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    Middle East
     Nov 19, 2010

Gatekeepers close door to Iran diplomacy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

In his recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, United States President Barack Obama promised that the "door to diplomacy" is open to Iran should Tehran "choose to walk through it".

It turns out that this is not entirely true and there are certain obstacles other than Iranian intransigence operating as "gatekeepers" that are likely to slam that door shut.

One set of gatekeepers is the Israelis and their formidable array of Washington influence-peddlers, who are nowadays using Israel's offer of a freeze on some 1,300 housing units in the West Bank as a bargaining chip with the White House, hoping that in return


the Obama administration will give in on Tel Aviv's push for more aggressive action against Iran.

Call it the Israeli version of a "grand bargain": settlement freeze and, perhaps, a shy nod to Palestinian statehood in exchange for an American iron fist on Iran. But the linkage between the two issues has been overstretched and may backfire on its protagonists in the US and Israel.

Throwing cold water on the furnace of the military option on Iran, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week stated that there is basically no military solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, and that a military strike would perhaps make Iran "more determined" to pursue its nuclear program clandestinely. Irrespective of such red flags in Washington, Israel continues to push for the military option, its editorials already branding the coming nuclear talks between Iran and the "Iran Six" or "P5+1" - comprising the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany - as doomed to failure.

In turn, this raises the question of whether or not the Obama administration is capable of withstanding the onslaught of the next wave of anti-Iran diplomacy orchestrated from within the US Congress, scene to stronger pro-Israel sentiments in the aftermath of the recent mid-term elections. In other words, what about the other gatekeepers in congress, who have never been in sync with Obama on his "Iran engage" policy?

Add to these another set of gatekeepers, in the form of various policy makers in the administration, such as Dennis Ross, who is in charge of Iran policy in the White House; speaking before a Jewish lobby group late last month, Ross made a veiled threat against Iran. "But should Iran continue its defiance, despite its growing isolation and the damage to its economy, its leaders should listen carefully to President Obama who has said many times: 'We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons'."

But perhaps an even more formidable obstacle chaining the supposedly open US diplomatic door to Iran is policy incoherence and the absence of realistic benchmarks for successful Iran diplomacy.

To elaborate, it is unclear what the US hopes to gain from the nuclear talks scheduled for early December. The answer to this simple question has turned complicated in part because there are actually two sets of talks - on the nuclear fuel swap on the one hand through the Vienna Group and, on the other, the "Iran Six" talks on broader nuclear and non-nuclear issues, which are about to be merged as one at the December talks.

That is unfortunate, since: (a) the Vienna Group, consisting of the US, Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is smaller, and usually it is easier to reach accords than in larger groups with more heterogeneous sets of interests; and (b) unlike the Vienna Group, that operates around the legal framework of the Iran-IAEA Safeguard Agreement, which stipulates that the IAEA should assist Iran with technical needs, the "Iran Six" actually operates in a legal void with no set parameters for bounded discussions.

Not only that, reports from Washington indicate that an earlier attempt to present Iran with a new nuclear swap formula, calling on Iran to substantially increase the volume of its low-enriched uranium slated for out-shipment, has met serious objections from various corners and has been shelved for the moment.

What may happen instead in December is that a similar and revised swap deal will be hurled at Iran that is pegged with tougher preconditions, such as Iran's implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions - that demand a full suspension of Iran's enrichment program.

If so, that would be a non-starter, as Tehran's politicians have made it crystal clear that stopping enrichment is their "red line" and off discussion, while indicating that Iran is willing to stop the 20% enrichment if there is an agreement for the fuel swap. In fact, in his recent US visit, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad repeatedly hinted at such a bargain.

In turn, this represents a "blind knot" for Washington and its allies: how to give the green light on the fuel swap, which can act as a confidence builder in the nuclear standoff, without extracting any major concession from Iran on the enrichment question? There is, after all, a sort of "Faustian bargain" here: that is, the swap deal puts a seal of approval on Iran's enrichment activity, thus strengthening Iran's argument that it serves its national interests and lessens the country's outside dependency.

This knot may prove to be the biggest show-stopper come the next round of talks, reflecting a US that talks diplomacy but in practice self-freezes it by virtue of contradictory initiatives and positions that tend to cancel with one hand what is offered with the other.

As a result, there is a slim chance for a diplomatic breakthrough at the coming talks, unless the US and its partners somehow find a method to disentangle themselves from the threads of this blind knot, which for all practical purposes renders Obama's pretension of a diplomatic door nothing but a meaningless metaphor.

As it stands, in light of the present official position of "zero centrifuges" by the US Department of State, the diplomatic offer is for Iran to step into a minefield imperiling the nation's nuclear rights, so jealously guarded by its leadership. An alternative approach is desperately needed, or we can safely predict a fruitless negotiation.

Arguably, the elements of a workable alternative approach can be found in the details of the fuel swap, as aptly analyzed by the Turkish political scientist Mostafa Kibaroglu, in a recent article published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. [1] Professor Kibaroglu emphasizes the various pluses of the April 2010 "Tehran Declaration" signed by Iran, Turkey and Brazil, which calls for a key role for Turkey as safekeeper of Iran's low-enriched uranium.

Iran continues to insist on the relevance and pertinence of that declaration. Not so Washington - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a "ploy" and dismissed it within hours of its signing.

That was several months ago, and today Clinton appears to be less of a decision-maker on Iran than she was then, chiefly because she is simply better at Iran-bashing that Iran-engaging. Who then is calling the shots on Iran policy in the Obama administration? This is unclear in light of the cacophony of disparate voices that reflect a policy traffic jam, susceptible to incoherence, inaction and, worse, outright wrong action, such as iron fist approach favored by Israel and its policy friends in Washington.

As a litmus test of Obama's policy leadership, his next move on Iran, sure to be reflected at the upcoming negotiations in December, will be highly important and also revealing of any impact by the jolts of the devastating election results.

A step back from the current strategy of "compellence" - hoping to compel Iran to comply with the optimum demands on enrichment activities - is definitely necessary. It may come in the form of a comprehensive package approach that revitalizes the fuel-swap deal in tandem with certain demands on nuclear transparency, a slow-down on centrifuge installments, etc.

In the days leading up to the December talks, it is also important to steer clear of the military threats, which as rightly pointed out by a large group of US experts recently, have proved to be ineffective and counterproductive.

But most, if not all of these experts, tend to forget that an emphasis on the lack of usefulness of military options serves to bypass the importance of adequate scrutiny of the diplomatic option. That option is mired in incoherence and a lack of creativity, above all due to the various gatekeepers that keep closing it whenever there is a feeble attempt by the US president and his foreign policy team to re-open it.

A brave move by Obama would be to completely separate his Iran policy from his Israel-Palestine policy, disallowing the destructive influence of Israeli hawks pushing for the grand bargain mentioned above. The question is: does Obama have the political stamina for such an audacious move?

1. Click here.

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. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing, October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

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