duo offers new hope on Iran By
Kaveh L Afrasiabi
US President Barack
Obama has made a valiant move by nominating the
former US senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, as
the next secretary of defense, defying an
avalanche of accusations that Hagel is too "tough"
on Israel and too "soft" on Iran.
spokesperson for the furious "Jewish Lobby",
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, has
lambasted Obama's decision as a "bad choice for
peace". This presumably implies that Iran will be
less inclined to make a diplomatic deal knowing
that the threat of military action is remote, in
light of Hagel's past pronouncements against
What Dershowitz and other
like-minded US pundits have
overlooked is that US-led
coercive diplomacy has had no effect in weakening
Iran's determination to pursue a civilian nuclear
program - persuasive diplomacy has a much better
chance of success with Tehran.
Hagel, who is also in favor of dialogue with
Palestine's Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, Obama
has sent an important signal regarding his desire
to give his failed "Iran engagement" policy a new
lease of life. Obama's pick for secretary of
state, the Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, is
also likely to be more in sync with Obama's Iran
policy than the outgoing Hillary Clinton ever was.
In a 2009 interview with London's
Financial Times, Kerry labeled the demand on Iran
to give up its uranium enrichment program as
"ridiculous."  A neo-realist who prioritizes
the role of diplomacy, Kerry will undoubtedly
strengthen Obama's foreign policy hands - which
are somewhat tied by the congress at the moment.
Assuming that Hagel survives the grueling
nomination process, then the Kerry-Hagel duet can
devise a sound, step-by-step, approach that would
have a decent potential of yielding positive
results, potentially melting Iran's resistance to
entering into a "face-saving" deal with
Like Kerry, Hagel has in the
past hinted at recognizing Iran's nuclear rights.
In a recent interview with Al-Monitor, Hagel
referred approvingly to another Al-Monitor article
that urged the White House to take President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad's offer of stopping the 20%
enrichment if the outside world was willing to
guarantee the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran.
The question is, of course, whether or
not Tehran is still interested in such a deal. It
has already managed to convert the enriched
uranium into plates for the Tehran reactor, a
technological achievement that simultaneously
confirms the importance of Iran's possession of an
independent fuel cycle.
the head of Iran's Atomic Organization, has told
the domestic media that Iran will not compromise
its right to 20% enrichment. Yet, it is abundantly
clear to anyone familiar with the multilateral
nuclear negotiations that there will be no Western
concessions on sanctions on Iran unless Iran is
willing to make precisely such compromises.
The Iran nuclear crisis stands an good
chance of de-escalation in 2013 if both sides show
the necessary flexibility. Conditions include the
US and its allies agreeing to tolerate Iran's
enrichment program at a low ceiling and higher
degree of transparency, and Iran consenting to a
technical formula regarding its enriched pile of
uranium. The latter could mandate inspections, and
even a fuel swap, on the condition of a major
relaxation of international sanctions.
Nuclear talks can also be telescoped to
regional security issues, with the US's
Afghanistan exit strategy standing to benefit
greatly from an earnest security dialogue with
Tehran and Syria's crisis on the table.
This is of course an ideal scenario should
the White House's moves prove capable of steering
the US's Middle East policy in the right
The largest obstacle is off
course Israel, the US's closest ally in the
Israel is inherently opposed to
any US-Iran deal that would culminate in the
preservation of Iran's nuclear program intact and,
Obama's biggest challenge in the weeks and months
to come is striking a balanced approach that does
not antagonize the powerful "Jewish Lobby".
Another potential problem ahead is the
risk of Obama veering back towards a greater
coercive policy. This would suggest that he had
again pursued a half-baked policy that falls short
of achieving the desired results. He needs to
display patience and reject an onrush of negative
input from the opponents such as European allies
and the conservative government in London.
One reason this might occur is political
fissures among the "5 +1" nations (UN Security
Council's five permanent members plus Germany).
The grouping has already been unable to revamp its
Iran policy, which is long on demands and short on
tangible incentives, such as a concrete offer on
reducing or relaxing sanctions.
offered to and accepted by Iran would require
congressional approval in US, but the chances of
Obama convincing a congressional majority sold to
Iran-bashing on anything less than a full
suspension of Iran's nuclear activities is rather
slim. This would mean an Iran deal by the
executive branch that would be unpopular in
congress and likely cause a political firestorm,
unless of course Israel puts its stamp of approval
on the deal.
The latter is not a long-shot
by any means, much as it seems improbable right
now, depending on what Israel may gain on other
fronts such as its expansionist policy, which has
been barely tolerated by the Obama administration.
A "Faustian bargain" of one sort or
another is in the realm of possibilities, another
is an Israeli concession on the peace process in
exchange for a get-tougher Washington policy on
What is improbable, however, is real
US pressure on Israel to negotiate in earnest with
the Palestinians, which can only emerge if
Washington dares to cut military, intelligence,
and financial assistance. This is highly unlikely
and, instead, we are apt to see a continuation and
even deepening of US's security commitment to
Israel during the next four years.
Iran's concerns As for Iran,
which will have its own presidential election in
June, the stakes are relatively high and the
biggest challenge is to reach a political
consensus on the right response to an American
initiative, given the risks posed by political
factionalism and even fragmentation susceptible of
foreign policy paralysis in the coming months.
Reeling under the "crippling sanctions,"
Tehran harbors a natural interest in a deal with
Washington that would unfetter the national
economy from the suffocating pressure of
comprehensive sanctions that are imposed both
unilaterally and multilaterally.
problem is, as in the past, how to balance any
such deal with the regime's prerogative of saving
face both at home and the region, without which
its image and credibility may suffer grievously.
This is a formidable challenge that would need to
be taken into consideration by the outside powers
engaged in negotiation with Iran.
Simultaneously, Iran's national security
concerns would have to be taken into consideration
as well, principally because of the "nuclear
capability" derived from the enrichment know-how.
Consequently, the Western powers should never lose
sight of the fact that their request from a
country to dispossess itself of the high-value
nuclear capability does not come cheap and that
they should be prepared to put serious incentives,
with "firm commitments" on the table.
return, what Iran can conceivably offer is the
objective guarantee that its capability would
remain perpetually latent and would not be
manifest in the actual bombs. This would
essentially mean living with a nuclear potential
Iran, and at the moment the prevailing sentiment
in the Western capitals is oceans away from this.
Whether or not the Kerry-Hagel duet can bring a
timely reconciliation of US policy with this
(rather inescapable) reality remains to be seen.