Iran Talks: Shadows of Iraq, Legitimacy of Regime

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two elephants are and were in the room during negotiations on Iran's nuclear ambitions: the rigged elections that brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and the shadow of Iraq in overestimating Tehran's weapons of mass destruction.

Obviously the Iraq and Iran situations differ. Iraq's Saddam Hussein did have chemical and biological arms, Scud missiles and designs for a nuclear arms program, most of which were neutralized by U.N. inspectors in the early 1990s. Sanctions worked at first and then served to impoverish Iraq. But most weapons were gone by the time of the 2003 US invasion, a subject of heated analysis and criticism.

How far Iran is from making a bomb is still in dispute as there are good faith differences in analyzing intelligence, even among Western allies. But that Tehran has nuclear ambitions is more than a fantasy since it kept its program a secret for 18 years and then revealed it to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency , the IAEA, only six years ago. Still, exactly what Iran -- which insists its program is for peaceful purposes -- is planning or has achieved is not fully transparent.

UN Inspection due at Qom

The IAEA will inspect Iran's newly-disclosed enrichment plant near the city of Qom on October 25. The Iranians informed the IAEA of the covert project, probably suspecting that the United States was about to blow the whistle. President Barack Obama has joined allies in talks with Iran on its nuclear program without preconditions, as was the case with the Bush administration. At the same time he warned Iran to come clean about its nuclear program, which Western nations fear is a cover to build nuclear arms, or face further sanctions.

Any sanctions by the UN Security Council will have far more effect than if Washington and Western allies step up their own embargoes. But Russia, backed by China, has not agreed, at least until negotiations with Iran continue. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told UN diplomats last month and then announced publicly his opposition to tough measures at this time.

Most experts believe that Western intelligence agencies, especially the United States, are more rigorous and cautious in analyzing data because of the Iraq episode. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says war would only slow, not end, Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. And President Obama does not threaten war. Instead he said at the end of the Pittsburgh summit of G-20 countries last month:

When we find that diplomacy does not work, we will be in a much stronger position to, for example, apply sanctions that have bite. That's not the preferred course of action. I would love nothing more than to see Iran choose the responsible path.

Justifying June Elections

Yet the nuclear issue and the legitimacy of the Iranian government after the June elections are being kept separate. At the UN General Assembly gathering last month, few world leaders publicly mentioned that the Iranian government survives by violence, militia and Revolutionary Guards, who not only put down demonstrators but hold some lucrative government portfolios. (The violence was criticized by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon).

Both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, went out of their way to justify the elections.

"Our nation has gone through a glorious and fully democratic election, opening a new chapter for our country in the march towards national progress and enhanced international interactions," Ahmadinejad told the General Assembly. He said Iranian voters "entrusted me once more with a large majority."

Questioned at a UN news conference by this reporter on the impact of the June election on the nuclear talks, Mottaki was adamant that Ahmadinejad had won fairly despite "international propaganda."

The election in Iran last June was one of the most glorious presidential elections ever held in the Islamic Republic of Iran...Election regulations were made so that no one could change the outcome of elections... Rioters were arrested and the innocent were released.

Of course that wasn't all. Mottaki said the facility at Qom was the "only case that is under construction." Both men had been on a charm offensive with the American press, craving recognition from the Obama administration and regularly complimenting the US President for advocating change.

But Ahmadinejad could not resist repeating his anti-Semitic remarks, prompting walkouts during his General Assembly speech, by alluding to a supposed worldwide Jewish conspiracy:

It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the US, to attain its racist ambitions.

Ahmadinejad says he wants to resolve the nuclear issue (the UN Security Council has forbidden Tehran to enrich uranium to a level of uranium that could be used for nuclear bombs) but only in the context of a broader understanding. Diplomats believe this would include a pledge not to call for "regime change."

Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that Iranian leaders may want prolonged talks to gain legitimacy at home and abroad.

"There is a danger that we send a message to the Iranian people that we don't care about them," he told NPR. "Many Iranians are saying, 'Don't legitimize this illegitimate government.'"

On Monday, Iranian officials meet in Vienna with delegations from the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China, the first of two October meetings. While Iran has refused to curb uranium enrichment, it agreed "in principle" to have its low-enriched uranium processed in Russia and France for use in a reactor that makes isotopes for cancer cures. (Such low-grade uranium could be enriched if it stayed in Iran.).

However, Iran's stance is till ambiguous. Will it move towards UN demands or draw out negotiations to head off sanctions?