When Obama Administration Iran czar Dennis Ross and top U.S. Iran negotiator William Burns were planning the details of the President’s outreach to Tehran with senior European diplomats earlier this spring, they discussed a possible nightmare scenario for the June 12 presidential elections in Iran. It was not, however, the prospect that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might win, or even that he might steal the election, as many are alleging he now has, that had them worried. Quite the opposite, it was the possibility that the provocative Iranian President might lose to a moderate challenger.
“We even had a nightmare scenario yesterday,” a senior European diplomat said the day after the meeting with Burns and Ross in March. If a moderate were elected and negotiations with Iran still went nowhere, how would the U.S. and Europe stop Iran from going nuclear With its centrifuges spinning, Iran could continue to amass enriched uranium while presenting to the outside world an openness to compromise, the diplomat explained. When it came time to confront a stalling Iran by dropping the carrots and applying the sticks, said the senior European diplomat, “Try to imagine how difficult it would be to say ‘I stop, I don’t negotiate anymore,'” if a moderate were in charge in Tehran.
In the days since Iran’s troubled election, hard-liners in Israel and neoconservatives in America have made no secret of their glee at still having Ahmadinejad as an antagonistic foil to help build support for taking a tougher line on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But there is also widespread relief in the Administration, as well as among some moderates on Capitol Hill and in Europe, at the result. Despite all the attention paid to the office of the Iranian presidency, nuclear policy is set by the religious leaders of the country, and they have shown a determination to amass enriched uranium regardless of whether hard-liners or moderates have been President.
Still, in addition to his power over domestic and economic policy, the Iranian President is the face for the country abroad. And in that respect, a victory by Mir-Hossein Mousavi would have presented a worst-case scenario for Western efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior Administration officials said Sunday. He would have presented a softer, less confrontational face to the outside world. And he would have been able to stall even before he entered into negotiations with the excuse of taking all summer to get a new Cabinet and negotiating team in place.
By contrast, Ahmadinejad’s win may increase Washington’s chances of getting tougher sanctions on Iran if they refuse to negotiate, the officials said. Ahmadinejad personifies Iran’s unpredictable, dangerous side. He made even more hostile and threatening statements toward Israel and the U.S. during the campaign. And though they dare not say it publicly, Administration officials privately say that the messier and more contentious the postelection period, the more it sends the message to the outside world that even if some Iranians want moderation the hard-liners will not allow it.
All that said, the U.S. faces an uphill battle to gain broad support for tougher sanctions, including those targeting Iran’s ailing energy sector; Iran sits on the world’s third largest oil reserves, but it loses as much as 500,000 barrels a year in production capacity and what it does produce it has little ability to refine, importing up to 50% of its gasoline. Russia has said it does not support sanctions beyond those targeting businesses with direct ties to the nuclear and missile programs in Iran.
Asked on Meet the Press on Sunday whether Obama would be the President who allowed Iran to go nuclear, Vice President Joe Biden said, “He’s going to be the President who stopped it, God willing. We are not going to allow Iran to go nuclear, any more than the rest of the world is going to allow it to go nuclear.”
But if the last months have made anything clear it’s that there may be nothing the U.S. can do to stop the mullahs from going nuclear. “They will try to prolong the process to gain time, because prolonging time is a way for the nuclear program to move forward,” says the European diplomat. The rub, says one senior Administration official, is “whether there is a willingness to do a deal.”
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