When Will the Obama Administration Try Actually Engaging Iran?

Western media commentary continues to depict Iran as having “rejected” the Baradei proposal for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), thereby setting the stage for the Obama Administration to pursue, at a minimum, tougher multilateral and unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

As we wrote about in The Race for Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told The Hindu‘s Siddharth Varadarajan last month that Tehran viewed the Baradei proposal positively, but wanted finished fuel assemblies for the TRR to be exchanged for Iranian low-enriched uranium (LEU) up front, and for the exchange to take place in Iran, rather than in a third country.  Mottaki’s statements were clear about Tehran wanting an upfront exchange of finished fuel for LEU, but ambiguous about whether Iranian LEU, once swapped for finished fuel, could be sent to a third country or would need to stay in Iran.

This weekend, at a regional security conference in Bahrain, Mottaki indicated that Tehran would be prepared to ship some of its current LEU stockpile out of Iran as part of a swap for finished fuel assemblies for the TRR, but wants the LEU to be sent out in installments.  This is very much in keeping with Hillary Mann Leverett’s initial analysis of Iranian perspectives on the Baradei proposal, published in Foreign Policy back in October: 

At Iran’s current production rate for low enriched uranium, it would take Tehran nine to 12 months to replenish the uranium that would be sent out of the country under this deal, if it were sent out in a single batch.  For serious national security planners in Tehran, whether they like Ahmadinejad or not, this is potentially problematic as it leaves almost a year’s window of increased vulnerability to an Israeli or U.S. military attack.

But the Obama Administration was quick to reject, once again, any modification of the Baradei proposal.

All of this is playing out against a backdrop of neoconservative and other commentary on President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech last week, characterizing Obama’s address as, inter alia, an acknowledgement that his policy of “engagement” with Iran has not worked.  Of course, we, too, have been increasingly critical of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy — but we criticize the policy because President Obama has yet to try serious engagement with Tehran.

The back-and-forth over how to refuel the TRR is a relatively small example of what we mean by this statement.  As we have noted before, it is important to keep in mind that the TRR issue arose because of an Iranian request to the IAEA several months ago for assistance in dealing with prospective providers of new fuel.  If the United States had wanted to show its seriousness about respecting Iran’s right to the full benefits of peaceful nuclear technology, there should have been no problem with refueling a thoroughly safeguarded reactor facility that produces medical isotopes and has never been implicated in any activities raising proliferation concerns.

Instead, what Iran got was a proposal to take most of its current stockpile of LEU out of the country as a “confidence-building measure,” in exchange for promises of finished fuel from France, a country whose track record of nuclear cooperation with Iran leaves many in Tehran deeply uneasy.  And, in response to Iranian efforts to engage in discussions about modifying particular aspects of the Baradei proposal, the Obama Administration has taken, in effect, a “take it or leave it” approach.  Confidence building runs both ways — and, in terms of showing U.S. seriousness about engagement with the Islamic Republic, the U.S. position on refueling the TRR has been a confidence-destroying measure.

Serious engagement with a country with which the United States has deeply strained and potentially conflictual relations requires a lot more than simply a willingness to talk “without preconditions.”  Among other things, it means a willingness to define the end goal of a diplomatic process at the outset — in the way that the Nixon Administration worked with Chinese leaders to define a long-term agenda for the strategic realignment of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.  The breakthrough with China would not have been possible except through such a strategically-grounded approach.  And, at this point, that is the only way in which relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran can be put on a fundamentally more positive trajectory.

As Foreign Minister Mottaki sometimes says, with reference to the much-hyped “overtures” from the Obama Administration, “Before I go into a room, I need to know what is going to be in it.”  But that is something the Obama Administration has never provided to the Iranian leadership.  Yes, President Obama’s references, in his inaugural address, to dealing with the “Islamic Republic of Iran” in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” were fine, and the Nowruz message was lovely.  There have also been non-public messages to the Iranians, indicating that the Obama Administration is open to talking about a wide range of issues besides the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.

But the Obama Administration has yet to make a case to the Iranian leadership that it seeks a genuine strategic realignment of relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic and how such a realignment would address the Islamic Republic’s core national security and foreign policy interests.  Until it does that, the Obama Administration has not pursued serious diplomatic engagement with Tehran.  Certainly, the P-5+1 incentives package that the Obama Administration inherited from the George W. Bush Administration is wholly inadequate as a framework for genuinely strategic engagement.  But the Obama Administration has decided not to go beyond this wholly inadequate package in its own representations to Iran.  That is not how strategically consequential diplomacy is done.

Until they are embedded in a serious framework for strategic engagement, the Obama Administration’s feeble efforts to negotiate with Iranian representatives should be seen for what they are — politically useful attempts to “check boxes” before turning to more coercive options.  Seven months ago, we predicted that this would be the case in a New York Times Op Ed published on May 24, three weeks before the June 12 presidential election in Iran — which many inside and outside the Obama Administration want to use as an excuse for not being more forthcoming with Tehran.  Referring specifically to Dennis Ross, now President Obama’s point man for Iran policy at the National Security Council, we wrote

Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an “engagement with pressure” strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.  In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran.  He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely.  Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail?  Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views — and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, “an offer we can’t accept,” simply to gain international support for coercive action. . . .  Beyond the nuclear issue, the administration’s approach to Iran degenerates into an only slightly prettified version of George W. Bush’s approach — that is, an effort to contain a perceived Iranian threat without actually trying to resolve underlying political conflicts.  Obama administration officials are buying into a Bush-era delusion: that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a grand alliance under Washington’s leadership.

Unfortunately, this is now playing out.  It is truly sad that President Obama, who came to office promising to engage Iran as part of an interest-based approach to American foreign policy, may end up doing more damage to public discussion of interest-based approaches to foreign policy than was done during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. 

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 13 December 2009 under a Creative Commons license.

| Print