Nuclear Iran: stop the clock ticking and start talking
The National (Abu Dhabi)
December 13. 2009
Instead of the breakthrough he had hoped for in nuclear diplomacy with Iran, Barack Obama has allowed himself to be painted into a corner. But so, too, have his Iranian counterparts, with neither side now capable of breaking the deadlock.
Mr Obama, under pressure from sceptics of engagement in Washington, Paris and Jerusalem, created an artificial deadline of December 2009 for his diplomatic efforts. The clock is ticking, warn the hawks, with Iran supposedly racing full-tilt to build nuclear weapons (although evidence of this remains scant). So Mr Obama turned a deal to send much of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad for processing into a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. Iran’s leadership has been unable to accept this, insisting on renegotiating the terms even as it faces its own internal paralysis.
Abiding by the deadline, Mr Obama is now pressing for new sanctions against Tehran. But Russia and China remain sceptical, despite being critical of Tehran’s behaviour, and the UN is unlikely to adopt anything close to the “crippling sanctions” which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened.
The US and its allies are looking at their own measures, targeting Iran’s petrol imports and access to international trade and investment by threatening third-country companies that do business in Tehran. Such measures could, however, provoke a backlash, particularly from countries such as Turkey and China, which is fast emerging as Iran’s major trade and investment partner in the energy sector.
The smart money wouldn’t bet that, whatever sanctions the US is able to muster, Iran will change its behaviour. But by adopting new sanctions, Mr Obama follows the hawks further down the road. What happens when those measures fail to force Tehran to back down? A blockade? War?
Nobody believes Obama would launch military action – or even allow Israel to do so – because at best it would set back Iran’s programme by a few years, while risking setting the region ablaze and imperiling US missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some in Washington now see a nuclear-armed Iran as inevitable.
So how did a president who promised a new dawn of diplomacy find himself stuck in the same dilemma as his predecessor?
Two reasons come to mind: nuclear diplomacy has been eclipsed by the most traumatic domestic political crisis to have gripped the Islamic Republic in its 30-year history; and Mr Obama failed to abandon the Bush administration’s goal to get Iran to forego all enrichment of uranium.
Many had warned that the Obama administration was heading for trouble by maintaining the demand that Iran give up enrichment even for peaceful purposes – a “ridiculous” demand even in the words of an ally like Senator John Kerry. All of Iran’s political factions agree that the country deserves the rights of any other signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which includes uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes .
But Washington hawks, together with Israel, Britain and France, say even peaceful enrichment capability gives Iran the wherewithal to make a bomb, and is therefore intolerable. And Mr Obama wasn’t about to pick a fight on the end goals when he launched his much-maligned engagement policy.
That may have been unfortunate, because different end goals helped to scupper the Tehran research reactor deal. The administration’s key goal, as the National Security Adviser Jim Jones put it, was “to get 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium out of Iran”. By removing three quarters of Iran’s stockpile – which hypothetically could be reprocessed to create a single nuclear weapon – western powers saw the deal as giving them more time to persuade Iran to forego enrichment altogether.
Iran fundamentally rejects that objective and any implication that its stockpile of low-enriched uranium is a security threat. But its skittish response to the reactor deal highlights the extent to which the regime’s internal power struggle has sabotaged nuclear diplomacy.
The Iranian side was the first to publicly propose swapping its low-enriched uranium for fuel, and when the framework for the deal was agreed at talks in Geneva and Vienna, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters boasted at home of a great victory. The deal, they said, had forced the West to buckle and tacitly accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
But as details emerged and the international press relayed western glee over persuading Iran to part with most of its stockpile, Mr Ahmadinejad came under blistering attack from conservatives, pragmatists and reformers.
Mr Ahmadinejad suddenly found himself paralysed by the regime’s internal dynamics, unable to say yes or no to the West. Tehran’s equivocation was taken as gamesmanship by western powers, resulting in new condemnation and sanctions threats, met with more bluster and empty threats by Mr Ahmadinejad.
As frustrating as it has proven to be, diplomacy remains Mr Obama’s only serious option – and despite his artificial deadline, it has only just begun. A diplomatic solution in which Iran agrees to forego enrichment entirely remains highly unlikely. Imagining Iran could be tricked on to that road by the reactor deal was a serious mistake.
Still, talks could produce agreement on measures within the NPT framework to strengthen safeguards against Iran weaponising nuclear material. That remains a highly desirable goal, even if getting there would involve a long and painstaking process. Mr Obama would do well to toss out that “ticking clock”, a device manufactured by those goading him towards a confrontation he knows would be disastrous. Considering the alternatives, the latest Nobel Peace laureate should be ready to give serious diplomacy with Iran all the time it needs.