When Threats Are Counterproductive: The Iranian Nuclear Issue in 2010

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Friday — in an interview given to AFP while he was attending the climate change summit in Copenhagen — that “Iran is ready to strike a uranium enrichment deal if the United States and the West respect the Islamic Republic and stop making threats.”  Referring to proposals to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) that would entail Iran shipping part of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country, Ahmadinejad stated that “everything is possible, 400 kilos, 800 kilos, it’s nothing.  But not in a climate where they threaten us.  They have to change their vocabulary, in respect and legality.  In this case we will say, very good you want to keep your word, in this case we are ready to sit down at the table to reach an agreement.”  Ahmadinejad’s references to “400 kilos” or “800 kilos” of LEU reflect Iranian counterproposals to the demand of the United States and its partners that Iran must ship 1,200 kilos of LEU abroad in a single batch before receiving any fuel for the TRR.

Ahmadinejad even said that 1,200 kilos “is not such a large amount.  We have the technology and we are currently producing this uranium (enriched) at 3.5 percent. . . .  From the outset, delivering 1,200 kilos of uranium was not a problem for us . . . but they believe they can wave a stick to threaten us, those days are over.”  Based on Iran’s previous representations, we believe that Ahmadinejad is suggesting that the Islamic Republic might be willing to transfer up to 1,200 kilos of LEU, but only in return for the delivery of finished fuel for the TRR up front (and, perhaps, the LEU would be transferred from Iranian control in installments).

The Iranian President reiterated the Islamic Republic’s longstanding position that it does not want nuclear weapons and is not seeking to build them: “If we want to make a bomb, we would not be afraid of the United States . . . but we do not want to make a bomb.  Our policy is transparent.  If we wanted to make a bomb we would be brave enough to say so.  When we say that we are not making one, we are not.  We do not believe in it.”  But, referring to “America and the others,” Ahmadinejad warned in this context that “if they say again that they want to take out (low enriched uranium) to prevent Iran from making a bomb, it will be an insult.”

Ahmadinejad’s comments provide striking confirmation not only for our view of the Iranian leadership’s perspective on the nuclear negotiations that began in Geneva on October 1, but also for our assessment that the Obama Administration has badly mishandled the issue of refueling the TRR.  Rather than using the issue to show that the Obama Administration is truly serious about U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, U.S. policymakers were too clever for their own good — or, at least, for U.S. national interests — and tried to use Iran’s need to refuel the TRR as a source of “leverage” that would force the Islamic Republic to take the first step down the road to surrendering national control over its fuel cycle activities.  Especially in an environment in which the Obama Administration remains focused on “zero enrichment” as a negotiating outcome and has yet to clarify its own long-term strategic intentions vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic, such an approach was bound to undermine prospects for diplomatic progress.  And that is precisely what has happened.

Looking ahead to 2010, the Obama Administration seems determined to compound its errors in dealing with the TRR issue by doing still more damage to the prospects for constructive U.S.-Iranian engagement.  As we noted in a recent article in ForeignPolicy.com, “After months of halfhearted, fruitless attempts at engagement, the United States and its European partners are effectively re-enacting George W. Bush’s Iran policy.”

Starting early in the New Year, the United States and its European partners will push in the United Nations Security Council and perhaps among a “coalition of the like-minded” for international measures that will not come anywhere close to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s goal of “crippling” sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  President Obama will also turn to Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey — a neoconservative Dick Cheney protégé and holdover from the George W. Bush Administration — to advance new rounds of unilateral U.S. financial sanctions against Iran, thereby confirming the growing perception in Iranian policymaking circles that the Obama Administration is not substantively all that different from its predecessor.

In the face of these initiatives, Iran will almost certainly continue to expand its nuclear infrastructure.  And, as it becomes increasingly clear that sanctions are (once again) failing to change Tehran’s nuclear decision-making in fundamental ways, the risks of an eventual military confrontation between the United States (or Israel, with U.S. backing) and Iran will start, inexorably, to rise.

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 20 December 2009 under a Creative Commons license.

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