The Iranians are worried

Faced with the prospect of an American adinistration that is willing to negotiate without preconditions, the Iranian leadership is starting to get worried.

Since 2006, Iran’s leaders have called for direct, unconditional talks with the United States to resolve international concerns over their nuclear program. But as an American administration open to such negotiations prepares to take power, Iran’s political and military leaders are sounding suddenly wary of President-elect Barack Obama.

“People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous,” Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Wednesday, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency.

“The power holders in the new American government are trying to regain their lost influence with a tactical change in their foreign diplomacy. They are shifting from a hard conflict to a soft attack,” Taeb said.

For Iran’s leaders, the only state of affairs worse than poor relations with the United States may be improved relations. The Shiite Muslim clerics who rule the country came to power after ousting Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a U.S.-backed autocrat, in their 1979 Islamic revolution. Opposition to the United States, long vilified as the “great Satan” here in Friday sermons, remains one of the main pillars of Iranian politics.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent Obama a congratulatory letter last week, but by Wednesday his welcoming tone had dissipated. “It doesn’t make any difference for us who comes and who goes,” he said in a speech in the northern town of Sari. “It’s their actions which are studied by the Iranian and world nations.”

Dictators and corrupt regimes need an external enemy in order to help them control their citizens. The demonization of the United States has been a useful tool in Iran, as it distracts the population from the economic misery caused by the government’s disastrous policies.

Now, the incoming Obama administration is ready to call their bluff, and the Iranian leadership realizes that they’ve put themselves in a box. If they refuse to negotiate, we gain a tremendous amount of leverage with the Europeans and Russians as we turn the screws with even tougher sanctions.

  

Huge opportunity in Iran

Tom Friedman writes about the huge problems facing Iran now that oil prices have collapsed.

I’ve always been dubious about Barack Obama’s offer to negotiate with Iran — not because I didn’t believe that it was the right strategy, but because I didn’t believe we had enough leverage to succeed. And negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is like playing baseball without a bat.

Well, if Obama does win the presidency, my gut tells me that he’s going to get a chance to negotiate with the Iranians — with a bat in his hand.

Have you seen the reports that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is suffering from exhaustion? It’s probably because he is not sleeping at night. I know why. Watching oil prices fall from $147 a barrel to $57 is not like counting sheep. It’s the kind of thing that gives an Iranian autocrat bad dreams.

After all, it was the collapse of global oil prices in the early 1990s that brought down the Soviet Union. And Iran today is looking very Soviet to me.

As Vladimir Mau, president of Russia’s Academy of National Economy, pointed out to me, it was the long period of high oil prices followed by sharply lower oil prices that killed the Soviet Union. The spike in oil prices in the 1970s deluded the Kremlin into overextending subsidies at home and invading Afghanistan abroad — and then the collapse in prices in the ‘80s helped bring down that overextended empire.

This is an example of the tremendous leverage we get by destroying domestic demand for oil by switching to alternative fuels.

  

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