The cat-and-mouse nuclear game with Tehran

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The latest talks were part of a long chain that has criss-crossed the world for over a decade. In the past year alone, western governments have chased the clerical regime from one city after another: from Istanbul last April, to Baghdad in May, to Moscow in June and Almaty in February and again in April 2013. This nauseating cat-and-mouse game will soon rival the long-running Tom and Jerry cartoon series. But the lethal end-game will be anything but entertaining.

On April 6, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and lead negotiator for the P5+1, said that after the “long and intense discussions,” both sides “remain far apart on the substance.”

The chief nuclear negotiator for Tehran, Saeed Jalili, true to the proverb “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened," once again sounded upbeat, proclaiming, “Good negotiations took place." He added that Iran had once again made abstruse "proposals" that the West "needed more time to digest." That is the vernacular of the mullahs for stall tactic.

During the last round, Jalili had called western offers "more realistic" and "closer to our viewpoint." Indeed, the cunning mullahs, reeling from the impact of even haphazard sanctions, once again secured significant concessions from the West without reciprocating.

Western powers retreated from their earlier position of demanding an end to enrichment activities at the 20 percent level and instead politely asked Tehran to "suspend" enrichment.

Emboldened by the retreat, Tehran’s immediate response came several days after the Almaty I talks, when it announced that it has built 3,000 advanced centrifuges in its main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.

The current policy of engaging the Iranian dictatorship clearly misses the regime’s real vulnerability: its internal dynamics.

Heightened factional feuding has been more crippling than the much-touted economic sanctions. Not a day goes by without the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters publicly challenging the allies of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to whom he owes his presidency. Erosion of Khamenei’s power since June 2009 uprisings has sustained the growth of these factional disputes.

More importantly, the regime remains paranoid about the prospects of uprisings by a marginalized majority and the recently unshackled organized opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK/PMOI). The MEK, which is on the winning side of increasing international support, has demonstrated an exceptional organizational capability and the ability to steer internal dynamics in favor of changing the regime. It exhibited this ability during the mass uprisings of 2009, after which many of its supporters were arrested and some were later executed.

Tehran is now targeting thousands of MEK members residing in prison-like conditions in Camp Liberty, Iraq. Iran’s proxies attacked them with rockets in February, killing eight and injuring dozens more. A new resolution, H. Res. 89, introduced by senior House Foreign Affairs Committee members, has made a bipartisan call for the return of the residents to their home of 27 years, Camp Ashraf, where they would be much safer.

In an ominous sign of more attacks to come, last week, Tehran's intelligence minister travelled to Iraq with the explicit mandate of "determining the fate of" MEK members in Iraq "as soon as possible."

The nuclear impasse is a reflection of the regime's deadlock at home. Khamenei cannot retreat because that would lead to more devastating repercussions for his regime domestically. And, he cannot press ahead uncontrollably with his nuclear weapons program, since that would invite more sanctions and set off a serious confrontation with the West. In other words, he is now in a strategic bind that is a hallmark of the coming demise of dictatorial regimes.

The advocates of engagement fail to detect this crucial opening. They should realize that Tehran craves open-ended talks to gradually break free of the domestic impasse, not to resolve its disputes with the West.

Western policy should stop disparaging a democratic alternative in Iran, when the downfall of the regime is already underway. Even if the West is adamant about negotiations, the only way for it to make even the slightest gains is to exploit the regime’s internal vulnerabilities by reaching out to the democratic opposition. This is the only win-win option for the West; all the others have already proven to be lose-lose. President Obama has the opportunity for changing the course on Iran — and he must.

Samsami is the representative in the United States of Iran’s parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of Iranian opposition groups and personalities seeking a democratic, secular and non-nuclear republic in Iran.


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