Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham whose blog has somehow emerged as a go-to place for Iran news, writes on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent offer to send the Islamic Republic's uranium abroad:
That is a major shift, and it remains to be seen why Ahmadinejad
made his move (and note that he made it in a hastily-called interview
on national television), as well as signalling that there was talks
about trading three US detainees for Iranian prisoners held abroad. The
immediate speculation would be that there have been behind-the-scenes
talks with brokers such as Turkey; the International Atomic Energy
Agency and the US had both signalled in recent days that a deal was
still on the table. At the same time, although the President is staying
clear of the internal crisis in his public comments and actions, I have
to wonder if he has also made this unexpected move to try and grab some
“legitimacy” before 11 February.
Er, no. I'm pretty sure that none of these explanations are right. For one thing, the United States isn't actually signaling that the LEU deal is "still on the table." Not only has President Obama pointedly stopped reaching out rhetorically to Iran, he's now lumping Tehran in with Pyongyang -- one Washington Iran hand described the State of the Union address to me as "enemy talk." On and off the record, U.S. officials have in recent weeks all but declared the engagement track dead. Just last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of Iran, "Now, as we move away from the engagement track, which has not
produced the results that some had hoped for, and move toward the
pressure and sanctions track..." More enemy talk.
Second, Ahmadinejad's motive in making this offer is pretty clear: He's trying to sow divisions in the U.N. Security Council as it debates a fresh round of economic sanctions against his country. All Russia and China need is a hint of possible cooperation from Iran, and they've got an excuse to either veto tough multilateral sanctions or water them down to the point where they're meaningless. Trust me: I follow this game very closely, and I've seen Iran do the Lucy-with-the-football thing over and over. In the near future, the number of hard-liners in Tehran denouncing the offer will reach a tipping point, and it will be acrimoniously withdrawn.
The unfortunate thing is, Iran's gambit is already working. China's foreign minister has asked that the offer be explored and that Iran be given more time to come around. Russia's foreign minister welcomed Ahmadinejad's remarks, with no apparent doubts about his sincerity.
Some analysts seem to think Ahmadinejad wants the deal because it will bolster his internal standing. I don't see how -- he's made a career out of standing up to the West on the nuclear issue, so it's hard to imagine him feeling like he needs an agreement. Sure, if Iran successfully brings the arrogant Western powers to heel, it'll bolster his argument for an agressive foreign policy. But I don't think a murkier, mutually beneficial arrangement does much to help him.
None of this is to say that there's an urgent crisis here. Iran is still a ways away from having a nuclear weapon, assuming the vaunted new NIE doesn't tell us otherwise. But I think by now we ought to at least understand how Iran operates pretty well.