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Just Which Country Is “Playing for Time” in Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran?

Until today, the Obama Administration and much of the foreign policy punditocracy in Washington have been overflowing with observations that recent statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterating the Islamic Republic’s interest in a deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) were just another example of Iranian efforts to “buy time” and forestall new international sanctions.  Today, however, Tehran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — and President Ahmadinejad announced publicly yesterday — that Iran would begin working to enrich its own uranium to the near-20 percent level required to fabricate new fuel for the TRR.

In response to this announcement, the Obama Administration and its European partners have been flailing like the proverbial headless chicken.  Even before the Iranian announcement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking in Turkey last week, said portentously that the Iranians had “done nothing to reassure the international community that they are prepared to comply with the NPT or stop their progress toward a nuclear weapon” (sic).  (Following the Iranian announcement, an AP story sought to be even more specific than Secretary Gates on this point, headlining that “Iran Moves Closer to Nuke Warhead Capacity.”)  Speaking today in Paris, Gates further intoned that “the only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track” — a view that was dutifully echoed by French officials. 

But the Obama Administration and its partners did not stop with merely reaffirming a sanctions policy that, if it produces any results at all in the UN Security Council, will certainly not authorize sanctions that could generate strategic leverage over Iranian decision-making.  Also, in a joint statement issued by the White House, the United States and the European Union condemned “the continuing human rights violations in Iran” since last year’s June 12 presidential election — just as the George W. Bush Administration issued a rare statement on Iran in July 2002 proclaiming support for the people of Iran in anticipation of a mass protest movement that never got off the ground.

What is particularly sad about this display of all-around diplomatic incompetence is that the Iranians were not “playing for time” with their continued expressions of interest in a deal to refuel the TRR, and their announcement about increasing their enrichment levels should not have come as a surprise.  As Foreign Minister Mottaki said himself in Munich last week, Iran see itself as having three options for dealing with the need to refuel the TRR: 

  1. Iran could purchase new finished fuel for the TRR.  This was the original Iranian proposal for dealing with the problem, communicated to the IAEA last summer.  The Iranians believed that this could meet their need to refuel the TRR and also allow the international community to show its good faith in dealing with them.  They also believed that, if they bought finished fuel, they would have no need to enrich to higher levels and provoke concern, especially in Washington — thereby providing the international community with a confidence-building measure.
  2. Iran could enrich its own uranium to the 19%+ level required for TRR fuel.  The IAEA, by the way, says that it does not consider uranium enriched to any point under 20 percent as highly enriched uranium.
  3. Iran could swap some of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for finished fuel.  Currently, Iran has enriched uranium only to 3-4 percent, according to the IAEA.

It is important to consider these options through the prism of the negotiating history over refueling the TRR.  After the Iranians originally proposed to buy finished fuel for the TRR, the Obama Administration and some international partners came back with a “swap” proposal, under which Iran would send 1,200 kilograms of its current stockpile of LEU (about 75 percent of the total current stockpile) out of the country (the Obama Administration has insisted that this be done in one batch) and, at some future point, receive finished fuel.  By advancing this proposal, the Obama Administration hoped to buy at least a year’s time in which Iran would not have a plausible nuclear “breakout” capability, and during which it could figure out for itself how it wanted to deal with bigger issues in the nuclear negotiations with Iran (like enrichment on Iranian soil) as well as with other U.S.-Iranian differences.

Since November, Mottaki has said in several interviews and public statements (mostly ignored by the Western press, but certainly covered on this blog) that Iran is open to a potential “swap” deal to refuel the TRR.  According to the Foreign Minister, however, Iran cannot accept the “swap” deal proposed by the Obama Administration without some modifications.  Specifically, Mottaki has indicated that the LEU would need to be swapped for finished fuel “up front” and on Iranian territory.  Mottaki has also indicated that Iran would not be prepared to send the LEU out of the country in one batch, but would be willing to do it in three batches.  This is what has been reported as a “rejection” by the Iranians of the swap deal, when in reality it was a rejection of the take-it-or-leave-it deal, without modifications, that was put on the table by the Obama Administration.

In this context, for Ahmadinejad to reiterate Iran’s interest in a “swap” deal in his interview last week was not really anything new.  Ahmadinejad did not indicate whether Iran’s conditions for a “swap” had changed.  Subsequently, though, Mottaki indicated at Munich that Iran’s underlying conditions still need to be addressed, albeit with some room for compromise.  Specifically, Mottaki said three issues still need to be resolved — timing, place, and quantity.

So, while many observers interpreted Ahmadinejad’s recent comments as playing for time, in fact, the Iranians did not need to say anything further to get the Chinese to reiterate their reluctance to pursue sanctions.  (The Chinese Foreign Minister reiterated his government’s opposition to new sanctions on Iran during his speech to the Munich security conference.)  Moreover, the announcement that Iran will proceed with further enrichment also indicates that Tehran is not playing for time, but is instead trying to see if some sort of deal is feasible before pursuing other options.

Of course, the Obama Administration and its European partners have effectively rejected these Iranian positions — precisely because accepting them would mean that the Obama Administration would not have a year or more to sort through what it is prepared to do regarding the prospective substance of U.S.-Iranian engagement.  Instead, the Administration would have to make strategic choices and develop real positions on important issues much sooner than it had contemplated.  And, rather than do that, the Obama Administration is moving to embrace the same counterproductive and feckless policies aimed at isolating and pressing Tehran that the George W. Bush Administration employed.

It is in this context that Iran has now informed the IAEA that it will try to enrich some of its uranium to the near-20 percent level and asked for the IAEA’s supervision.  And that, of course, is being portrayed in Washington and other Western capitals as a very provocative move.

So just which country really was “playing for time” in nuclear diplomacy 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 first published in The Race for Iran on 9 February 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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