Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ali Larijani Resigns Diplomatic Post

On the surface, the resignation of Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear policy negotiator, may be viewed as the culmination of irreconcilable differences between the moderate diplomat and Iran's hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Iran, however, things are rarely what they seem on the surface. (LA Times: Iran's chief nuclear negotiator resigns.)

This is not the first time Larijani has tendered his resignation over frustration's with Ahmadinejad's "no compromise" position. It is, however, the first time Ahmadinejad has accepted his resignation, and that may be the most telling clue of all. Certainly, Iran's official position has not wavered. They intend to pursue a nuclear energy capability, and they continue to assert that their intentions are for peaceful purpose without any desire to produce weapons grade plutonium. Larijani, in his two years of negotiations with the IAEA, Russia, the EU, and the US, has consistently sought a more moderate position. It's that fundamental difference that has frustrated him all along and that has prompted his resignation on several different occasions.

What is significant now is that Ahmadinejad accepted the resignation, removing the one moderate diplomat from the negotiating table. This leaves Iran's hard-line no compromise position as the only one on their side of the offer board. It must beg the question, "why now?". Continued diplomacy, continued negotiations with all parties, was definitely in Iran's favor. The longer Iran could keep the West bottled up at the negotiating table, the longer they would have to develop the nuclear program they truly desired.

Over the course of the past year, Iran has rapidly increased their enrichment capabilities. Cooperation with Russia has likewise increased, almost in direct proportion. The underlying concern with Larijani's resignation is the possible signal that diplomacy is no longer required for Iran to achieve it's goal. It may also signal that Iran has now achieved it, and is capable today of producing weapons grade plutonium.

What Larijani's resignation does is push us that much closer to military action. Once the diplomatic option is no longer being pursued - and it takes a moderate on the Iranian side of the table to keep that option viable - then either Israel or the US will have no choice but to take action. Ahmadinejad certainly knows that, so we must once again question why he chose to make this move now.

If this is a calculated gambit to call our bluff, he may come out ahead in the deal. There's no support in the US right now for military action in Iran, and with the difficulties in Iraq we're not positioned for any long-term action that could result from surgical strikes against the Iranian facilities. As I've discussed in other posts, any strike against Iran must include measures to secure the Straits of Hormuz and to ensure the continued flow of oil. Right now, we'll be hard-pressed to do that without diverting necessary forces away from their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If this is a gambit to call Israel's bluff, however, all bets are off. Coming fast on the heals of Israel's strike against Syria, I would not be too eager to present them with another attractive target. Israel is not at all concerned about the flow of oil to Europe through the Straits of Hormuz and does not share the US concerns about the economic impacts of a strike against Iran. Ahmadinejad may be tugging on Israel's tail at the moment, but that may prove to be a fatal error.

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