AP: If Western leaders were still puzzling over Iran's approach to nuclear talks, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a timely tutorial. The Associated Press
By BRIAN MURPHY
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – If Western leaders were still puzzling over Iran's approach to nuclear talks, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a timely tutorial.
It came complete with a dismissive sound bite – comparing Iran's foes to a mosquito – a bit of boasting about Iran's prestige and a touch of self-analysis. Iran's president said Sunday that Tehran doesn't trust the West to keep its promises.
Added together, it helps explain Iran's zigzag reactions last week to a U.N.-drafted nuclear pact, and why Iran is in no hurry to cut a deal.
For days, Iran had hinted that it would back the essential element of the U.N. offer — to send about 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium stockpile out of the country — but wanted some changes to the formula.
Those changes turned out to be more like a full counter proposal.
The response Thursday — as described by diplomats – essentially seeks to keep the uranium in Iran. That could be an ultimate deal breaker, because the West wants to pare down Iran's store of low-enriched uranium to a point where it cannot make a nuclear warhead – at least temporarily.
But no one is ready to call it quits yet. Washington and its allies are hoping Iran softens its position. On Monday, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in Malaysia that bargaining was still possible.
Asked if Tehran has rejected the deal, Mottaki said: "No."
This may be welcome news in Western capitals. Yet many will see it as suspiciously like another stalling tactic.
Iran's negotiations with the West have been a master class in slo-mo diplomacy. Since uranium enrichment was restarted three years ago, Iran has been able to draw out a showdown by offering just enough to the West when the heat became uncomfortable.
"Iran believes time is on their side for now," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
That is because there's little in the U.N. plan that Iran likes and no serious domestic pressure for unpopular compromises. Standing firm, meanwhile, brings some immediate dividends.
Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies can claim the high ground as defenders of Iran's national dignity and strides in nuclear technology. It's particularly tempting for Ahmadinejad, a rare opportunity to cross the political no man's land after June's disputed elections. Even his harshest opponents take pride in Iran's nuclear accomplishments.
Ahmadinejad played this to full effect Sunday. In a posting on a government Web site, he was quoted as describing the nuclear negotiations as a match between Goliath Iran and an annoying insect.
"While enemies have used all their capacities … the Iranian nation is standing powerfully and (Iran's foes) are like a mosquito," he said.
He further scolded the West for what he called a history of broken promises. Iran, he said, "looks at the talks with no trust."
The trust gap comes with a long back story. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran says it made a deal with France for a 10 percent stake in a nuclear plant and was expected to receive 50 tons of UF-6 gas, which can be turned into enriched uranium. But Iran claims it never received even a gram.
To Iranian leaders, that's just another example of perceived Western bullying, which also include sanctions and a lack of pressure on Israel to open itself to international nuclear scrutiny. Israel is widely considered to have nuclear arms, but has never publicly disclosed details — and has left open the option of military action to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In the current context, Iranian authorities also raise worries about Iran's self-sufficiency or of being at the mercy of the West for reactor fuel. Those are powerful themes inside Iran — making it unlikely that Iranian leaders would stoke such anxieties and then agree to the U.N. package.
Iran insists its nuclear program is only for research and energy production and has reportedly floated a counterproposal: to enrich uranium to reactor-ready strength at home with monitoring by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog group.
But Western leaders are not biting on Iran's Plan B.
On Friday, the European Union expressed "grave concern" about Iran's nuclear program and "persistent failure to meet its international obligations." In Washington, the reaction has been more muted, but President Barack Obama does not favor open-ended talks.
Congress also could give the White House new sanctions leverage, this time to penalize foreign firms that sell and ship refined petroleum products to Iran. That is perhaps Iran's most vulnerable point. Right now, it must already import about 40 percent of its gasoline and other fuel products.
But there's no sign of panic from Tehran. The country has ridden out U.S. and international sanctions for years and can look to its economic ties with China and Russia as major buffers.
For the moment, it appears Iran instead is banking on the gravitas of the groundbreaking talks that opened new channels with the United States.
The West may be reluctant to step away from a level of outreach that would be hard to recapture. Yet there is certainly an expiration date on Washington's patience.
"The president's time is not unlimited," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday.
Brian Murphy, the Associated Press bureau chief in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has covered Iranian affairs for more than 10 years.