What is the US Trying to Do with Iran?

What is Obama actually trying to accomplish by stiff-arming Iran?

It is hard to determine the actual American policy towards Iran and the Iranian nuclear threat.  After Turkey and Brazil finally brokered a deal with Iran requiring the latter to ship 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to a third country, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkeish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought they had accomplished something noteworthy.  Unfortunately, the reaction from the US and rest of the west was to belittle the agreement and to push forward a fourth round of sanctions.

[tweetmeme] My first reaction to the deal was one of relief; cool minds allowed diplomacy to put off international sanctions that will not do much to deter Iran’s interest in nuclear technology.  When I heard that the Americans were pushing for a further round of sanctions immediately after the deal, I saw the move as completely counteracting what had been accomplished by the original deal.  As more politicians publicly comment on the deal and the new round of sanctions, it is clear that the US policy to Iran is, well, unclear.

It is true that there remained some very serious concerns about the capabilities and intentions of Iran following the deal with Turkey and Brazil.  Though the deal resembles the one proposed by the US last October, there are some important differences, specifically the amount of LEU currently in Iran, the ability for weapons inspectors to enter Iran and the ability of Iran to continue enriching to 20%.  Although these concerns are real and certainly worrying, the deal was never meant to be a final breakthrough, but rather a confidence building step.  Considering the times that Iran has been duped by the west, this deal, while not perfect was certainly a concession and a gesture of compromise by Iran.  By quickly and harshly denouncing the deal, the US is completely disregarding the Iranian concessions and the diplomatic efforts by Brazil and Turkey.

Predictably, says Alistair Crooke, other Middle Eastern actors are going to look towards Brazil and Turkey as more understanding and receptive to compromise than the US, a sentiment that could undercut a consensus vote in the UNSC concerning the sanctions.  Furthermore, the curt reply from Washington will bring into question President Obama’s intentions regarding the NPT.

Crooke is certainly not the only one questioning the logic behind Washington’s reaction.  Stephen Walt is calling Washington’s reaction another example of a confused and inconsistent policy that is only reinforcing “a ‘spiral’ of exaggerated hostility.”  Like Walt, I believe that a measured and cautious acceptance of the deal would have been much more effective in moving negotiations forward.  Instead, following the spiral theory, Washington has managed to take an opportunity to increase the trust between the two sides (certainly necessary for any agreement) and effectively give the Iranians another opportunity to not make a deal with the American government.

If the US had put off sanctions and continued to diplomatically push for an end to this situation, there is a good chance that further negotiations would not produce any meaningful compromise.  But by discrediting the current deal, the US is critically hurting its ability to engage in possible future negotiations while giving Iran the ability to say it tried to negotiate.  Indeed, the current US policy seems to be simply to do away with diplomatic efforts and wait until Iran unilaterally changes its policies (unlikely).

Last month, Jamsheed Choksy wrote about how the US needs to diplomatically engage Iran to find a solution to the problem.  At that point Iran was talking about its willingness to make a deal (much like the one it just made), but Choksy’s remarks are just as valid a criticism of the current American reaction to Iran’s deal:

Yet this failure also underscores the narrow understanding of the diplomatic process that continues to characterize the U.S. government. Yes, Iran’s offer does not completely meet American demands. But diplomacy is a progressive process, not an all-or-nothing strategy. For engagement to be successful, it has to be more than a series of nonstarters based on inflexible positions. It’s neither about accepting or rejecting a particular proposal nor waiting out the other side, but about keeping all eyes on the prize even as time runs out. And, in this case, there are two potential rewards.

The focus here should not be on victories over terms and conditions. The crucial objectives are to build trust between the two nations and to ensure that Iran does not assemble nuclear weapons. Realization of the first objective can go far in making the second one possible. The United States and its allies in the P5+1 have little to lose by responding to Iran’s latest offer, telling Tehran to set a firm date for nuclear fuel exchange via the IAEA. Such a gesture would demonstrate to Russia and China, whose support is needed against Iran in the U.N. Security Council, that America is heeding their concerns and appreciates their assistance. In other words, the United States would be generating shared stakes for those two nations in the success of the process, as well.

Iran has been claiming in recent months that it wants to reach a deal with the West, that it seeks nuclear cooperation rather than confrontation. Here is yet another opportunity for the Obama administration to use diplomacy to America’s advantage — either Iran follows through on its offer or is shown to be talking just to stall. If a successful fuel exchange transpires, it could prove to be a major step forward in bilateral relations. If it fails because of intransigence in Tehran, the rest of the world will be less sympathetic toward and trusting of Iran’s leaders. And the United States will be seen as having sought, yet again, a peaceful resolution. Either outcome would benefit U.S. interests, while demonstrating a greater understanding of the gains achievable through diplomatic engagement.

What Choksy does not mention is the consequences of American intransigence.  What will the Iranian nuclear situation look like next year now that is seems obvious that the US has given up on diplomacy and seems to lack a coherent Iranian policy?

Photo from PBS

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5 thoughts on “What is the US Trying to Do with Iran?

  1. Very thoughtful post. But to respond specifically to your concluding question about the consequences of American intransigence, the failure of a reform candidate (Obama) to make a sincere effort at finding a solution different from the old neo-con bullying of Iran will discredit “liberalism,” flexibility, compromise, engagement, and diplomacy even though Obama gives no more than a nod in the direction of any of those concepts as far as Iran policy is concerned. And on the other side of the coin, his policy will lay the groundwork for a resurgence of American bullying, militarism, and empire-building.

    It is ironic, to use the mildest term I can think of, to recall how during the old Cold War days of the 1970s we sneered at “arterioschlerosis of the bureaucratic arteries” in the USSR of the aged Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. How much more nimble and creative does Washington look today than Moscow back then?

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