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Iran Won't Budge

Why Ahmadinejad isn't likely to accept the U.S. offer for talks.

7:50 AM, Jun 6, 2006 • By HILLEL FRADKIN
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LAST WEEK, the Bush administration adopted a new approach to the crisis with Iran over Tehran's pursuit of uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice offered to join the negotiations with Iran (heretofore conducted by the E.U. Three--France, Germany and Britain) on one condition: Iran must suspend all enrichment activities in a verifiable manner.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly rejected any cessation of enrichment. Speaking at the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder, he declared, "The Iranian nation's right to nuclear technology and power is legal and definite, and we will not talk about these issues." Statements over the weekend by Iranian officials, above all Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, affirmed this position.

End of story? Not quite. So far, the U.S. government is refusing to take no for an answer. Its immediate reason is that it has not yet officially communicated its offer, which is to include a set of carrots and sticks--incentives or penalties, depending upon whether Iran agrees to negotiations on the stipulated condition.

So our approach is to regard the issue as still open for some time. (We have stipulated that the Iranians would have several weeks to respond.) Our view, it seems, is that Iran is not permitted to say no until it knows what is on the table.

Once a formal offer is made, will Iran agree to our condition and enter direct talks? Not likely.

First, Iran isn't tempted by the carrots. Ahmadinejad has said that the incentives are like the sweets and treats that could only tempt a child--that they are laughable and even insulting.

Nor is it frightened by the sticks. Indeed it is not clear what they are or even whether they exist in any meaningful sense. The United States has reportedly proposed a series of potentially severe sanctions--political, economic and especially financial--that would be backed by the authority of the Security Council.

Some of these, if really applied, might genuinely hurt--and just possibly force Iran to consider a different course of action. But several of our "partners"--especially China and Russia--have made clear that they do not endorse anything of this order of severity. Iran thus has no reason, for the moment, to feel intimidated and every reason to wait and see if it is truly disadvantaged.

But the most important reason is the great value Iran, and in particular Ahmadinejad, sees in the pursuit of nuclear enrichment and weaponry. He has referred to it as "a golden treasure." And he is right, from the perspective of his ambitions, which are increasingly those of the regime as a whole.

In the year since he was elected, Ahmadinejad has moved aggressively--and thus far successfully--to revive the regime's morale and strengthen its control over Iran. He has reasserted with great rhetorical vigor the full revolutionary mission of Ayatollah Khomeini, and revitalized the core of cadres--the Revolutionary Guard and Militia--that still embrace that vision. In this, he has addressed the fears of collapse that had arisen within the regime over the years since the death of Khomeini.

Khomeini's vision, however, went beyond clerical rule over Iran. It asserted the wholesale rejection of liberal democracy there and everywhere in the world and a mission to ultimately destroy it. This envisaged a grand transnational alliance of radical Muslim movements. Ahmadinejad has reasserted this as well--as was made abundantly clear in his recent letter to President Bush, which asserted the decline of liberal democracy and looked forward to its demise.

In addition to this fidelity to Khomeini's legacy, Ahmadinejad has endeavored to establish himself as Khomeini's true successor, seeking a leadership role throughout the Muslim world--including in such far-away places as Indonesia, which he visited recently. He has reinforced longstanding support for Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah and sought an alliance with Hamas, the new radical rulers of the Palestinian Authority. He has laid claim to superior standing by calling for the destruction of Israel and, in general, seeking confrontation with the United States.

For all these purposes--the Iranian and the pan-Islamic--the pursuit of nuclear weaponry is indeed a "golden treasure." Actual possession of nuclear weapons would aid in the survival of the clerical regime--as the North Korean case made clear--and protect Iran's efforts to involve itself in radical endeavors elsewhere in the Muslim world; indeed, the enormous prestige of being a nuclear power would enhance the latter project.

In short, Ahmadinejad has no good reason to agree to our condition to suspend enrichment. Thus it is most unlikely that there will be negotiations on our terms.