September was a hopeful month for those interested in the de-escalation of tensions between the Unites States and Iran. The extension of a U.S. visa by the Bush Administration to the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami despite vociferous conservative opposition was seen as a sign of possible change in U.S. foreign policy. In addition, a mixture of softer words employed by Iran’s current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN and in his many media appearances in the U.S. regarding Iran’s intentions in the region brought hope of possible movement in Tehran.

Meanwhile, since early September the prospects for jump-starting multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have looked better. Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, after meeting with the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, hinted at the possibility of temporary suspension of uranium enrichment while U.S. Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, indicated that Iran’s temporary suspension might be enough for direct negotiation between the U.S. and Iran.

As Larijani and Solana continue their meetings in Berlin, both sides have cited progress. President Bush has been willing to “give the Europeans time to see whether or not the Iranians will make the proper choice about verifiably suspending.”

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. While third parties, particularly in Europe, are working hard to avoid confrontation between Washington and Tehran, the main interlocutors have yet to develop coherent policies towards each other.

Both Tehran and Washington are pursuing multi-layered, complex, at times even contradictory policies that are intended to both influence the position of other countries and strike a balance among the contending players in their domestic arenas. Neither has yet developed the desire or the will to resolve the outstanding issues that exist between them. Nor have they been willing to consider the strategic choices that need to be made in order to improve relations.

The U.S. Position

The U.S. strategy has been better examined by the press and policy analysts. Elevating Tehran to the status of the most evil regime in the world for domestic consumption, Washington has nevertheless pursued diplomacy on two fronts. On one hand, while showing flexibility regarding the August 31 deadline for freezing uranium enrichment activities required by the UN Security Council Resolution, Washington has been nudging the permanent Security Council members towards some sort of a package of partial sanctions in case multilateral negotiations do not happen or fail.

On another front, Washington is pushing for “smart,” mostly financial sanctions within the context of a coalition of willing. To make its resolve clear, the Bush administration has taken the lead in this strategy by tightening the financial noose on Iran, banning interaction with one of Iran’s leading government-owned bank, Bank Saderat.

Congress, trying to look tough before returning home for campaign season, also did its part to keep pressure on Iran. It passed Iran Freedom Support Act, which extended Washington’s longstanding unilateral sanctions against investment in Iran’s oil industry and trade of dual-use technology for another five years. The Bush administration had initially opposed this legislation. Fearing its promotion of opposition groups would complicate its diplomatic strategy at the UN, it had instead called for the temporary extension of existing sanctions. But it finally assented at the last moment after a compromise was struck and the regime change aspect of the legislation was watered down.

Meanwhile through well-timed leaks of military plans, Washington has strived to unsettle Iran but mostly to pressure war-worried Europe, Russia, and China into lending greater support to multilateral sanctions.

None of this means that Washington has been unwilling to change its position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, it has done so repeatedly. But only to set up another red line or deadline to which it already knows Iran would not respond. The U.S. position over the years has changed from no nuclear energy to no nuclear reactors to no enrichment related activities to no uranium enrichment period to no enrichment for now. These changes, however, have been successive reactions to established realities on the ground and not a reflection of a substantive reconsideration of policy toward Tehran.

Out of necessity or by design, what has remained consistent in Washington’s approach is the appearance of flexibility precisely at the moment when allies and other Security Council members show hesitance. By showing flexibility and patience Washington hopes to overcome gradually the hesitance towards multilateral sanctions and push Tehran towards isolation, which is the stated objective of U.S. policy.

Neither discussed nor explained is precisely how this isolation will serve the overall U.S. objectives in the Middle East. In fact, the public focus on the nature of Iranian regime or the desirability or lack of desirability to have a dialogue with such a regime works to deflect attention from this crucial question.

The Iranian Position

Ironically, Iran’s strategy regarding the United States has been a mirror image. Having abandoned the hope, momentarily developed at the end of Iran-Iraq War in the late 1980’s and then immediately after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, that Washington will forsake hostility and desire for regime change, Tehran has also pursued a policy of flexibility at the last moment and only if absolutely necessary to keep Western Europe, Russia, China, and Japan interested in continued engagement with Iran.

The Iranian leaders, particularly Ayatollah Khamenei who after extensive consultation with various players in Iran has the final say on foreign policy matters, are also pursuing their own version of isolation policy, with the intent of containing or nullifying U.S. plans for the Islamic republic. Their objective remains one of survival and regional projection of power as a means to ensure that survival.

This is why, like the American leaders, they also show flexibility precisely at the moment they see third party hesitance. Banking on the desire of the rest of the world to avoid another war and confrontation in the Middle East, as well as their economic interests, the Iranian leaders have adjusted their approach depending on regional conditions and third party reactions to U.S. pressures.

It is worth remembering that Tehran’s initial decision to engage with the three representatives of the European Union (France, Britain and Germany known as the EU-3) over its nuclear program came in the wake of U.S. invasion of Iraq and fears that Iran would be next on Washington’s hit list. The EU-3 indeed used these fears to suggest negotiations as a means to deflect U.S. animosity. Iran’s nuclear program was seen as a point of entry for discussion and hence an opportunity for engagement.

Iran’s decisions to re-start its fuel reprocessing plant in Isfahan and then its pilot enrichment activities in Natanz in 2005, in turn, were calibrated efforts to breathe life into stalled negotiations and nudge the world towards coming to terms with the existence of the Islamic state as is and the reality that it plays an important role in the region. These calibrated efforts came in the midst of changed regional conditions in Iran’s favor.

Today, Iran’s flexibility regarding the temporary suspension of uranium enrichment again comes not out of the desire to reassess Tehran’s approach to the U.S. but as part and parcel of a strategy to use available means to assure the continued existence and vibrancy of the Islamic republic.

Tehran’s regional standing has improved dramatically since negotiations began with the EU-3 in 2003, thanks to factors and events external to Iranian decision-making. Rightly or wrongly, Tehran now sees itself as a force to be reckoned with in the region and would like to keep it that way.

In this context, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s offer of direct talks “with any country that extends mutual respect” should not be seen as an olive branch to the United States, the animosity against which still has quite a bit of domestic value, at least for the hardliners. Like so many U.S. proposals or preconditions for negotiation which are custom designed for rejection, this is an offer Ahmadinejad hopes, given his anti-Israeli rhetoric, will be refused.

Open or unhindered engagement with the U.S. is something neither sought nor desired by Iran’s current leadership which worries about the loss of its anti-American and by implication anti-Israeli trump card it still would like to keep for domestic purposes and regional projection of power.

What the Mirror Reflects

The differences between the American and Iranian policies do not lie in the approach but in the degree of flexibility that invariably rise out of a context of unequal power between the two countries. If there is going to be a war, it will be in the Iranian territory. If there are going to be sanctions, they will be against Iran. If the third parties are forced to choose, they will choose the United States.

The Iranian leadership knows this and will calibrate its policies, nuclear or otherwise, to avoid confrontation. The same cannot be said about U.S. policymakers.

Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

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