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Archive for Monday, January 23, 2012

U.S.-Iran communication confirmed

January 23, 2012

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— The Iran nuclear crisis is far from over, but Tehran appears to have made a subtle blink — backing away from its threat a few weeks ago to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to escalating U.S. sanctions.

The softening of Iran’s position followed a warning by a U.S. emissary this month that any effort to close the strait would trigger a potentially devastating U.S. response. Clearly, Tehran got the message — with a top Iranian official Thursday publicly disavowing the earlier saber-rattling.

“Iran has never in its history tried to prevent, to put any obstacles in the way of this important maritime route,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi insisted in a television interview during a visit to Turkey.

But in a sign Iran is pressing its broader nuclear program, Salehi warned nations not to put themselves in a “dangerous position” by allying with the U.S.

What started the jitters was a bellicose statement in late December by Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi that Iran would close the strait if the West imposed new sanctions on Iranian oil. On Jan. 3, a senior Iranian admiral said his country’s navy had practiced closing the strait; he warned that the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which recently departed the Gulf, should not return. But U.S. intelligence quickly picked up signs that some Iranian leaders were unhappy with the blustering comments.

The foreign minister’s statements, taken with other developments, suggest that war fever over a quick confrontation at the Strait is ebbing. There’s no progress yet on the core issue of Iran’s nuclear program, but the U.S. has clarified its “red lines” in the crisis, and Iran has indicated by its public response that it understands.

Another step back from the brink was Wednesday’s statement by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that any Israeli attack on Iran was “very far off.” Barak was expressing the consensus of the Israeli national-security establishment.

The American back channel to Iran is an intriguing new factor. U.S. officials wouldn’t disclose the identity of the emissary, but they said the person delivered an oral briefing that included both the warning on the strait and the reiteration of U.S. interest in serious negotiations.

The private message is said to have been similar to a public version offered by White House spokesman Tommy Vietor: “The United States and the international community have a strong interest in the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation in all international waterways. ... Since taking office, the president has made it clear that he is willing to engage constructively and seriously with Iran about its nuclear program.”

Explaining Iranian behavior is always a puzzle. But it’s possible that their recent statements — both hawkish and dovish — are responses to economic sanctions that are beginning to have a serious impact. I wrote last week about how Iran’s biggest customers — including China and India — are beginning to reduce their oil purchases from Iran, and looking to Saudi Arabia to make up the difference.

This oil-market squeeze has begun to produce a financial run at home, as Iranians scramble for dollars that (because of a deliberate U.S. policy) are in short supply. According to The New York Times, the Iranian currency fell to its lowest level ever against the dollar on Wednesday. The black market rate has fallen more than 50 percent in the last month, to 18,000 rials to the dollar compared to 11,000 to 12,000 in December.

Putting these elements together, one intelligence official who closely follows Iran explained: “Iran is deterred now from crossing the Rubicon and developing nuclear weapons.” This official says Iran wants to obtain all the necessary components of a nuclear weapon — but wait to cross the threshold until the moment is right.

What the Obama administration wants are verifiable safeguards that, while allowing Iran to have a civilian nuclear program, prevent any breakout to weaponization. President Obama summed up his goal in an interview with Time’s Fareed Zakaria: “The Iranians have a very clear path where they say, we’re not going to produce weapons, we won’t stockpile material that can be used for weapons. The international community then says, we will work with you to develop your peaceful nuclear energy capacity, subject to the kinds of inspections that other countries have agreed to in the past.”

This confrontation still has a long way to run, with significant dangers on all sides. But last week’s exchanges made clear, at least, that urgent messages are being sent and received between Washington and Tehran.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

Comments

Phoenixman 2 years, 2 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Paul R Getto 2 years, 2 months ago

Good point, Jesse, and it's been true since Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, hired the great Leonardo to work on some projects. War is always good for 'biddness' except for those at the wrong end of the gun barrel.......

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/l/leonardo_da_vinci,_military_ma.aspx

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its_just_math 2 years, 2 months ago

It sure is....right up to the part where Iran incinerates Israel in coordination with Syria and they'll be all in agreement it was no fault of Obama's, but past Republican policy and/or the new Republican president. That any of the above commenters believe Iran for a second boggles the mind.

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Flap Doodle 2 years, 2 months ago

Squabble-rama with the usual suspects!

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gudpoynt 2 years, 2 months ago

And just this morning, the EU pushed new sanctions, Iranian lawmaker reiterated the threat of closing the straight, and the fire is rekindled:

http://bit.ly/yuzlJk

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Paul R Getto 2 years, 2 months ago

"...and for Iran it's its proximity to this bottleneck... " === Bozo. Good points. May I also congratulate you on being able to use it's its like this in the proper manner? Punctuation is nearly dead and won't last much longer. It is, however, nice to see people preserving some of the old traditions.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 2 months ago

Iran has absolutely no interest in closing the Straits of Hormuz (it would hurt them as much as it would anyone else.) But in an asymmetrical world, a smallish country like Iran is going to use what weapons it has at its disposal, and for Iran it's its proximity to this bottleneck that a large percentage of the world's oil flows through.

It's going to take a lot to get them to actually follow through with this threat, but an attack by Israel (and/or the US) would likely be sufficient.

Let's hope all sides can move away from the brink of a conflict that could easily escalate into a full-scale regional war involving a dozen or more countries (in addition to the half dozen or so who are engaged in a more or less permanent state of low-to-high intensity war.)

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Paul R Getto 2 years, 2 months ago

"But last week’s exchanges made clear, at least, that urgent messages are being sent and received between Washington and Tehran." === Good news. "Jaw jaw is better than war, war," as Winnie C. said.

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