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The Iran chessboard, as seen by Team Obama

The Iran chessboard, as seen by Team Obama

As the Obama White House has recalibrated and toughened its daily talking points on Iran in response to the violence of the post-elections dispute, the impression has emerged in some quarters that Washington is flustered by recent events, and indeed, that a wrench has been thrown in President Obama’s hopes for engaging Tehran.

But recent administration assessments and conversations with outside government Iran watchers and nonproliferation experts offer a different view — one in which Obama’s hand may actually have been strengthened and Iran’s weakened by some overlooked recent events. Among the factors they cite: the outcome of recent elections in Lebanon, in which a pro-Western coalition won a majority over a coalition that includes the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the eagerness of Iran’s leading regional ally Syria to engage with Washington, Arab states’ generally positive response to the Obama administration’s strong push to negotiate Middle East peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. Beyond the Middle East, Obama’s aggressive non-proliferation initiatives and "reset" with Moscow could also end up increasing pressure on Iran, they said.

"From 2003 to 2009, Iran was on a roll," one senior administration official said Friday. "Expanding its sphere of influence, benefiting from a changed balance of power in the region, and generally optimistic about its world. Many said it was not possible to engage because Iran was so strong and thus disincented to do so."

"I do not think any credible analyst would say now that Iran feels that way anymore," the official continued. "And I do not think any credible analyst would suggest the changes we have put on the table – from [Middle East peace envoy George] Mitchell to [Obama’s Iranian New Year’s] Nowruz [greeting] to Iraq to Cairo — did not have an impact in the region generally or in Iran particularly. "

"The chessboard is moving demonstrably in the U.S. direction." That is the takeaway, said Congressional Research Service Middle East analyst Kenneth Katzman, from recent assessments by administration officials. "What I heard them saying is, ‘Let’s take advantage of that now, while we have the chessboard, and try to get a nuclear deal and get that resolved, rather than the whole ball of wax.’"

Added Katzman, of the perceived trend: "The strategic picture in the Middle East has moved to the U.S. advantage. The Lebanon elections, reengagement with Syria, stability in Iraq, have added up to a shifting chessboard against Iran."

But he added, while there is some optimism that regional and global trends are working to the United States’ advantage on Iran, there is also diminished expectation that near-term engagement is likely to occur. At the earliest, it’s not expected — if at all — until the fall.

Obama reiterated in an appearance with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel Friday that the U.S. goal remains to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, not just a nuclear weapon. "Working with Germany, our other European partners, as well as Russia and China, we’re working to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity and unleashing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East," he said. 

Recent U.S. assessments judge it would take a full year for Tehran to produce enough weapons grade highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon at its facility at Natanz, and that should it choose to do so, it would require technological retrofitting that the international community would be able to detect and have time to respond. They also take seriously the prospect of the regional chaos that could unspool if Israel chooses to strike Iran against Obama’s wishes which might draw the United States in.

And indeed, not everyone is feeling optimistic. "My understanding is the president has had a much larger vision," said one Washington Iran analyst on condition of anonymity. "He wanted a strategic dialogue with the Iranians, he gave them a pathway into the western camp that benefits the west, the people of Iran, and the larger picture: peace and stability in the Middle East."

"It’s very tough for the president to engage in a serious manner within the next three-to six months because of how the Iranian government has been conducting itself," said the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi. "It’s politically far more difficult for him to pull this off," than before the Iranian government crackdown on opposition supporters. "I’m not saying it’s impossible."

"Some people are more optimistic, some are less," said Georgetown Middle East expert Daniel Byman. "To me, we can hope to have more leverage, but we could have less. My impression is, we were going to try [engagement]. If it didn’t work, we’d move on. We would not be naïve that it would work."

Byman did think Iran would be feeling uncomfortable about some regional trends, including renewed Washington engagement with Syria, as well as the U.S. drawdown in Iraq. "The Syria thing is real in terms of pressure on Iran. Iran has only one strategic ally in the Middle East: Syria. The U.S. drawdown from Iraq is real. It reduces the vulnerability of America."

"The Obama administration’s approach to nonproliferation matters has quite changed the tone of discussion about Iran’s claims that the U.S. was being hypocritical," said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Patrick Clawson. Meantime, Iraq’s "Maliki government is working out quite nicely, the Syrians are eager to engage, Hezbollah is not throwing its weight around in Lebanon, and the situation in Pakistan has gotten to look more stable."

Given such trends, would Iran be tempted to try to make a deal? Not necessarily, said Clawson. Recent events, he said, show that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is becoming "more of a risk taker and a gambler."

But Parsi offered an alternative theory. That a possible motive for the alleged vote fix was to preserve a united hard-line regime that could engage with the United States, without the internal rifts that plagued Iran the last time it had a reformist president split from the harder-line clerical establishment.