Talking With Tehran Robert Dreyfuss
On October 1 in Geneva, in a little more than seven hours, diplomats from the major world powers and Iran made a series of breakthroughs in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, raising hopes for a peaceful resolution. Not only did top US diplomats sit down for the first time in decades for an extended official one-on-one with a high-level Iranian delegation; Iran agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect a disputed, previously covert facility intended for uranium enrichment. More important, Iran agreed to ship the bulk of its existing stock of fuel-grade, low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France, where it will be processed into fuel rods to be used for medical purposes at a reactor in Iran. In one stroke, Iran promised to divest itself of uranium that critics, including US and Israeli hawks, said was enough raw material to make a nuclear bomb if processed into highly enriched uranium (HEU).
It was a stunning turn of events. Those who said that negotiating with Iran was a fool’s errand, including editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard and National Review, looked like fools themselves. For President Obama, who’d made talking with Iran a central plank in his 2008 campaign and who’d reached out to Iran in speeches, in a videotaped New Year’s message and in two letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it was an important accomplishment. And it was a sign that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric–on the eve of the talks he had delivered a bombastic speech at the United Nations and spewed more vitriol by once again calling the Nazi mass murder of Jews a myth–might be designed to provide political cover at home for a grand bargain with the Great Satan.
Still, it’s early in the talks–and as Ali Akbar Rezaie, director general for North and Central America at Iran’s foreign ministry, told me in June, it isn’t clear whether the new US administration is willing to make a fundamental break with the stance of George W. Bush. “President Obama didn’t say that we have the right to enrich uranium. But he also didn’t say that we do not have that right. It is not clear to us whether he omitted that point intentionally or not,” Rezaie said, after analyzing Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo, in which the American president outlined his intention to rebuild US relations with the Muslim world. “We do not know what is in his mind,” said Rezaie.
That’s still the relevant question: what, exactly, is the US strategy? During the Bush era, Washington insisted that Tehran would not be allowed to operate a uranium enrichment program, even one dedicated to peaceful purposes. In June, in a statement seen in Iran as a hopeful sign that US policy was changing, Senator John Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Financial Times, “The Bush administration’s [insistence on] no enrichment was ridiculous because Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. They have a right to peaceful use of nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.”