Talking With Tehran
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."
If the United States insists that Iran dismantle its enrichment program, the newly opened talks are virtually certain to fail. That, in turn, would leave the administration facing an unpalatable choice between "crippling sanctions," in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and military confrontation. On the other hand, if Obama acknowledges Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy in exchange for stringent international supervision and a rigorous IAEA inspection regime, an agreement is possible.
To be sure, even if the new administration is willing to allow Iran to continue enrichment, talks are likely to be very difficult, long and complicated, and hardliners in both the United States and Iran can be expected to do their utmost to prevent a rapprochement. In the wake of the brutal postelection crackdown by Iranian security forces against Ahmadinejad's reformist, centrist and pragmatist opposition, who have mobilized millions of protesters to challenge what was widely seen as a fraudulent vote, the militant commanders of the ascendant Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)--and perhaps Ahmadinejad himself--may prefer defiance and confrontation with the West, rather than accommodation, as a means of shoring up domestic support. And in the United States, hawks, neoconservatives and supporters of the Israeli far right, including lobbyists from AIPAC--the American Israel Public Affairs Committee--have characterized the talks as a Munich-like appeasement policy, and are now trumpeting an unreleased, and disputed, IAEA report alleging that Iran is capable of making a bomb and has carried out extensive research and testing of bomb-delivery vehicles. These groups are out in full force demanding that Obama set a short deadline for Iran to capitulate before moving to confrontation, a cutoff of Iran's gasoline and diesel fuel imports, and a policy of regime change, with all-out war on their list of options.
Among the opponents of sanctions are Russia, which has ever closer economic ties with Iran, and China, which buys one-seventh of its crude energy needs from Iran and, in return, is supplying Iran with an increasing share of its gasoline imports. Also against sanctions are leaders of the very opposition movement in Iran that proponents of sanctions in the United States say they want to help. "Sanctions would not affect the government but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers," said Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in June.
Before the talks began, Washington and Tehran had staked out positions that seemed to rule out compromise. Said Ahmadinejad, "If you are talking about the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, this will never be closed down here in Iran." In a dramatic statement after he announced the discovery of Iran's covert enrichment facility, Obama said, "Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on October 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice [to give up their program or] continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation."
But experts say most of Obama's negotiating team understand that the United States cannot insist on zero-enrichment. Asked before the talks whether US negotiators realize that zero-enrichment is not an option, Thomas Pickering, a former US diplomat who's taken part in a series of unofficial discussions with senior Iranian officials, said, "Sure they do. We've talked to them." Pickering and other experts have proposed a conciliatory plan that allows Iran to manage a uranium enrichment program on its soil. Obama, he says, may be reluctant to tip his hand at the start of negotiations, but he thinks Obama's team gets it. "There are folks inside the administration who have looked at our idea," he said.
But getting the idea is half the battle. The other half is having the patience for what is expected to be a bumpy road ahead. Above all, according to analysts such as Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, Obama will have to resist those clamoring for a quick deadline for the talks and sanctions by the end of 2009. Echoing Pickering, Parsi says, "The administration has concluded privately that they are not going to get zero-enrichment." If Obama wants to convince Iran to agree to robust oversight of its program, he'll have to resist advisers who argue that Iran's nuclear effort is a ticking time bomb.