Iran's power rises, with or without deal

Willie Grace | 3/31/2015, 3:47 p.m.
Sure, U.S. and international sanctions inflicted staggering damage on Iran's economy, convincing the longtime American foe to join talks aimed ...
Two Western diplomats told CNN Thursday that the parties are narrowing in on 6,000 centrifuges, down from the 6,500 that had been under discussion.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Deal or no deal in the Iranian nuclear talks, Tehran is already behaving like it's made a killing.

Sure, U.S. and international sanctions inflicted staggering damage on Iran's economy, convincing the longtime American foe to join talks aimed at limiting its nuclear program. Those talks face an important Tuesday night deadline.

But it's not just Iran's nuclear aspirations that have everyone's attention -- though just the fact that Iranian officials are at the table with the world's most powerful countries has elevated Iran's international status.

Getting the bomb would greatly magnify its regional -- even global -- role, but Tehran is also making big moves in a tumultuous Great Game of Middle East geopolitics that is challenging U.S influence and prestige and chilling Washington's allies.

As it engages on its nuclear program, Tehran has exploited the divisions of the Arab Spring and the power vacuum of America's downgraded involvement in the region. It has also taken advantage of the leeway the United States offered in prioritizing a nuclear deal over attempts to restrain Tehran's proxies that could risk breaking up the negotiations.

The result is that Iran -- often through militant groups it sponsors -- has become a key player in conflicts in neighboring states all the way to the edge of the Mediterranean.

Its drive for regional pre-eminence is becoming an increasing problem for the Obama administration as it contemplates selling a nuclear deal -- which is already drawing considerable skepticism -- to opponents in Congress and to anxious allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are watching Iran's maneuvering up close.

Critics are accusing President Barack Obama of turning a blind eye toward Iran's nefarious motives and proxy wars in the Middle East to safeguard a legacy-enhancing push for a deal that could lift his presidency's historic potential after decades of hostility between Washington and Tehran.

They fear Iran is not only about to walk away with a deal that leaves its nuclear infrastructure intact, but that it is also playing the United States for a fool by using the talks to shield its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.

"They have completely schooled the American and European diplomats," said Michael Rubin, an Iran analyst and critic of the administration at the American Enterprise Institute.

"The Iranians used to brag that they play chess and we play checkers. It turns out that they play chess, while we play solitaire."

Iranian proxies

Iran has used its Revolutionary Guard Corps and a host of proxies to fill the power gap left by the U.S. departure from Iraq and the political tumult stirred by the collapse of authoritarian governments felled by now-defunct popular reform movements.

"Iran was destined to expand its influence one way or the other, and the U.S. was not going to prevent that, especially because of the cost involved in trying to pacify Iraq," said Reva Bhalla, vice president of global analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm.