Hubris from Ahmadinejad: prelude to compromise on Iran nuclear program?

'If Iran wants to build an atomic weapon ... no one will be able to prevent it,' President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Friday. Here are some interpretations of what that boast really means, as talks near on the Iran nuclear program.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Chinese President Hu Jintao, back, watches while Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, bows to members of an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Friday.

Iran’s blustery president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is talking tough about Iran and the bomb again.

Is it a sign that Tehran is preparing the Iranian people for a compromise deal with world powers concerning Iran’s advancing nuclear program? That’s one interpretation that Iran and nuclear proliferation experts give to the always-provocative Mr. Ahmadinejad’s latest smack talk about his country’s nuke pursuits.

But there’s another line of thinking. It’s that the bravado couches mounting nervousness in Iran that the world powers – which include Iran's friends Russia and China – aren’t cracking, but rather are maintaining a united front toward Tehran.

“If Iran wants to build an atomic weapon, it doesn’t fear anyone and will publicly announce it and no one will be able to prevent it,” Ahmadinejad boasted Friday, in a post on his presidential website.

After the preening came the addendum, sotto voce: Of course, Ahmadinejad noted, Iran has no need or intention of building nuclear weapons.

If the boast-and-retreat format sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because we’ve pretty much all seen that pattern in our local neighborhood tough kid – the one who regularly announced his readiness to undertake some bold or reckless act, followed by the less swaggering, “It’s just that I don’t want to.”

Ahmadinejad’s remarks come 10 days before world powers meet with Iran in Moscow for the third round of talks aimed at easing global tensions over Iran’s progressing nuclear activities and its steady march toward nuclear weapons capability.

At the most recent talks, in Baghdad last month between Iran and the five members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France – plus Germany, the Iranians scoffed at the offer the world powers put on the table.

The deal, as presented by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who leads the powers’ side of the table, goes something like this: In exchange for stopping uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity (a level not that far, technically speaking, from the 90 percent enrichment required to fuel a nuclear weapon), moving its stockpile of 20 percent uranium out of the country, and shutting down an underground enrichment facility, Iran would get a supply of fuel for a research nuclear reactor and spare parts for aging airliners that it has been unable to acquire because of international sanctions.

The Iranians dismissed the offer as an affront. “Diamonds in return for peanuts,” one former Iranian nuclear official scoffed.

What Iran dearly wants in exchange for any compromise on its part is an immediate weakening of US and EU sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum and banking sectors. In particular, the Iranians would like to see a rollback of the 27-nation European Union’s oil embargo slated to go into effect in July.

But the US and EU say there is no question of loosening sanctions in an initial phase of the talks. Western countries have also rebuffed Tehran’s request for a pre-Moscow meeting to review technicalities, saying Iran simply needs to be ready to respond to the “straightforward proposal” the six powers presented in Baghdad.

Moreover, the Russians and Chinese are so far sticking with the talks, which they hope will be able to put off military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, either by Israel or the US.

It seems clear that what Iran would like to do is stretch out the talks, winning some relief from the most onerous existing and looming sanctions, while maintaining its rhythm of uranium enrichment.

Faced with this international unity against its nuclear path, the Iranian leadership may be preparing the Iranian people for a compromise by first indulging in a little chest-pounding.

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