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.