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Iran's nuclear talks also hit
It is testimony to the complexity of United States-Iran relations that on Monday news from Vienna suggested solid progress in talks on Iran's nuclear program, even while Iranian officials pointed fingers at the "Great Satan" and its junior partner, Great Britain, as being ultimately responsible for bombings in Iran on Sunday.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, said the talks on Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium had got "off to a good start". Delegates from Iran, the US, Russia and France talked for two-and-a-half hours and agreed to meet again on Tuesday morning. "Most technical issues have been discussed," ElBaradei said. There are reports that the US is seriously studying the idea of delivering nuclear fuel for a Tehran medical reactor. 
Washington and London, meanwhile, have categorically denied any role in the attack in Pishin in southeastern Sistan-Balochistan province that killed 49 people, including seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders and several tribal leaders.
The attack is widely attributed to Jundallah, a Sunni group that operates from bases inside Pakistan's Balochistan province and which has been accused of receiving financial and material support from US intelligence as part of a low-intensity proxy warfare against Tehran. Echoing a statement released by the IRGC, Iran's speaker of parliament (Majlis), Ali Larijani, referred to the attack as "an outcome of US measures" in the region.
Consequently, irrespective of the official denial in Washington, a major new dent in the already troubled US-Iran relationship has emerged that will surely linger and which has the potential to erode the recent gains in confidence-building between the countries.
"This terrorist group is like al-Qaeda and is supported by the US because it serves as a pressure group against Iran, with the intention of destabilizing Iran," Hamid Reza Taraghi, a deputy executive of the powerful Iranian group, Hezbe Motalefeh Eslami, told the Iranian press, articulating what is fast turning into a "groupthink" in Tehran. He added, "Iran has no confidence in any promises by the US and cannot count on its commitments in the international arena. There has been no change of US policy toward Iran."
On the other hand, the hardline Iranian daily, Kayhan, refers to the attack as "Mossad's new crime", accusing the Israeli secret service of masterminding the "coordinated attacks" that may have benefited from satellite tracking of the IRGC commanders whose convoy was blasted by a suicide bomber.
Many analysts in Tehran are convinced that more than the US and/or Great Britain, Israel is actively involved in propping up Jundallah, in parallel to Iran's influence with Hezbollah in Lebanon. (See Hezbollah spices up Israel-Iran mix Asia Times Online, June 3, 2009.)
According to a Tehran University political science author who wishes to remain anonymous, the Pishin attackers had multiple objectives. "First, they wanted to prevent a crucial unity meeting between Shi'ites and Sunnis in Sistan-Balochistan. Second, they wanted to exacerbate tension between the central government and the Balochi minority. Third, they wanted to cause new tensions between Iran and Pakistan, whose government is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia. Fourth, they timed their attacks with the critical nuclear meeting in Vienna to thwart any agreement on Iran's proposal for nuclear fuel for the reactor in Tehran."
There is a widespread belief in Tehran that the Pishin attack, especially as it claimed the lives of five IRGC commanders, could not possibly have taken place without the knowledge, and perhaps complicity, of Western and/or Israeli intelligence.
This sentiment is apparently shared by Russia, in light of the quick response by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who sent his condolences together with a firm message that Russia was prepared to cooperate with Iran against terrorism. This was in sharp contrast to the silence of US President Barack Obama.
"Iran is now baited into security tensions with nuclear-armed Pakistan and that simply strengthens the hands of the hardliners in Iran who believe that Iran needs a nuclear shield," the same Tehran professor told the author.
He predicts a "perception shift" against Obama in Iran that will result in Iran's "depersonalizing the new relations, mainly because this shows a frozen hostile thinking about Iran in Washington that does not appreciate and, actually takes advantage of, a more flexible and creative approach by Iran to nuclear, regional and global issues.
"There is now a serious crisis of Iranian confidence in Mr Obama and many people are asking: is he really in charge and who calls the shots on US policy in the region? Did Mossad pull this off without notifying the White House, or in cahoots with them [the US]?"
As a result, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has adopted a more moderate stance towards the US compared to his first term in office, may now have no choice but to be more defiant and hardline, thereby increasing tensions with the US, Great Britain and Israel. In terms of Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari telephoned Ahmadinejad, promising to work out a timetable to go after Jundallah through joint security cooperation.
Unless Zardari makes good on his promise, the chances of new Iranian operations featuring cross-border attacks on Jundallah bases inside Pakistan are relatively high. Nor should one overlook the possibility of an Iranian retaliation, principally against coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Clearly, the likelihood of Iran's military showing its teeth diminishes the chances of a meaningful breakthrough in the stalemated US-Iran relations. Unlike in the past few weeks, Tehran is now in no mood to appease Obama. This would be particularly with respect to his demand that Iran open its enrichment facility near Qom for IAEA inspections by October 25, yet this is inextricably linked with Iran's pressing need for nuclear fuel for its medical reactor in Tehran.
In a sign of Iran's new mood, reports from Vienna indicate that Iran has decided against dealing directly with France on the fuel delivery issue, preferring instead to focus on its negotiations with the US and Russia, while vowing to commence the production of highly enriched uranium required by the Tehran reactor in the event that the talks fail.
This is a definite fork in the road, and the fate of Obama's engagement policy with Iran now hangs by a thread.
1. See Today's nuclear talks test President Barack Obama's policy of engaging Iran ABC News, October 19, 2009.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.