is being given a painless way back into legality and "compliance" with the NPT (which it has never signed) because the Bush administration thinks it makes strategic sense to have a nuclear balance in Asia against China.
By contrast, the Bush team understandably thinks it strategically dangerous to allow the Ayatollahs, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his rhetoric of "wiping Israel off the map," to develop nuclear weapons. And so Bush has gritted his teeth and offered Tehran carrots as well as sticks, joining Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany to offer Iran a package of incentives -- including help with civilian nuclear technology -- if Iran suspends enrichment.
Will it work? A similar package of incentives failed to stop North Korea, which simply pocketed what bribes it could, and opened a secret new nuclear program after suspending the old one. Iran may well do the same.
Or Tehran may buy time by proposing to sit down with IAEA, Russia, French and Chinese officials to draft an agreement of compliance and inspection that would allow Iran to undertake sufficient enrichment for nuclear power but put controls on the more intensive enrichment required to make nuclear weapons.
More cunningly still, Iran could offer to abide by the same rules that are being applied to India. The point is that Tehran seems to have more options than President Bush, who right now seems to be faced with the choice of accepting a nuclear Iran, trying to impose some hollow sanctions, or looking at that military option that he always says is on the table.