Washington burns its bridges with Iran
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The agreement on draft United Nations Security Council resolution
sanctions against Iran has grabbed the headlines on the Barack Obama
administration's response to Iran's nuclear swap proposal brokered by Turkey
and Brazil. But the more consequential response is the acknowledgement by the
US State Department on Monday that the administration is not willing to hold
talks with Iran unless it agrees to a complete halt in uranium enrichment.
That announcement was accompanied by the revelation that the objective of the
original swap proposal last autumn was to get Iran to agree to eventually
suspend its enrichment program.
The Obama administration had not previously declared publicly
that it was demanding an end to all enrichment by Iran, and had suggested
directly and indirectly that it wanted a broader diplomatic engagement with
Iran covering issues of concern to both states.
The new hard line, ruling out broader diplomatic engagement with Iran, and the
new light on the strategy behind last year's swap proposal confirms what has
long been suspected - that the debate within the Obama administration last year
over whether to abandon the demand for an end to Iranian uranium enrichment as
unrealistic had been won by proponents of the zero enrichment demand by late
US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on Monday the United States
would not negotiate with Iran on its proposal to send 1,200 kilograms of
low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey to be replaced with 120 kilograms of fuel
rods for its Tehran Research Reactor, unless the Iranians agreed to take up the
broader subject of their nuclear program - and specifically an end to uranium
Responding to a question about the US willingness to meet with Iran on the new
proposal, Crowley said, "If it's willing to engage the P5+1, then it has to
commit that it's willing to engage the P5+1 on its nuclear program." The P5+1,
or "Iran Six", groups the five permanent members of the Security Council - the
US, France, China, Britain and Russia - plus Germany.
Crowley noted that Iran had offered to have discussions with "the international
community" but not about its nuclear program. "In our view, the only reason to
have that discussion," Crowley said, "first and foremost, would be to address
our core concerns in the - with regard to Iran's nuclear program."
Crowley revealed for the first time that the original proposal for Iran to swap
1,200 kilograms of LEU for 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to nearly 20%
roughly a year later "was meant as a means to a larger end, which was to get
Iran to fundamentally address its concerns the international community has".
He went on to explain that "the fact that Iran ... continues to enrich uranium
and has failed to suspend its uranium enrichment program, as has been called
for in the UN Security Council resolutions: that's our core concern."
Crowley was clearly suggesting that the talks, which were supposed to follow
Iran's acceptance of the deal, would be focused on ending its nuclear
enrichment program rather than on addressing the sources of conflict between
the United States and Iran.
Last October, the swap proposal was presented as a "confidence-building
measure" that would gain enough time for a broader diplomatic dialogue between
Iran and the United States to take place. It would allow the Obama
administration to argue with Israel that Iran had temporarily given up its
"breakout capability" by transferring most of its LEU abroad.
Mohammed ElBaradei, then director general of the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA), declared on October 21 that the swap agreement "could pave the
way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad publicly argued, moreover, that the swap
proposal implicitly accepted Iran's right to enrich uranium, although nothing
in the proposal addressed that issue.
The history of the swap proposal shows, however, that its origins were
intertwined with the objective of halting Iranian uranium enrichment.
Gary Samore, Obama's chief adviser on nuclear proliferation, devised the swap
deal. He had published a paper in December 2008 with co-author Bruce Reidel of
the Brookings Institution proposing that the new administration demand that
Iran's LEU be exported to Russia to be converted into fuel rods for the Bushehr
reactor in order take away Iran's nuclear "break-out capability".
Ironically, it was Ahmadinejad's public suggestion of interest in a straight
commercial deal under which Iran would send LEU to any country that would
enrich it to 20% for the Tehran Research Reactor that led to the formulation of
the swap proposal.
Samore simply shifted the focus of that proposal from Bushehr to the Tehran
Research Reactor, and it quickly became an "Iran Six" initiative to temporarily
strip Iran of nearly 80% of its LEU.
Samore was known to be a strong proponent of demanding that Iran end its
uranium-enrichment program, who privately expressed certainty that Iran
intended to manufacture nuclear weapons. He had publicly expressed pessimism
that Iran would accept any proposal demanding an end to enrichment without a
credible military threat, whether by the United States or Israel.
Before entering the administration Samore had advocated offering a lifting of
economic sanctions, assurances against regime change and even normalization of
relations as inducements to accept that demand.
No Iranian regime could have accepted a complete end to enrichment as part of a
deal with the United States, however, because of popular support for the
nuclear program as a symbol of Iran's technological advancement.
Proponents of the zero enrichment option were confident enough to leak to the
press the fact that the aim of broader talks with Iran would be to end
enrichment entirely. The Washington Post reported on October 22, 2009, that US
officials commenting on the proposed uranium swap "stressed that the deal would
be only the first step in a difficult process to persuade Iran to suspend its
uranium enrichment activities and that suspension remains the primary goal".
Now the administration has given up whatever flexibility it had previously
retained to adjust its position in the face of a firm Iranian rejection of the
zero enrichment demand. That position portends a continuation of high and
possibly rising tensions between the United States and Iran for the remainder
of Obama's administration.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.