Iran takes a back seat

Iran begins three days of military exercises to test its anti-aircraft defence systems - a move certain to agitate the US, which is preoccupied with Russia.

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Reports that Iran is launching war games would have met with bellicose US rhetoric and hogged international headlines a month ago. Neither is likely today when Iran begins three days of military exercises to test its anti-aircraft defence systems. The crisis between Washington and Moscow has interceded to give Tehran an unexpected and welcome diplomatic opportunity to reduce its international isolation - and foster better relations with the United States. Russia's drubbing of its weak neighbour has cast doubt on US accusations that the Islamic republic is the most perilous threat to global security, an Iranian daily said. Newsweek put it more memorably: "It's funny how a reassertive Russia armed with some 10,000 all-too-real nuclear weapons puts the theoretical menace of Iran's as yet non-existent arsenal in perspective." It added: "But, looking ahead, what's more curious still is that a new administration - maybe even McCain's - may start looking for ways to work with Iran to help balance Russian power." The most immediate benefit for Iran is that Washington is far less likely to secure Russian support for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran - or to consider military action. A greater prize for Iran could be rapprochement with Washington. This would provide the regime in Tehran with a cherished sense of security and prove very popular with most ordinary Iranians. Neither point is lost on Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is expected to fight for a second four-year term in elections that Tehran announced yesterday will be held next June 12. He recently signalled an interest in forming better ties by welcoming Washington's idea of staffing its own diplomats in a US interests office in Tehran. Iran's neutral stance on the crisis between Washington and Moscow is an even stronger signal. Iranian commentators have seized on the dispute to advise Gulf states that, as the Georgian example proves, it is folly to rely on US muscle for their security: it would be far wiser to accommodate Tehran. But no Iranian leader has rushed to Moscow to support its stance on Georgia - unlike Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, who did just that while asking for more Russian weapons. The Islamic republic, still resentful of Russia's imperial past in Iran and at odds with Moscow over the territorial division of the Caspian Sea, views Russia as an untrustworthy ally of convenience. "Iran isn't keen to see a very aggressive Russia in the Caucasus," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes diplomacy to resolve disputes. "Nor are they very happy to seek breakaway republics being recognised by major powers because of their own fear of potential secessionism," he said. Iran's silence on Georgia has been matched by Washington's recent silence on Iran. The Bush "administration simply has acted as if a major confrontation with Iran had not been under way just prior to the Russo-Georgian war", said Stratfor, an online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. The US broke weeks of silence on Iran on Friday when Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, made a landmark visit to Libya to "reward" Moamer Qadafi for abandoning his weapons of mass destruction programmes in 2003. This demonstrated "that when countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction, the United States is prepared to respond", Ms Rice said. Stratfor commented: "One geopolitical option for the United States now is a deal with Iran ? We do not know whether one is in the works but we know this: the rhetoric from Washington on Iran has quieted since the Russo-Georgian war ? And the United States has made a major concession to Iran this week." Stratfor was referring to Iraq's recent announcement that its troops had replaced US forces in securing Ashraf camp, north of Baghdad, where 3,000 members of Iran's main exiled opposition group, the People's Mujahideen (MEK), are based. Their future has been uncertain since they were disarmed after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The cultish group evolved from Marxist and Islamic radicals who originally supported the 1979 Islamic Revolution and is branded by the European Union and the US government as a terrorist organisation. Yet US hawks continue to regard the MEK as a useful tool against Iran, which demands the group's expulsion from Iraq. MEK supporters are dismayed that Iraqi forces are taking responsibility for Ashraf camp and are expected to demonstrate against this in Washington today. They are concerned that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is on good terms with Tehran, will expel them to Iran. Iraq is keen to see the back of the MEK, but insists Ashraf's inhabitants will be dealt with according to international law. For Iran, the MEK issue is a critical indicator of US intentions, Mr Parsi said. "They have seen US protection of these guys as keeping open the option for regime change by military means."