The Barack Obama administration's reliance on quick fixes with regard to Iran's
contested nuclear program threatens to derail the White House's Iran
engagement, thus delivering a severe blow to the overall edifice of the US's
new Middle East approach.
To begin with, the "fuel-for-fuel" deal, given to Iran under the guise of a
proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whereby Tehran is
requested to deliver most of its much-prized "nuclear assets" - some 1,200
kilograms or roughly 70% of its accumulated low-enriched uranium (LEU) - could
never have been expected to be feasible.
Under the United Nations-brokered plan, Tehran would send its uranium to Russia
and France to be further processed before it was returned for use in a medical
reactor core in Tehran. It is now
a month and a half since the talks in Geneva between Iran and the "Iran Six"
 that culminated in Obama's high-profile announcement of the deal.
Yet it is now clear that (a) Iran never agreed to any specific volume of its
LEU being shipped out of Iran; only to the basic framework of a draft
agreement, and (b) Iran would never consent to any terms that militated against
its integrated nuclear strategy.
Still, despite unmistakable signals from Tehran that contradicted Obama's
announcement, Washington continues to insist that Iran has revised itself and
turned down an agreement to which it initially agreed. This is coupled with the
insistence by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that "we are not altering
it [the draft agreement]".
Soon after Clinton spoke, Mohamad ElBaradei, the outgoing chief of the IAEA,
announced after a meeting with Obama at the White House that the US had now
proposed giving Turkey the custodianship of Iran's LEU, as a sort of nuclear
escrow. This is unworkable, given the complex dynamic of Iran-Turkey relations,
and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was quick to shoot down the idea
during a visit to Turkey.
At this point, the US and its allies will need to show greater flexibility and
agree to amend the draft agreement. For instance, they could opt for a phased
delivery of a much lower amount of Iran's LEU under firm guarantees of timely
delivery back to Iran. If the draft stands, Iran may well proceed and produce
itself the relatively high (under 20%) enriched uranium it needs for the small
Tehran reactor, regardless of the financial and technical challenges. There is
no legal bar to this under the articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, no matter how alarming the perception in
the West of Iran developing a weapons program.
Should all sides show good-faith and flexibility, this could turn into a
"win-win" scenario: Iran would agree to dip into its store of LEU, which is a
national security asset, and the West would enter into a new phase of "turning
confrontation into cooperation", as anticipated by ElBaradei.
Instead, the whole deal now has the distinct possibility of turning into a
"lose-lose" proposition, as it could culminate in new punitive measures against
On Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Russia was running out of
patience with Tehran and that Moscow might consider new sanctions. A senior US
official said that neither Obama nor Medvedev had suggested a deadline for
Iran, although France has suggested December. Iran is already subject to some
UN sanctions - as well as unilateral ones imposed by the US - over its
uranium-enrichment program. New legislation has been introduced in the US
calling for even tougher sanctions.
In his most recent message to Iran, Obama spoke of wanting new relations "based
on mutual interests and mutual respects". Yet, a major problem with the US is
that it is unclear who speaks for its Iran policy.
There are several voices, each putting on a different accent, one sounding the
alarm on Iran's "existential threat to Israel", another telling a Jewish
lobbyist group that the administration's policy is still that of "zero
centrifuges" in Iran. Vice President Joseph Biden has told the world that the
US does not care if Israel attacks Iran, while some advisors even talk of
regime change in Tehran.
Another problem with the US's Iran policy is that it continues to be bedeviled
by the pre-existing problem of "getting Iran wrong", recalling the candid
statement of president George W Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice,
who found Iran "an opaque country" that she did not understand.
The question is, does the Obama administration understand Iran any better than
its predecessor(s)? The answer is mixed.
To be sure, there is no lack of effort in trying to get Iran right, which is
why the administration has recruited John Limbert, a former hostage-turned-Iran
expert keen on complex negotiations with Iran, as deputy assistant secretary of
state for Iran. He replaces the Iran-phobic Dennis Ross, who has moved on to a
new assignment with the national security team in the White House. This
portends a new lineup of doves versus hawks on Iran reminiscent of the Jimmy
Carter era, when then-secretary of state Cyrus Vance and the hawkish Zbigniew
Brzezinski had constant bouts.
"For Iranian negotiators, the test of an agreement is not whether it conforms
to the experts' notions of legality, but whether it can be presented as a
victory for Islam and Iran," Limbert wrote recently, advising US negotiators to
"avoid legal jargon and technicalities".
Limbert is wrong and distorts the current position of Iran's nuclear
negotiators - that Iran has not diverted from peaceful nuclear activities and
its legal and transparent program, fully monitored by the IAEA, should not be
subjected to sanctions and other punitive measures.
For instance, the IAEA in 2007 decided to reduce its technical assistance to
Iran by 40%, or 22 out of some 55 programs - an unprecedented action by the
IAEA's governing body that Tehran badly wants to see reversed now that repeated
IAEA inspections have found no smoking gun that would corroborate the West's
and Israel's allegations against Iran.
"We've always said that every option is on the table," Clinton repeated last
week. Yet the viable option of abiding by the NPT's norms and respecting Iran's
nuclear right to a peaceful enrichment program under the surveillance and
safety standards of the IAEA is still missing from the US's assortment of
Once the US reconciles itself to this option, which would leave Iran at the
threshold of potential but not realized nuclear weapons capability, then all
sorts of doors for diplomacy and even rapprochement between the US and Iran
would open almost overnight.
For one thing, the US's efforts to enter Iran's nuclear market by, for
instance, providing safety instruments for the Tehran reactor, would gain
traction with Tehran's decision-makers. And the parties would also warm to
enhanced cooperation on many shared interests in the region.
Unfortunately, principally as a result of Israel's pressure, the US is unlikely
to consider this option as Israel believes it would deflect from the other
standoff in the Middle East - the Palestinian peace process.
Interestingly, though, the Jerusalem Post has indicated that Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first priority in his recent, unusually low-key
visit to Washington was indeed Iran, not the Palestinian issue. Like one of his
predecessors, Ariel Sharon, he apparently wants to "sequence" events.
With Sharon, it was selling to Washington the notion of taking out Iraq's
Saddam Hussein first, and now with Netanyahu it is settling business with
Tehran's mullahs first. The common denominator of the approaches is an
indefinite postponement of the Palestinian problem. The only question is
whether or not the old trick works with Obama.
By recognizing Iran's status as a "virtual nuclear-weapon capable" state that
nonetheless retains that capability in a state of dormancy, the international
community does not fall into the trap of appeasement. The ticking clock of more
sanctions and even military action are the worst way to deal with Iran's
"nuclear threat" simply by virtue of the fact that a threatened Iran is more
likely to go fully nuclear.
1. The "Iran Six" includes the five permanent members of the UN Security
Council - the US, France, Britain, China and Russia - plus Germany.
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.