Iran: Where Is the Obama Administration Going?

Not surprisingly, Saturday’s meeting of representatives from the P-5+1 countries reached no agreement about further sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear activities; as we pointed out in a post on January 14, China’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, He Yafei, who has been representing his country in the P-5+1 political directors’ meetings, declined to attend the January 14 session in New York.  (This was the second month in a row that Beijing declined to send a senior Chinese official to attend a P-5+1 meeting to discuss new sanctions against Iran.)  Instead, China’s Mission to the United Nations sent a lower-level official in his stead — and this official made clear that Beijing continues to oppose further sanctions.

The failure of the P-5+1 to agree on new sanctions against the Islamic Republic prompted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to say, during a press conference in Tehran on Monday, that “we now observe narrow stripes of rationality” in the Western approach to the nuclear issue.  While we hope that Foreign Minister Mottaki’s detection of “narrow stripes of rationality” in the Western approach to the nuclear issue is correct, we see no concrete signs that the Obama Administration is prepared to take a more realistic approach to nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

Flynt Leverett appeared yesterday on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story for a segment on the Iranian nuclear issue; to view the segment, which also features Tehran University’s Seyed Mohammad Marandi and Ken Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, click here.  Among other things, the Inside Story segment underscores that, notwithstanding media shorthand that Tehran has “rejected” a U.S.-backed offer to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), the Islamic Republic is still interested in a deal to refuel the TRR and has proposed modifications to the U.S.-backed plan tabled in October — specifically, that Iran would agree to “swap” the larger part of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for finished fuel upfront (rather than giving up its LEU in exchange for promises of future deliveries of finished fuel) and would send its LEU out of the country in installments, rather than a single batch.  (We, as well as our colleague Ben Katcher, have discussed Iran’s approach to a prospective deal to refuel the TRR in many previous posts; see “Iran Agrees In Principle to Uranium Swap in Turkey,”, “Give the Uranium Swap a Chance,” “When Will the Obama Administration Try Actually Engaging Iran?” “Gareth Porter Explains Iran’s Negotiating Stance,” “Understanding Iranian Perspectives on the TFF Proposal,” “Has Iran Rejected the TRR Proposal? Not According to Its Foreign Minister,” “Interpreting Iran’s Response,” “Flynt Leverett Counsels Patience,” “Baradei’s Proposal and Iranian Calculations,” and “Flynt Discusses the P-5+1-Iran Negotiations on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story.”)  At his press conference on Monday, Mottaki reaffirmed Tehran’s continuing interest in a TRR deal.

However, as Flynt points out in the Inside Story segment, there is no concrete indication — as opposed to some hopeful speculation by people outside government — that the Obama Administration is backing away from its insistence that Iran send its LEU abroad in a single batch and without waiting for the delivery of finished fuel for the TRR.  This is hardly likely to be a workable basis for diplomatic progress on the issue.

More broadly, a critical mass of elite opinion in Iran remains interested in negotiating arrangements under which the Islamic Republic would continue to enrich uranium on Iranian territory and the international community could have confidence that the proliferation risks associated with uranium enrichment were being controlled.  On this point, we want to draw our readers’ attention to a new article, “Iran’s Nuclear File: Recommendations for the Future,” by Abbas Maleki, a former Deputy Foreign Minister who is one of Iran’s most interesting public intellectuals on foreign policy and international energy issues.  Maleki’s article offers, inter alia, some of the more thoughtful arguments we have seen as to why pursuing a deterrent capability based on the fabrication of nuclear weapons would not contribute to Iran’s security.  More significantly, Maleki positively evaluates various schemes under which enrichment facilities in Iran could be operated under multinational auspices, thereby ameliorating proliferation concerns.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that the Obama Administration is prepared to incorporate these kinds of proposals into its nuclear diplomacy with Iran in concrete ways.  Indeed, the trends in the debate over America’s Iran policy seem to us to be going in a negative direction, in at least two respects.  First, as Ken Katzman points out in the Inside Story segment, U.S. policy is starting to “shift from a focus on getting a deal to a focus on, perhaps, dealing with some sort of a ‘post-Islamic’ Republic . . . there is a growing belief inside the U.S. government that the regime is in very, very serious trouble and it is now possible to envision a ‘post-Islamic Republic’ government.”  As we have argued elsewhere, it would be a major mistake for the Obama Administration to base its Iran policy on the expectation of the Islamic Republic’s collapse.

Second, there are mounting leaks to the media, from inside the Obama Administration and the U.S. Intelligence Community, feeding a story that the Intelligence Community is revising its famous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program.  This story, as initially reported by Newsweek, suggests, in particular, that U.S. intelligence believes Iran has resumed “research” on nuclear weapons — that is, “theoretical work on how to design and construct a bomb.”   However, it seems that U.S. intelligence is not prepared to claim that Iran is engaged in nuclear weapons “development” — that is, actually trying to build a nuclear weapon.

As Newsweek notes, “this distinction between research and development is unlikely to satisfy hardline critics.”  But the distinction is important in the context of nonproliferation policy.  Even if Iranian scientists and engineers have engaged in “theoretical work on how to design and construct a bomb,” it is not at all clear that such work, in itself, violates the obligations of non-nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

One of the NPT regime’s dirty little secrets is that a number of Western countries, which signed the treaty as non-weapons states, have conducted research programs on aspects of nuclear weapons design and fabrication that are almost certainly more advanced than anything Iran might have undertaken to date.  There has never been any serious suggestion that these programs constitute a breach of the NPT.   But the charge that Tehran is actively working to build nuclear weapons will help push the American policy discussion toward more coercive options — a trend that, if left unchecked, leads ultimately to a U.S. or Israeli (with U.S. backing) military confrontation with Iran.

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 published in The Race for Iran on 19 January 2009 under a Creative Commons license.

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