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Obama's game of nuclear chicken with Iran

By David Ignatius
Sunday, November 7, 2010;

While American eyes were focused on the midterm elections, a bitter conflict has continued between the United States and Iran for influence in the Middle East.

The flash points have been Iraq and Lebanon, where the Iranians have been pushing through their proxies for what amounts to political control. The United States and its allies have been resisting - sometimes feebly but enough to slow the Iranian advance. In both Baghdad and Beirut, the proxy warfare may escalate in coming weeks.

The Obama administration hopes that this jousting with Iran is a prelude to serious talks on limits to Tehran's nuclear program. In the administration's view, the Iranians have been squeezed by U.N. sanctions - and are fighting back in Iraq and Lebanon partly to show they still have leverage.

The White House has repeatedly signaled to Iran that it wants a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. The signals back from Tehran have been ambiguous, as usual, but the Iranians have said they are ready to meet this month for more talks with Washington and its key allies, perhaps in Vienna.

The tantalizing hints that Iran wants negotiations have included outreach to American contacts by Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, a key political adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A second Ahmadinejad adviser attended a U.S.-organized meeting in Rome on Oct. 18 about stabilizing Afghanistan. Through various intermediaries, the United States has indicated that it would accept phased negotiations that began with a Turkish compromise for fueling the Tehran Research Reactor and then moved to Iran's overall nuclear program.

The game of nuclear chicken has been going on for nearly a decade, and for all the jockeying over the next round of talks, there's little hard evidence yet that the Iranians are serious about reaching a deal. Meanwhile, their drive for political power in Baghdad and Beirut continues.

The U.S. resistance to Tehran has been a kind of rope-a-dope strategy, with U.S. allies absorbing Iranian blows while Washington dickers for compromise - and, metaphorically, waits for Iran to punch itself out. The U.S. hope, in the words of former ambassador Ryan Crocker, is that "Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get."

In Iraq, more than seven months have passed since the March parliamentary elections without formation of a new government. Iran has put its weight behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bid to stay in power and is said to have created a special task force in Baghdad to pressure Iraqi factions. Iran is said to have cut off covert subsidies to Shiite parties that refused to back Maliki.

The United States, strangely, has also tacitly supported Maliki's quest. But Washington has insisted that the Iraqiya Party, headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi and backed by Iraq's Sunni community, must be included in a coalition government. Supporting the U.S. demand is Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader who is kingmaker in these negotiations.

Some Iraqis fear that Tehran is planning a campaign of reprisals. Last week, a source sent me a purported Iraqi intelligence report claiming that "Iranian intelligence officers (plan) a two-stage operation involving assassinating [former] members of the Baath Party and former and current officers in the army and intelligence agency."

The proxy war in Lebanon is just as fierce. Hezbollah, the Shiite militia created by Iran, is fulminating against an international tribunal that is reportedly preparing to indict Hezbollah members next month for the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Washington has organized a coalition, including Russia, to support the tribunal's work. If indictments are issued, Hezbollah may move to topple the Lebanese government - creating a new showdown. How the United States and Israel would respond isn't clear, but their options would be limited.

Last week, an angry Ahmadinejad accused Russia of selling out to "Satan" by supporting sanctions and canceling a planned sale to Iran of ground-to-air missiles.

The Obama administration hopes that an isolated Iran will eventually seek a compromise on the nuclear issue. But as Karim Sadjadpour argues in Foreign Policy , this regime with a "victimization complex" needs America as an enemy, perhaps more than ever. It makes sense for the United States to explore every reasonable area of compromise, but the proxy wars in Iraq and Lebanon show that Iran wants to bargain from strength, too.

After the election furor, President Obama must turn to this test - and discover whether Iran wants negotiations to reach a deal, or to kill time.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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