The Method Behind Ahmadinejad's U.N. Trash Talk

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the 65th U.N. General Assembly in New York City

President Barack Obama's experience in playing street basketball will have prepared him for the trash-talking tactics adopted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York City last week. The Iranian leader's U.N. General Assembly address included the bizarre — and, in Obama's words, "inexcusable" — allegation that the U.S. government had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and allied diplomats walked out of the Assembly, and Ahmadinejad was rebuked far and wide. But causing a commotion was precisely what the Iranian leader intended. The whole point of trash-talking is to throw your adversary off balance and to pump up your own team by landing a verbal zinger. The game in which the two men remain embroiled is a nuclear standoff apparently heading for a new round of negotiations.

Ahmadinejad's barb came after a week of statements indicating Tehran's willingness to resume negotiations over its nuclear program, as the U.S. and its allies have been demanding. "Possibly in October, we are prepared to talk," Ahmadinejad reiterated last Friday, one day after his contemptuous remarks. "The door is open for talks and negotiations within the framework of justice and respect." Not that there was much respect about his 9/11 comments, but Iran certainly appears set to resume negotiations with the group known as the P5+1, comprising the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany. And with that in mind, Ahmadinejad's 9/11 denial appears to have been a calculated, if not crude, provocation aimed at putting the Americans on the back foot in the spin war ahead of the next round of talks — and grandstanding for an audience of Third World malcontents.

The Obama Administration, of course, had been doing some pretalks spin work of its own last week, talking up the impact of the sanctions it has managed to impose on Iran and promoting the idea that Tehran's willingness to resume talks with the P5+1 is a sign that it was feeling the heat. President Obama, in his own U.N. speech, appeared to be setting the stage for new talks by suggesting that the sanctions imposed earlier this year had "held Iran accountable" over its failure to meet its international obligations. At the same time, he stressed a desire to "seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program."

Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, the Administration's point man on banking sanctions, was even more forthright in an address in Washington last week. "The pressure [on Tehran] is mounting, the strategy is beginning to give us the leverage we seek," Levey told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That's not how the Iranians see it, of course — they had, even before the latest round of sanctions, indicated a readiness to accept the latest version of the uranium-fuel swap deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey, which is likely to be the initial focus of the renewed talks. Even if they were feeling the heat, the Iranians would not allow a perception to be created that they were negotiating under pressure or from a position of weakness. Trash-talking the Americans may simply be an effort to disrupt the Administration's spin. The Iranians know that despite Washington's annoyance at Ahmadinejad's remarks, the U.S. has no appetite for a new war in the Middle East and therefore needs a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff as much as the Iranians do.

Both Ahmadinejad and Obama face tricky domestic political challenges in their handling of the standoff. Now that the mass protests of the Green movement have largely gone to ground, Ahmadinejad's authority is under unprecedented attack from rival conservative power centers within the regime that have been antagonized by the President. Any perception that Iran was giving ground could be used against Ahmadinejad, as it was a year ago when the President was pilloried by fellow conservatives and forced to back away from a deal with the West he had accepted, under which Iran would ship out a major portion of its enriched-uranium stockpile in exchange for fuel rods to power a Tehran medical-research reactor. (The Brazil-Turkey deal revises the terms of that original deal, which was struck in Vienna last fall.) Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei is known to be deeply suspicious of comprehensive rapprochement with the West, and conservatives opposed to Ahmadinejad have in the past tried to undermine him by accusing the President of ceding hard-won ground on the nuclear front.

There's no question that Iran faces plenty of structural economic difficulties that can only be exacerbated by the sanctions. Some powerful voices opposed to Ahmadinejad, like former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have warned him not to take them lightly. Iran is not exactly isolated either. U.N. Security Council sanctions targeting Iran's nuclear program and its military have been universally enforced, but the more damaging U.S. and European unilateral measures choking off investment in its energy sector and its access to international banking for trade purposes are strongly opposed — and largely ignored — by many of Iran's key trading partners, such as China, Russia and Turkey. So piqued were Moscow and Beijing at Washington's moves to go beyond the agreed-upon U.N. sanctions that they plan to join with Brazil and India in introducing a General Assembly resolution opposing the additional sanctions.

So far, sanctions have not been as effective as the Administration would have liked, and most analysts still believe they're unlikely to change Iran's calculations in the future. Still, talking up their impact as part of a "dual-track" strategy of pressure and talks serves a domestic political function for President Obama — the probability of new talks will prompt Republican critics, particularly ahead of November's congressional elections, to portray the Administration as going soft on Iran.

As for the substance of the expected talks between Iran and the P5+1, the initial focus is likely to be on the Brazil-Turkey swap deal. That deal may be deemed far from sufficient by Western powers because it doesn't address concerns over Iran's ongoing enrichment of uranium, but as a starting point it may be the only game in town. Of course, even if they can agree on a fuel-exchange deal, the two sides remain fundamentally at odds over where any renewed conversation should lead. Even if they agree in principle that Iran should demonstrate the peaceful intent of its program, right now the U.S. and its allies insist that it requires Iran to give up all enrichment, even for energy purposes. And the Iranians — having long since pushed past the previous Western redline that President George W. Bush described as "preventing Iran from mastering the technology of enrichment" — show no sign of reversing that achievement, even if they were willing to accept new safeguards against weaponization.

So expect any new negotiations to be long and arduous — and punctuated with frequent bouts of trash-talking.