For Iran, the NIE Report Is the Gift that Keeps On Giving

Less than eight days after it was first published, the NIE report on Iran has delivered its third diplomatic victory for Tehran.

The first accomplishment for Tehran took place on December 11. On that day, Egypt, a close US ally in the Middle East, sent its deputy foreign minister on the first official visit to Iran by any Egyptian official, since relations between the two sides were terminated in after Khomeini's revolution in 1980. The primary reason for the break in relations was Ayatollah Khomeini's strong opposition to Anwar Sadat's peace deal with Israel. The late Iranian leader hated Sadat so much, that he named a street in Tehran after Khaled Eslamboli, his assassin.

Since then, the two countries have only been represented by interest sections in each other's capitals.

Just a day after that historic visit, Iran received its second post NIE accomplishment, in the form of a Saudi invitation to President Ahmadinejad to attend the Haj ritual in Mecca. This is an honor that has not been bestowed upon any Iranian president, ever.

The Saudis, who were seething at Iran and Ahmadinejad's role in Iraq and Lebanon, suddenly seem to have taken a shine to him.

The timing of both events, and their message should not be lost on Western leaders. The important question which should be asked is: why do two close US allies feel comfortable enough to make such friendly gestures to Iran, and upgrade its status in the region, at a time when President Bush is trying to do the opposite?

The answer is simple, and important.

It is one thing when the IAEA gives Iran positive points for being "generally truthful about its past." After all, many argue that the IAEA is a toothless bureaucratic organization, at the mercy of different governments and their political agendas.

But when the multi-billion dollar US intelligence machine declares Iran halted its nuclear weapons program back in 2003, then as far as many Middle Eastern countries are concerned, the "danger" label has been taken off Iran's nuclear program.

Although many Sunni countries are worried about Tehran's activities in Iraq and Lebanon, they were more worried about the prospects of war between Washington and Tehran. Now that this danger has dissipated, it is likely that even more countries in the region will decide to engage Iran, as means of influencing its strategy and behavior in the Middle East. This will make the job of imposing sanctions against Iran much more difficult than before.

It will also enable Iran to come out of regional isolation, thus ruining all the celebration that took place in Washington and Jerusalem following the Annapolis show of solidarity.

The third and possibly most important piece of good news Iran has received following the NIE report, came on Thursday 13th of December, when Sergei Shmatko, President of Russian government's atomic export company (Atomstroiexport) announced that "We have resolved all the problems with the Iranians". He went on to say "We have agreed with our Iranian colleagues a time frame for completing the plant and we will make an announcement at the end of December."

These words were music to the ears of President Ahmadinejad. He made a tremendous effort to get Putin to say these words during the Russian president's visit to Tehran on October 15, 2007.

But at that time, Putin resolutely refused. Back then, Russia was worried about a possible backlash from the international community which was suspicious about Iran's nuclear program. Now it seems, thanks to the NIE report, times are changing. Moscow feels so comfortable and confident that it has to commit itself to do something which many Iranian officials had almost given up.

The initial post-NIE signs are not positive for those who believe that Iran's nuclear program still remains a danger and that Iran should be isolated.

Nevertheless, there is some room for hope. Rapprochement with Iran could be used to increase the international community's leverage over Tehran. And this could improve the position of pragmatists and moderates inside Iran, who have been calling for better relations with West.

Meanwhile, even though President Ahmadinejad seems to have found enough reason to gloat, he shouldn't do it for too long. Now that the threat of war against Iran has decreased, the Iranian voter will have little patience for excuses from their president as to why he has not been able to fulfill his pre-election promise to improve Iran's economy.

With 18 months to go before Iran's next presidential elections, Ahmadinejad has two options. One is to invest serious time and effort to turn the economy around. The second is to use his time in Mecca to pray for a miracle, because if his fails to deliver his promises, that's what it will take for him to win the next elections.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author with Yossi Melman of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran." He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (Meepas)