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David Ignatius on Iran's need for an American enemy

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, November 8, 2009

T he Iranians have a word they use to describe a political impasse. They speak of it as a bombast, which means a dead-end street, or a knot that can't be untied.

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That's a good description of the deadlocked debate in Tehran over the nuclear issue.

It has been more than a month since what was touted as a breakthrough meeting with the Iranians in Geneva over their nuclear program. But the Iranians now seem to be backpedaling -- disavowing the tentative agreement that their own negotiators had signaled they supported.

"The feeling now is that the Iranians are unable to decide," says a senior European diplomat involved in the talks. Abbas Milani, a Stanford professor who closely follows events in Iran, agrees: "They clearly want to back out of the deal."

It's a measure of the political turmoil in Tehran that the chief proponent of engagement with the United States over the past month has been the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has been attacked for his supposed willingness to make concessions to the West, including by some of the "green movement" reformers who defied him in the June presidential election.

The diplomatic stalemate is a setback for the Obama administration, which had made engagement with Iran one of its signature issues. As the administration is discovering, getting to "yes" with Tehran for now seems all but impossible. This reversal follows the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the other issue on which President Obama had attempted a bold new start, only to be enveloped by the bitter legacy of the past.

What comes next with Iran, if the negotiating impasse continues, is a new pressure campaign. First will be a debate over further U.N. sanctions. The crucial voices here will be Russia and China, which could veto any new punitive Security Council resolution. Both have publicly expressed their wariness about more sanctions.

Scrolling back to the Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva, it's clear that the Iranians were hedging their bets. Initial reports had it that Iran had agreed to allow inspection of a previously secret nuclear facility at Qom, agreed to ship most of its stock of low-enriched uranium to Russia for further processing and agreed to continue broader talks about the nuclear program and other issues.

Of those three, only the first -- the inspection of Qom -- had taken place by Oct. 31, as expected. And it turns out that what the Iranians actually promised at Geneva was that they would not contradict the West's announcement of the breakthrough, which isn't the same thing as publicly endorsing it.

The prospect of a deal with the Great Satan produced a political frisson in Tehran. For the first several days after the Geneva meeting, the press was silent, seemingly waiting for a cue. Then the attacks began, and they intensified after an Oct. 21 meeting in Vienna that was supposed to hammer out details for the transfer of Iran's uranium to Russia. Critics chided Ahmadinejad for giving away the nuclear store.

The most important criticism came from Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament and formerly Iran's top nuclear negotiator. "The Westerners are insisting on some kind of deception," he said. Larijani wouldn't have launched this assault unless he was confident of the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader.

And sure enough, Khamenei joined in the attacks last week, warning that negotiating with America would be "naive and perverted." The leader was implicitly criticizing Ahmadinejad, who had characterized the Geneva deal as an Iranian victory.

Perhaps this is all an elaborate negotiating ploy, intended to enhance Tehran's bargaining position. But reading the Iranian press, you get the sense that for Iran's ruling elite, engagement with America remains a bridge too far. "America is still the Great Satan. Negotiations are meaningless," thundered the hard-line weekly Ya-Lesarat.

Rather than speak up for dialogue with the United States, many of the reformists gathered around former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi decided instead to score political points against Ahmadinejad.

The past month has been a reminder that the very existence and legitimacy of Khamenei's regime are interwoven with a defiant anti-Americanism. This legacy infects even the reformers who protest against Khamenei.

The challenge for President Obama, notes Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is how to reach an accommodation with an Iran that needs America as an adversary. And how can Obama do that without betraying the opposition that promises Iran's best hope for change?

davidignatius@washpost.com


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