"Hit us and we shall hit you ten times harder!" This is how General Muhammad Ali Jaafari, the recently appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard responded to speculation about a possible attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear installations.
An Iranian missile test in November 2008
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad always assumed that once President George W. Bush was out of the White House, the United States would bite the bullet and accept a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic as a "regional superpower" in the Middle East. A change in US policy towards Iran would, in turn, make it impossible for Israel to contemplate military action against the Islamic Republic.
Two events convinced Ahmadinejad that his strategy was correct.
The first came in May 2006, when the Bush administration, then at the nadir of its unpopularity because things were not going well in Iraq, joined the line of supplicant Europeans begging Tehran to negotiate a deal.
This unexpected shift in Washington's policy produced the opposite effect.
Far from persuading Ahamdinejad that it was a good chance to defuse the situation, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's attempt at nuance and multilateral diplomacy convinced Tehran that the Americans had blinked.
The second event that confirmed Ahmadinejad's belief that "America cannot do a damn thing" came with the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Using language of obfuscation, the NIE claimed that Tehran had abandoned a key aspect of its nuclear program in 2003. The NIE undermined the whole case brought by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against the Islamic Republic.
Whatever one might say about Ahmadinejad, one thing is certain: he plays an open hand. He is convinced that with Bush gone, the US does not have the stomach for a fight, let alone pre-emptive war.
He thinks the dominant mood in the US, and the West in general, is one of pre-emptive surrender.
Ahmadinejad may well be right: there is not going to be any war against the Islamic Republic.
President Barack Obama has decided to engage Iran unconditionally. This means he no longer insists that Iran should comply with the terms of three United Nations' Security Council resolutions that demand an end to its nuclear programme in its present form.
The 5+1 talks expected to open later this month will focus on a formula to "walk the camel down the roof" -- that is to say, find a face-saving way to give Obama his first diplomatic success while allowing the Islamic Republic to pursue its program.
The formula would include a provision under which Iran will make a solemn commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. This is not hard to do. The "Supreme Leader" Ali Khameini has already issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against nuclear arms. Iran analysts believe that, for the time being, the regime is interested in acquiring the wherewithal needed to make nuclear weapons without actually taking the final step towards manufacturing them.
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