From Iraq to Iran: Is London Again “Helping” Washington Pursue Regime Change in the Middle East?

There are two countries in the world which are routinely described by American politicians across the political spectrum as having a “special relationship” with the United States — Israel and the United Kingdom.  We have all grown more familiar than we probably like to acknowledge with Israel using its channels to Capitol Hill and in America’s pro-Israel community to “outflank” an American administration — and virtually always to the right.  (As we discussed earlier this week on, this dynamic was on high-profile display in the context of AIPAC’s recent policy conference.)  By contrast, we are not at all accustomed to seeing the most senior diplomatic representatives of Her Majesty’s Government doing this.  But that may be what Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador in Washington, and Foreign Secretary David Miliband are doing.

On Monday, March 22 — the day that the annual AIPAC conference opened in Washington — Sir Nigel spoke to the American Jewish Committee of Miami/Broward County on the topic “Iran: The Threat and Our Strategy: The British Approach.”  Today, Sheinwald has published an op-ed in POLITICO highlighting the Iranian threat.  In his speech and follow-on op-ed, Sir Nigel acknowledged that, at times, Tehran has cooperated with U.S. and Western initiatives (although he is factually wrong to describe Iran’s post-9/11 cooperation with Washington on Afghanistan and Al-Qa’ida as “occasional contacts”).  But the Ambassador’s summary judgment about the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic record is that, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, “Iran has preoccupied foreign policy makers largely for the wrong reasons.”  More specifically, he cites

. . . Iran’s aggressive attempts to export the Revolution in the 1980s and its continued state support for terrorism, including groups that use violence to undermine the Middle East Peace Process: today Iran is the only state in the region that does not support the idea of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  My own government has strongly condemned the Iranian regime’s repugnant threats to the State of Israel and denial of the Holocaust.  We also have longstanding concerns about Iran’s human rights record, concerns that have deepened during the prolonged period of disturbances and state intimidation since last June’s elections.

Sir Nigel’s dominant focus, though, is clearly the nuclear issue.  On this issue, the Ambassador’s rhetoric is subtle, and one must know something about the details of the P-5+1 nuclear talks (as a proper European, Sheinwald describes them as the “EU-3+3” talks) and the discussions about how the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) might be refueled to appreciate the full significance of his words.  In this regard, two topics in Sir Nigel’s speech deserve special attention.

First, the Ambassador heaps considerable praise on the P-5+1/EU-3+3 incentives “package” as a “generous package of benefits,” to which Iran could enjoy access if only it would suspend uranium enrichment.  But this characterization, both of the incentives package itself and the requirement that Iran first suspend its fuel cycle activities, is disingenuous on three levels.

Sir Nigel’s characterization of the suspension requirement is disingenuous because it completely overlooks the fact that Tehran suspended its fuel cycle activities for almost two years, during 2003-2005, when the “EU-3” — Britain, France, and Germany — were conducting their own nuclear negotiations with Iran.  Conversations with a wide range of current and former Iranian officials from across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum indicate that there is a widespread sense in Iran today that the decision to suspend, which is commonly attributed (at least in its instigation) to then-President Khatami, was a strategic and tactical mistake.  Iran received no tangible benefits for this suspension, the Europeans largely failed to carry through on their reciprocal commitments because of pressure from the George W. Bush Administration in Washington, and Tehran lost valuable time in developing its fuel cycle infrastructure.  Indeed, it is not hard to find people in Tehran today who supported and, in some cases, even worked for President Khatami that believe that he did not serve Iran’s national interests well by pushing within the Islamic Republic’s decision-making circles for a commitment to suspend Iran’s enrichment activities.

Sheinwald’s characterization of the P-5+1/EU-3+3 incentives package as “generous” is also disingenuous because that package does nothing to address the Islamic Republic’s core security concerns.  To understand this point, it is illuminating to compare the incentives package finally and grudgingly tabled by the EU-3 (without Washington) in August 2005 as the Iranians were taking the decision to resume enriching uranium, to the package tabled by the P-5+1/EU-3+3 in June 2006, after the George W. Bush Administration had consented to join the multilateral process regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Regarding the prospects for economic and technological cooperation with Iran, the two packages are broadly similar — indeed, in a few passages, the two documents are almost identical, word-for-word.  But there is a profound disconnect between the two packages regarding regional security issues.

  • The 2005 EU-3 package offers the Islamic Republic positive security assurances, negative security guarantees, and a commitment to cooperate in establishing “confidence-building measures and regional security arrangements” as well as a regional weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone.  But, as European diplomats involved in nuclear discussions with Iran readily acknowledge, security assurances and guarantees from Europe alone were never especially interesting to Tehran — to be meaningful for the Islamic Republic’s strategic needs and interests, it was essential that the United States endorse such measures.
  • But the George W. Bush Administration refused to join in offers of security assurances and guarantees to the Islamic Republic.  In contrast to the 2005 EU-3 package, there is little mention of security issues in the 2006 P-5+1/EU-3+3 package endorsed by the United States, except for an offer of ”support for a new conference to promote dialogue and cooperation on regional security issues.”  Conversations with officials from P-5+1/EU-3+3 governments indicate that the George W. Bush administration insisted that fuller references to security be removed as a condition for US endorsement.  Within the EU-3, Britain took the lead in arguing that it was more important to get the George W. Bush Administration into the diplomatic process than to get the substance of the policy right.

Having helped to sell this flawed bill of goods to the P-5+1/EU-3+3, Britain has been determined ever since to make sure that the flaws are not addressed.  Certainly, the deficits in the package were not substantially corrected in the “revised” P-5+1/EU-3+3 package tabled in June 2008.  Although the revised package included more language on regional political and security issues than the 2006 package, on the core issue of the Islamic Republic’s national security, the document only reaffirms states’ “obligation under the UN Charter to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the integrity or political independence of any state or in any manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”  But, unless the United States and the United Kingdom are prepared to acknowledge that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was inconsistent with those countries’ obligations under the UN Charter, it is not clear why Iranian leaders should be satisfied with this revised P-5+1/EU-3+3 package.

Strikingly, when the Obama Administration, in its initial months in office, considered whether the incentives package should be modified to correct these deficiencies and, perhaps, make the package actually respond to Iranian security interests, Her Majesty’s Government — with Sheinwald in the lead here in Washington — lobbied hard against any substantial modification of the package.  China and Russia both understood very well why the package needed to be modified, and Germany was quietly supportive of such an approach.  But Britain, with French support, worked hard to ensure that this did not happen — and in the end, it did not, an outcome that has helped to render the Obama Administration’s vague expressions of interest in negotiations with Tehran incredible in the eyes of Iran’s leadership.

Additionally, Sir Nigel’s characterization of the suspension requirement is disingenuous because it obscures the reality that Her Majesty’s Government is determined to avoid any diplomatic outcome that would legitimate enrichment on Iranian soil, and has been deeply concerned from before Obama’s election as president that he would be willing to accept such an outcome.  On this point, the Daily Telegraph reported during the 2008 campaign that Sir Nigel had sent a cable to London warning that

If Obama wins, we will need to consider with him the articulation between (a) his desire for ‘unconditional’ dialogue with Iran and (b) our and the [United Nations Security Council]’s requirement of prior suspension of enrichment before the nuclear negotiations proper can begin.

Similarly, the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler reported during the campaign that British officials, including senior diplomats here in Washington, were concerned

that Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to begin direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program without preconditions could potentially rupture U.S. relations with key European allies early in a potential Obama administration.

Kessler’s report, as well as our own conversations in Washington and Europe, indicates that this perspective was shared by senior French diplomats as well.

Against this backdrop, Sir Nigel’s speech and op-ed should be read, at least in part, as a reflection of further British efforts to keep the Obama Administration from going “wobbly” (to use Mrs. Thatcher’s famous phrase) on the enrichment question.  Zero enrichment might be an ideal outcome from a strict non-proliferation standpoint — and would keep Iran’s nuclear progress from eroding whatever strategic value London believes it accrues from its own small nuclear weapons arsenal.  But, to insist on zero enrichment as the goal of nuclear negotiations with Tehran, at this point, is a wholly unrealistic proposition that undermines possibilities for winning Iran’s agreement to rigorous international monitoring of its fuel cycle activities to minimize their associated proliferation risks.  Her Majesty’s representatives are working to minimize the chances — which we do not believe are that high to start with — that the Obama Administration might actually end up taking a diplomatic position with some higher probability of sparking productive negotiations with Tehran.

The second issue raised by Sheinwald that warrants a corrective look is the discussion about refueling the TRR.  The Ambassador points to Iran’s “refusal to engage” with the ElBaradei proposal for refueling the TRR, but this formulation is inaccurate to the point of being misleading.  As we have demonstrated repeatedly on, Iran has accepted the idea of a “swap,” in which some part of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium would be exchanged for new fuel for the TRR.  However, Tehran wants to negotiate important details of the arrangement.  It is the Obama Administration which has defined the ElBaradei proposal as a “take it or leave it” proposition.  What is particularly galling about Sir Nigel’s presentation is that some of his senior colleagues in the Foreign Office have told us that, as a matter of policy, Her Majesty’s Government does not want a deal on refueling the TRR to go through — because, as a practical matter, that would preclude movement in the United Nations Security Council to impose additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which is the real goal of British policy at this point.  So, just in case President Obama and his advisers might be considering a more flexible position on the details of the ElBaradei proposal, Sheinwald is seeking, ever so subtly, to hem them in.

Sir Nigel’s efforts this week were reinforced today by the publication of an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune by the Ambassador’s boss, Foreign Secretary David Miliband.  Miliband’s piece is an argument for moving forthwith to new sanctions in the Security Council, without stopping to explore whether diplomatic proposals which actually met Iranian needs and accommodated Iranian interests might work better than the initiatives currently on the table.

It is bad enough that Her Majesty’s Government is promoting such predictably counterproductive policy approaches to Iran.  But it is especially appalling given the Blair Government’s dismal performance in empowering the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision-making in the run-up to the Iraq war — an initiative that has done profound damage to America’s long-term strategic position.

Her Majesty’s Government may be doing the same thing now with regard to Iran.  Sheinwald’s speech and op-ed and Miliband’s op-ed are permeated with fulsome rhetoric about the potentially transformative character of the Green Movement and suggestions of the current power structures’ illegitimacy.  We, of course, believe this is a fundamentally wrongheaded reading of Iranian politics.  Is London really ready to help Washington go down the primrose path of regime change in the Middle East one more time?  Because, if Washington follows London’s diplomatic advice, that is, in all probability, the place where American policy will end up.

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 26 March 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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