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Iran Sends Mixed Signals On Eve Of Nuclear Talks

An Iranian missile test on July 10

An Iranian missile test on July 10

In mid-June, the so-called 5+1 group of countries tasked by the UN with negotiating with Iran over its contested nuclear program offered Iran a broad package of incentives, including assistance with its civilian nuclear program, in exchange for the suspension of uranium enrichment. Iran rejected a similar proposal two years ago. But this time it responded with a smile, not a sneer.

A meeting in Geneva between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana is scheduled for July 19. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Williams Burns, together with envoys from Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany, will also attend those talks.

But a few days ago, Iran tested a new version of its Shahab-3 missile, which with a purported range of 2,000 kilometers could target arch-foe Israel. What lies behind this apparent inconsistency?

In early July, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki affirmed Iran's readiness to "engage in a constructive dialogue" and predicted a "new trend" in negotiations with the West over Iran's nuclear program. Asked about a report in "The Washington Post" that the United States is considering opening an interests section in Tehran, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on July 13 that "Iran favors [any] actions that would result in enhanced ties between nations of the world...and is ready to consider all proposals in this regard."

On July 14, Ahmadinejad told Iranian state television that he would welcome direct talks with the United States providing that both parties are on an "equal footing." At the same time, he stressed that Iran will not agree to any suspension of uranium enrichment, which is Washington's precondition for direct talks.

Concurrent with this charm offensive, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari threatened in early July to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iran is attacked. The Israeli Air Force staged exercises in the eastern Mediterranean in early June, which some U.S. experts believe were intended as a dry run for a potential attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The IRGC too staged war games on July 9 and 10, during which two sets of missiles were tested, one of them a Shahab-3. The tests, Jafari said, were a "lesson for [our] enemies." Finally, on July 11, Ali Shirazi, the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the IRGC naval arm, threatened to "burn" Tel Aviv and the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf and strike at U.S. "vital interests around the globe."

Both Israel and the United States immediately condemned the test-firing of the upgraded Shahab-3. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel, as the strongest country in the region, "is not afraid to take action when its vital security interests are at stake." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice similarly warned, "We...will defend American interests and...the interests of our allies."

The successful Shahab-3 test does not fundamentally augment Iran's military strength. The main concern of the West is rather the continuation of the uranium-enrichment program and the possibility Iran will produce nuclear warheads to arm the Shahab-3.

One purpose of the test-firing was to send a signal to the United States and Israel that Iran is capable of defending itself. But even though IRGC commanders show public bellicosity and portray the United States and Israel as too weak to risk attacking Iran, they are privately concerned about possible military action by those countries. Although President Ahmadinejad recently dismissed that possibility as a "funny joke," senior commanders are aware the rising rhetorical and strategic standoff between Iran and the United States and Israel could lead to a shooting war.

Guards commander Jafari told the daily "Jam-e Jam" in late June that "the possibility of an attack on Iran is more serious than in the past." But like the Iranian civilian leadership, senior IRGC commanders are sensitive to domestic public opinion and feel the need to be seen to be standing up to U.S. and Israeli pressure.

It is unclear whether the recent Iranian charm offensive is sincere, or merely a ploy to stave off additional sanctions until after the U.S. elections change the environment. Either way, as the daily "Etemad-i Melli" noted, Iran seems to be pursuing a three-pronged approach. That is, while Khamenei and Ahmadinejad insist Iran's stance with regard to its nuclear program remains unchanged, the IRGC commanders respond with a show of military might to U.S. and Israeli warnings. Meanwhile, the foreign minister, the Majlis, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Jalili, and senior foreign-policy advisers advocate a flexible approach and try to secure maximum concessions from the West as part of a compromise agreement that would not be viewed at home as a policy U-turn.

So far, this carefully orchestrated approach has not worked.

The big danger is that the Iranian leadership could overplay its hand. And the tough talk by IRGC commanders, coupled with Ahmadinejad's insistence on continuing uranium enrichment using an even larger number of centrifuges, could alienate the United States and Israel to the point that they abandon the diplomatic approach for good.

Hossein Aryan is defense and military analyst for RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL