Instead of focusing on how to reduce tensions with Tehran, United States policymakers seem intent on ratcheting up the pressure and leveling every conceivable accusation against Iran - chiefly
nuclear proliferation, regional subversion and terrorism - delivered in rapid succession.
The US has now formally linked Tehran's regime with al-Qaeda in an escalation of anti-Iran rhetoric that is officially justified in Washington in terms of proving that the White House is "in control" of Middle East developments and not swamped by the domestic turmoil over the US national debt. Yet this is a lame excuse and raises the question of who really is in control of the US's Iran policy?
From Tehran's vantage point, the answer is straightforward. According to a Tehran University political science professor, who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity, "A select group of Jewish policymakers in the White House, State Department and Treasury have hijacked President Obama's policy on Iran and Obama may wake up one day and find the web of conflict with Iran so tightly wrapped around him that he has no choice but to lock horns with us."
In other words, very few people in Iran still subscribe to the earlier hope that Obama was seeking a new Iran policy, or that sanctions were an alternative to war, since they are slowly but surely proving to be a prelude to it. America's problem is, however, that it is financially drained as a result of costly wars and a conflict with Iran could have potentially disastrous implications for the global economic recovery by triggering skyrocketing energy prices, not to mention complicating the cauldron of multiple crises in the Middle East.
The political upheaval in the Middle East represents a major challenge to the US, which sees its traditional authority in various parts of the Arab world, including Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, enveloped by serious question marks - this while there is very little the US can do to stop the momentum for Palestinian statehood now building up at the United Nations without further sullying its image in the Arab and Muslim world.
This has led some Tehran pundits to speculate that the US and Israel intend to artificially inflate the Iran nuclear crisis this autumn to deflect attention from the Palestinian issue. A problem with this approach is that it may diminish or even completely erase the areas of shared interests between the US and Iran, above all in Iraq and Afghanistan, where both Washington and Tehran back the same political horses.
Iran is disquieted by reports that indicate the US is seeking to extend its military presence in Iraq and build permanent bases, a move that has rattled the nationalist Iraqis, including those wearing the garb of militant Shi'ism, all the more reason for Tehran and Washington to consider security dialogues on Iraq, since Iran is a stakeholder in Iraq's security. Nor should the US bracket Iran from future meetings on Afghanistan, threatened by the Taliban and their al-Qaeda supporters, both anti-Shi'ite fundamentalists.
As expected, Tehran has shrugged off Washington's latest accusation regarding its complicity with al-Qaeda, with some Tehran political analysts dismissing it as "an old habit that is hard to kick", referring to the US's pretext of attacking Iraq partly by claiming a link between Baghdad and al-Qaeda. Is history repeating itself? If so, it will be as tragic as the 2003 fiasco.
Washington and Tehran could turn the current crisis in their relations into an opportunity for detente and perhaps even rapprochement, indeed so much was hinted recently by Iran's former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; a US nod to the recent Russian "step by step" proposal to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis is also called for (see US rebuffs Russian ingenuity on Iran Asia Times Online, July 20 ).
A timely catalyst may come in the form of the release of the two American hikers in Iran's custody, in which case a measure of good would be generated on the eve of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's United Nations visit in September. In that case, the US may be forced to dangle carrots instead of sticks and thus show that goodwill begets goodwill.
For now, however, there is virtually no sign of any American goodwill toward Iran, only animosity. Another clue to the tone of engagement is the delisting of the Iranian group, Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), from the US list of terrorist groups, which will be decided on in the next few weeks. This is bound to heighten tensions as Tehran abhors the US protection of the MEK's Camp Ashraf inside Iraq.
The MEK's delisting is a particularly sensitive issue for Iran's leaders, who blame the group for the murder of many of the regime's top officials and as a result this will have a disproportionate impact in sowing the seeds of distrust between the two sides.