I'm reprinting here my op-ed column that originally appeared in The Diplomat, a current affairs journal focusing on the Asia-Pacific region, based in Tokyo.
Sometime in mid-November, it’s likely that the Iran and the United States, along with the rest of the P5+1 world powers, will sit down in either Geneva or Vienna in an effort to restart talks over Iran’s nuclear programme. Unfortunately, it appears that Barack Obama’s administration will go into such talks with a strategy almost guaranteed to fail.
Unless the United States is willing to acknowledge that Iran, a signatory to the Non-proliferation Treaty, has the right to enrich uranium on its own soil, there’s no chance that the negotiations will work. Years of behind-the-scenes Track II, off-the-record discussions between senior Iranian officials and a number of retired US diplomats of the highest rank have shown that only a win-win outcome can resolve the crisis. The ‘win’ that Iran needs is recognition that it has the right to enrich, while the ‘win’ that the United States, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency needs is Iran’s agreement to abide by iron-clad oversight of its work by IAEA inspectors under strict, intrusive new protocols.
Despite his outreach to Iran since taking office in January, 2009, Obama has never once declared that Iran has the right to carry out an enrichment programme. Last June, Senator John Kerry—who is close to the president and who’s advised him since Obama was first elected to the Senate in 2004—told the Financial Times that Iran does indeed have that right. In his laudable Cairo speech that same month, in which the president outlined his vision of better relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Obama said that Iran retained the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy.
At the time, I was in Teheran, meeting with Ali Akbar Rezaie, the director general for North and Central Americas at the Iranian foreign ministry, who’d read the Cairo speech very carefully. ‘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’s not clear to us whether he omitted that point intentionally or not,’ Rezaie told me. ‘We don’t know what’s in his mind.’
Sometimes, in diplomacy, creative ambiguity can be helpful. But, in the looming showdown over the Iranian nuclear programme, it’s time for some plain speaking.
Last autumn, in the first meeting between the United States and Iran in three decades, the P5+1 and Iran reached a deal to transfer about two-thirds of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU)—about 1200 kilograms of the approximately 1800 kilos it had then—to Russia and France, where it would be further enriched and processed into fuel rods at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). That deal, intended to serve as a confidence-building measure, had the added benefit of leaving Iran without enough LEU to allow it to build even a single bomb, if it were further enriched to weapons-grade. It could also be argued that the October 2009 accord tacitly accepted Iran’s enrichment programme, since, under its terms, Iran didn’t have to shut it down.
But the deal was vague enough that no one was happy, and it fell victim to Iran’s opaque internal politics, opposed by ultra-hardliners, by the opposition Green Movement and finally by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Efforts to revive it last spring, in a notably creative diplomatic manoeuvre by Turkey and Brazil, died, too, in part because the United States rejected the Turkey-Brazil proposal in its infancy.
Since then, Iran has continued to stockpile LEU, and it now has more than 3100 kilos. And, apparently convinced that tightened international sanctions will compel Iran to accept a deal even less attractive than the one it ultimately abandoned a year ago, the United States intends to propose that Iran transfer between 1800 and 2000 kilograms of its LEU stockpile out of the country—about 50 percent more than proposed last year.
According to weapons experts, it requires about 1000 kilograms of LEU, if refined to weapons grade, for one bomb. That means that the new proposal is muddled at best, since it still leaves Iran with more than enough enriched uranium for a bomb, if it so chooses to go down that route, yet it offers Iran no improvement on the deal it accepted and then rejected a year ago. Meanwhile, it still remains a confidence-building measure only, leaving the hard work of actually dealing with the core of the problem to future negotiations.
Yet by putting all of his cards on the table—i.e., by telling Iran that it can maintain its programme in exchange for inspections that can guarantee it isn’t seeking a nuclear weapon—Obama could once and for all test Iran’s willingness to reach a fair settlement to end the stalemate.
Of course, it still won’t be easy to achieve a happy outcome. Both Iran and the United States are beset by hardliners who brook no compromise with the other side. Ayatollah Khamenei, as an autocrat, perhaps can more easily overcome or suppress dissenters. Obama, on the other hand, must face down a passel of neoconservatives, pro-Israel hardliners and Republicans who’d assail any deal that leaves Iran’s enrichment programme intact, even under strict supervision. And, in the wake of massive Republican gains in Tuesday’s election, Obama’s freedom of movement is now even more constrained. His conservative opposition is gearing up for a push at the beginning of next year for Obama to speak more forcefully about military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and according to the New York Times the White House is already debating whether the president ought to start emphasizing the military option now.
The Obama administration argues that tough new sanctions are hitting Iran’s economy hard. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Internal opponents of Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including Mir Hossein Mousavi (who ran against Ahmadinejad in 2009) and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the wily, billionaire ex-president who was Mousavi’s ally) say that sanctions are hurting, and they blame Ahmadinejad’s ‘adventurous’ foreign policy for cutting off Iran’s economy from Western investment and technology.
But it’s extremely unlikely that sanctions, no matter how onerous, can persuade Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to surrender Iran’s nuclear programme, since they are capable of using a formidable array of police and paramilitary units to suppress political unrest, strikes and protests over unemployment and inflation.
All this means that a breakdown in the next round of talks could result in an extremely dangerous standoff. Iran, for its part, might draw increasingly into itself, demanding that its population tighten its belt and endure worsening problems in order to defend the purity of the Islamic revolution. And the United States might throw up its hands, abandon Obama’s efforts to engage Iran and start a countdown to military confrontation. That’s why it’s worrisome, indeed, that the White House hasn’t come up with anything new to offer Iran this time around.