Walker's World: Which Iran is in charge?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Aug. 4, 2008 at 10:01 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- Will the real Iranian government please stand up to be identified? Tehran has just ignored the latest deadline from the United States and the Europeans to suspend its nuclear enrichment process, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared over the weekend that Iran will not change its nuclear policies "by one iota."

That stands in sharp contrast to Ahmadinejad's emollient words in last week's interview with NBC-TV, in which he spoke of "common ground" and hailed the July 19 opening of direct talks with the United States. His remarks excited some optimism in Europe and much confusion in Washington.

There are various explanations for what sounded like a new approach from Iran. The first is the growing evidence of serious tensions between Ahmadinejad and other centers of Tehran power, including the cautious conservatives around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the more pragmatic types around former President Rafsanjani, who, as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, will be the key figure in picking the next Supreme Ayatollah. Given Iran's roaring rate of inflation and pitiful economy despite the oil price bonanza, it may be that Ahmadinejad is feeling weakened and wants to sound more accommodating.

The second explanation is that Ahmadinejad and even his hard-line allies in the Republican Guard are nervous about military strikes from Israel and/or the last flailings of a Bush administration, and of the growing U.S.-European consensus on toughening sanctions. The third explanation is that the Iranian nuclear weapons project is now sufficiently well-advanced that it is unstoppable, even if the current research centers and centrifuges were bombed to bits.

The fourth explanation is that the final details of the contract between Iran's Pars Oil and Gas Co. and China's CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corp.) to exploit the North Pars field have just been completed, according to Ali Vakli, managing director of Pars Oil and Gas Co. He added that Iranian and Chinese companies are expecting to start selling its gas in Asian and European markets "very soon." The deal is worth from $70 billion to $100 billion over the next 25 years.

For the past three years China has been Iran's top oil export market. Iran exports close to 500,000 barrels of oil a day to China, which makes it Beijing's third-largest oil supplier, behind only Angola and Saudi Arabia. And as Western companies scale back their operations in Iran, fearing sanctions, China scrambles to replace them. Over 100 state-backed Chinese companies are now building dams, shipyards and airports, developing mines and infrastructure for oil and gas. Indian companies, in the wake of the latest agreement on an Iranian gas pipeline through Pakistan to India, are increasingly active in Iran.

Moreover, it was only last month that Iran signed a deal with Russia's Gazprom to include it in the development of Iran's South Pars field, the world's largest, containing around 7 percent of known world gas reserves. To put it in perspective, the world's biggest oil field, Saudi Arabia's Ghawar, contained 80 billion tons of oil equivalent. The North Field of South Pars is three times larger, containing 233 billion tons of oil equivalent.

So Iran is probably feeling quite confident that neither Russia nor China is likely to cast its vote in the U.N. Security Council for any seriously aggressive international action against Iran.

The final explanation is that Ahmadinejad genuinely believes that history is on his side. As he told his week's ministerial meeting of 120 nations in the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, "The major powers are on a descending course. The extent of their influence drops day by day. They are approaching the end of their era."

He is probably wrong. The American hyper-power may be going through a rough patch, but China and Russia and, in its own confused and bumbling way, the European Union, are all behaving as though they are great powers with leading roles to play in global affairs. Indeed, most of Ahmadinejad's neighbors see Iran as the local great power (even before it has tested a nuke) and are less than comfortable with the degree of regional influence that this includes. The one strategic goal that Ahmadinejad indisputably shares with Khamenei and Rafsanjani is a conviction that Iran is going to be one of the major powers of the 21st century, just as ancient Persia was a great power from antiquity until the 18th century.

But the confusion and questions about Iran's nuclear intentions are paralleled with the equal confusion about the United States' policy toward Iran. In recent days, there have been two striking developments. The first came from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who noted that even while he believes Iran is "hell bent" on building nuclear weapons, a third U.S.-led war in the region would be "disastrous on a number of levels."

Writing in the latest issue of the U.S. Army War College journal Parameters, Gates began with the old saying "Never fight unless you have to." The thrust of his article was that while he believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, supports terrorism and is a destabilizing influence throughout the region, "another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need."

Then last Monday, speaking before the Pacific Council, retired Gen. John Abizaid, who ran U.S. Central Command (including Iraq and Afghanistan) from 2003 to 2007, warned an attack on Iran would be a bad idea "at this particular time .. (with) our ground forces tapped out." Even more striking, he suggested a nuclear-armed Iran, which in the long run may not be preventable, need not be a disaster.

"I don't believe Iran is a suicide state," he said, suggesting the United States should talk to Iran just as it talked with its Cold War enemies. "Deterrence will work with Iran. It is a country of many different power centers that are competing. Despite what their crazy president says, I doubt seriously whether the Iranians are interested in starting a nuclear war. We need to make it very clear to the Iranians, the same way we made it clear to the Soviet Union and China, that their first use of nuclear weapons would result in the devastation of their nation," he added.

The point is that Tehran is probably just as confused about U.S. intentions as Washington is by the various signals coming from Tehran. But a process of negotiation seems to have begun, even in this twilight of the Bush administration. And it comes with the intriguing prospect of continuity, if Sen. Barack Obama's hints about keeping Gates on as defense secretary in a Democratic administration are meaningful.

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