While US policy is aimed at what one official calls "Giving Iran bad news every week," the regime in Teheran appears less on the defensive than ever. One major contributing factor to its increased sense of power was the failure of the opposition "Green" movement to mobilize earlier this month on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Some of those analysts who have argued that the continuing public and private opposition to last year's rigged Presidential election marked a turning point in the fortunes of Iran, are now reassessing their views. As one veteran analyst put it this week, "There are cracks in the regime but it won't be toppled anytime soon." Moreover, key US officials, since the disputed election, have scoffed at the notion that the opposition could moderate Iran's headlong rush toward acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. As one such official said this week, "These arguments on based on the false assumption that the Greens and the US have a lot in common." And this official points out that the putative leader of the Greens, Mir Hossein Moussavi and his sometime ally Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both supported the development of Iran's nuclear program when they were in power. And even those analysts, who argue that the leadership's preoccupation with political infighting could delay Teheran's nuclear program, admit that, in the words of one veteran analyst, "Under almost any conceivable scenario the political clock [for regime change] is moving a lot slower than the nuclear clock."
Further complicating attempts to rein in Iran is what one State Department official calls the schizophrenia of Arab friends and allies, especially the Gulf States. To begin with, the Gulf states are far from united in their view of Iran. Says one veteran US analyst, "Oman has ties to Iran that go back generations. Qatar is always marching to a different drum. The Saudis would like the US to take care of the Iranian threat but are fearful we will make a mess of it like we have done in Iraq. And even the most outspoken advocates of a hardline, the UAE and Bahrain, doubt that economic sanctions will be sufficient to change Iran's course." This official points out that given this skepticism, it will be hard to gain the unequivocal support of the Gulf states to assist in implementing sanctions. [This is especially important in the case of the UAE, one of whose Emirates, Dubai, has long been an important conduit of legal and illegal trade with Iran]. "The bottom line," says another State Department official, "is that these countries don't want to antagonize Iran only to be caught flatfooted in the event of what might be charitably called a US `policy shift.'" Skepticism about the efficacy of sanctions is not limited to erstwhile Arab allies. Some veteran US officials flatly predict that "crippling sanctions" just aren't going to be adopted, either by the United Nations or what are called "like-minded" countries. The Israelis point out that the Obama Administration had promised to reach a decision by the end of 2009. In December that date was allowed to slip a month. Then it was thought best to have the UN Security Council take up the issue in February, while France, a strong supporter of sanctions, held the Council Presidency. But, say well-informed sources, the month has passed with France, and fellow permanent Council member Britain unable to agree with the US (and Germany, which also helps to coordinate a common European position) on a proposal to present to the Council. Now, say US officials, the goal is to have the Council act by the end of March.
In the wings is Israel, alternately threatening and quiescent. It is clear that Jerusalem does not want to act unilaterally. For one thing, while in conversations with US officials, Israelis argue that the Administration tends to overestimate the negative impact on the region of military action against Iran, privately its own Defense Establishment is anything but sanguine about taking on Iran. In fact, some key Israeli officials fear that Iran may be able to press its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, into provoking a clash with Israel just to divert current international pressure. (NOT happening!) Meanwhile, US officials continue to stream to Israel in an effort to reassure the government of American sensitivity to their security concerns. The latest and highest ranking visitor is Vice President Biden. The idea to send Biden to Israel originated, ironically, among veteran Middle East officials at the Near East Affairs Bureau, They have argued for some time now that the Israelis need to be reassured. Their argument is based on the realization that President Obama continues to be regarded as less than supportive of the Jewish state. During the 2008 campaign, Israelis were the only American allies who, in polling, favored John McCain over Obama. The President's outreach to the Arab and Moslem world, especially in last year's Cairo speech did little to alter Israelis' nervousness about him. His manner with foreign leaders, which even his admirers at the State Department describe as "less than warm and fuzzy," also contributed to the decision to send Biden, perceived to be a long time supporter, to help repair the US-Israel relationship. Tending to Israeli sensibilities will be useful if the Administration is able to get the Palestinians to reengage in talks with the Netanyahu government. The immediate goal is to arrange what are called "proximity talks", an effort to circumvent Palestinian insistence on a complete settlement freeze before engaging directly with Israel. Moreover, well-placed US officials say they have promised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that they will offer "bridging proposals" should the talks bog down. However, they sometimes despair of Abbas' willingness to take any kind of chance. They say he is "gun shy" after being severely criticized for siding with the US on a call for delay in the issuance of the so-called "Goldstone" report, which was highly critical of Israeli military action in Gaza last January. "It wasn't just Palestinians who attacked him but Arab states as well," noted one US official. "You can imagine what he thinks will happen if he makes real concessions to Israel." US officials are worried that an Arab League summit, set for next month could further discourage the already risk averse Abbas. They place little faith in Arab support particularly in light of Special Envoy George Mitchell's failure to enlist Arab and especially Saudi cooperation in his peacemaking efforts over the past year. Next month will also see crucial elections in Iraq and what US officials believe will be the beginning of a long process of forming a new coalition government in Baghdad. Neither heightened violence nor the political machinations of pro-Iranian figures like the former US favorite, Ahmed Chalabi, have prevented the Sunnis from participating in an election that is certain to result in a government led by a Shia politician. Whether that politician is current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is uncertain. However, to get to agreement is going to take time and the fear among US officials is that in the interim, the caretaker government will have to deal with an increasing level of violence. Still, there is very little appetite in the Administration to delay the draw down of US combat forces slated to begin this summer.