This political crisis has more to do with manufactured "diplomatics" ahead of Thursday's meeting in Geneva than with the facts. The revelation by President Barack Obama that Iran is constructing a "secret" nuclear fuel facility, a few days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) received a letter from the Iranians declaring that a new pilot enrichment plant is under construction, is meant to compromise Iran's bargaining position ahead of the talks. The threat of "crippling" sanctions and the loud denunciations by Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown are geared to pressuring the Ahmadinejad administration into accepting more comprehensive inspections by the IAEA.
From the Iranian perspective, the revelations will be used to present the country's nuclear enrichment capabilities as a fait accompli, something that no new sanctions or other diplomatic pressures could redress. The indifferent reaction to the storm of protest about the Qom facility indicates that, for Iran, enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil is legitimate under NPT regulations and non-negotiable in the forthcoming talks.
For President Ahmadinejad, all of this renewed attention comes in rather handy. Via the current diplomatic process he is trying to reassert his authority in the face of ongoing protests. Any standoff with the US and its allies is very functional to this end. Not only does it promise to unite Iranian society behind a common, national cause and divert attention from recurrent flares of dissent, it bestows to Ahmadinejad and his conservative backers the kind of legitimacy they failed to secure via the electoral process in the country.
The Iranian president thinks he is in a win-win situation. If the US and its allies tighten sanctions and refrain from reining in Israeli calls for military action, he and his supporters can divert attention away from their flawed economic policies and blame the "West". They would also find any further escalation conducive to quelling domestic dissent in the name of "national security".
But if the nuclear issue were to be resolved, in my opinion something that the Iranian state (both reformers and conservatives) are genuinely interested in, it would deliver Ahmadinejad an important political victory. No wonder he is smiling. He seems rather at ease, despite his compromised position within the country that he purports to represent.
The writer is an SOAS academic and author of 'Iran in World Politics: the Question of the Islamic Republic'
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