Why Obama Worries Iran
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised the world again by claiming that Iran now possesses 6,000 uranium enriching centrifuges. The surprising part of his message was that the previous report produced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was produced in November 2007, stated that Iran possesses somewhere between 3,000 to 3,500 centrifuges. So the question is: how did Iran manage to double its capacity in such a short time?
It is possible that Iran has mastered enough technical knowledge to make such a noticeable leap, even though some western specialists doubt this. The other possibility is that Iran has secretly been producing centrifuges elsewhere, away from the eyes of the IAEA, and has now decided to declare their existence.
One also must not rule out the small possibility that Iran may be preparing to accept the recent "freeze" which the EU incentives package has requested, and as part of this, Ahmadinejad has decided to push the number of centrifuges to a high figure, thus making it more difficult to scale back as part of any future deal.
Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad seems to need to use the nuclear program more and more to boost his standing at home.
One important factor behind this is Iran's genuine worry about Barack Obama's rising profile worldwide.
Until now, Tehran has been exploiting President Bush's relative unpopularity in the international scene to its advantage. As far as Iranian strategists are concerned, the US will not invade Iran as it did Iraq. Therefore it only has one real option: to push for tough internationally backed economic sanctions.
President Bush has not been very successful in his effort to get the international community to do this. But Obama is turning out to be different. If he can pull tens of thousands of Germans out of their homes to welcome him in Berlin, there is more of a chance that he could get their government to support his message to Tehran to "take U.S. engagement seriously."
Things could get worse, not better for Iran if a popular President Obama does decide to negotiate directly with Ayatollah Khamenei's administration. In such a scenario, it will be more difficult for Tehran not to compromise. Failure to do so will make it much easier for Obama to gather international consensus (perhaps including the support of Russia and China) for tough economic sanctions -- something which Tehran is concerned about.
There is also the question of Iraq. The last thing Tehran wants is for the US to leave Iraq, at least anytime in the next five years. Obama first said that if elected he would withdraw US forces within 16 months. Then he said he would revise this figure. Despite his shifting position, Iranians see Obama as someone who is serious about ending America's presence in Iraq, certainly in the next two to three years.
Should he do that, Tehran could be left with two possible scenarios, both of which spell trouble for them.
One is that the US leaves Iraq without solving its security problems. This could spell disaster for Tehran, as al-Qaeda is likely to turn its guns on Iran instead. The other possibility is that the US leaves Iraq as a stable country, both in terms of security and politics. This could be equally bad for Iran. A strong Iraq, even one in which Shiites are in charge, is not in Iran's interests either as Shiites there could be placed under pressure to severe their ties with Iran as means of showing their allegiance. And if the ruling Shiites refused to do so, the Kurds and the Sunnis could very well start destabilizing the government in Baghdad, thus producing a Lebanon right on Iran's doorstep.
Worst of all, a strong stable Iraq may start competing with Iran, as part of the historical rivalry between two, dating back to 2,500 years ago where Babylon (Iraq) competed with Persia.
These are tough days for Iran's conservatives. The West has called their bluff by offering to negotiate with them. This has not left them with much room to maneuver. What's worse is that this is having a negative effect on oil price.
What some Western politicians refuse to understand is that Iran's clergy view strong economic sanctions as even more detrimental to their stability than war.
Therefore, serious rethinking is required by Iran's conservative strategists. Many people, including Iranians, believe that the conservatives are overstepping.
The EU, after all, is not asking Iran to dismantle its nuclear program -- it is asking for a six-week freeze to allow for negotiations. That's not too much to ask.
Should Ahmedinejad and co. decide to readjust the country's foreign policies to accommodate the realities of what is happening in the international arena, then they may have a good chance of maintaining Iran's strong position, especially in the Middle East.
But if they stick with their unrealistic ideological beliefs, they could run the risk of seeing a weaker Iran. Even worse -- as far as they are concerned -- they could lose their hard-earned domestic political power. Washington is watching them closely, but their supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei is scrutinizing them even more closely. And he doesn't take non-performance lightly.