Prior to the 2008 US presidential election, in an essay entitled “What the Future Has in Store for Iran,” I predicted that regardless of who is elected president, the US foreign policy toward Iran will be determined largely by Israel and its various lobby groups in the US, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliate the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). In particular, I predicted that if Barack Obama becomes president, Dennis Ross, Obama’s closest advisor on Iran and the former director of WINEP, will play a leading role in determining the policy. Based on Ross’s writings and WINEP’s publications, I foresaw Obama to pursue a “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy” with Iran. The diplomacy, as Ross and WINEP had formulated, would give an ultimatum to Iran in a face-to-face meeting, telling Iran to either accept US-Israeli demands or face aggression. I concluded my essay by stating that if Obama is elected, and if Iran does not capitulate to the whims and wishes of the US and Israel, then we might see a period of “tough diplomacy” before hostilities begin.
After the election, in another essay entitled “The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop: Dennis Ross and Iran,” I followed the ascendency of Dennis Ross to the position of “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia,” and further analyzed his policy of “tough diplomacy.” I argued that this policy is nothing more than a series of motions intended to create the illusion of engaging Iran, with the intention of gaining international support for aggressive actions against Iran. Indeed, I argued, the policy is intended to set the stage for an eventual military action. I concluded my essay by predicting that Dennis Ross, as one of the representatives of the Israeli lobby groups working within the Obama Administration, might be able to finish the unfinished business of the neoconservatives, that is, to contain Iran, following the containment of Iraq.
In June 2009, Ross left his position in the State Department and went on to become a special assistant to President Obama and his senior director for the “central region,” which supposedly includes the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia. As Roger Cohen wrote on August 2, 2009, in the New York Times, in his new job Ross continued to nurse “a late-life obsession . . . Iran.” By working in the White House, it appears, Ross was able to coordinate the policy of “tough diplomacy” much better than before.
Dennis Ross is, of course, not the only Iran policy maker in the Obama Administration who is close to Israel and its lobby groups. There are numerous other individuals with nearly the same credentials at the highest echelons in the current administration. One example is Richard Holbrooke, the “Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” who co-founded and co-chaired, with Dennis Ross, the “United Against Nuclear Iran,” an Israeli lobby group who has been actively campaigning for the containment of Iran. Another senior official at the State Department is Deputy Secretary James B. Steinberg, who was — along with Dennis Ross and former American Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer — one of the principal authors of Obama’s speech on the Middle East at the 2008 AIPAC conference (Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2008). Similarly, in the Department of the Treasury, some of the highest positions are occupied by people close to Israel and its lobby groups. One example is Stuart A. Levey, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. As I argued in my 2008 book, under the Bush Administration Levey managed to carry on a crusade against Iran by formulating and implementing financial sanctions against Iran (see also “Stuart Levey’s War”). He has continued to do the same under the Obama Administration. Yet, Ross and his associates in WINEP appear to be the main architects of the policy of “tough diplomacy” that has been carried out by the current administration.
As hinted earlier, one of the main aims of the policy of “tough diplomacy” was to create the false impression that the US is trying its best to engage Iran. For example, President Obama’s message of March 21, 2009, to the “people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” was intended to create such an impression. The message, on the occasion of the Norooz (Persian New Year), contained many niceties and was interpreted by the US media and many commentators as a conciliatory gesture toward Iran. Yet, if read carefully, in this same message Obama was accusing Iran of some of the same sins that the US and Israel had formulated since the early 1990s: supporting terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons. Indeed, a few days after the Norooz speech, Associated Press (AP) reported that in his trip to Prague Obama stated: “Let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies. . . . As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven.”
In spring 2009 the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the US and, as Haaretz reported on May 18, 2009, Iran was the “key issue on Netanyahu’s agenda for the meeting.” His plan, according to Haaretz, was to press the US government to set a “clear time limit” for negotiation with Iran. Indeed, as Haaretz also noted, the need for setting a deadline in tough diplomacy had already been advocated by people such as Dennis Ross. In a joint press conference with Netanyahu, Obama gave Iran what appeared to be such a deadline: “we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction.”
By July 2010 the Obama Administration was working hard on passing a new multilateral, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanction resolution against Iran, while numerous unilateral sanctions were being renewed, passed, or contemplated. The administration considered the previous UNSC sanctions resolutions (Resolutions 1737, 1747, and 1803) against Iran, which were passed during the Bush Administration, not sufficiently tough. What they were hoping for was what Dennis Ross had called “tough sanctions” in his writings, and what Hilary Clinton, as well as Netanyahu, were now calling “crippling sanctions.” Knowing that they needed the Russian vote in the Security Council to impose any new sanctions against Iran, the Obama Administration decided to work on Russia. In the July 2009 G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, Obama, accompanied by Michael McFaul, the neoconservative Hoover Institute “expert” on Russia and Iran, offered the Russians a quid pro quo: in exchange for a deal on the expiring 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and postponing the US deployment of an anti-missile system in Europe, Russia would agree to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. In September of 2009 the Obama Administration sweetened the deal by promising to drop the deployment of an anti-missile system in Europe altogether. As far as the fourth UNSC sanction resolution was concerned, the fate of Iran was nearly sealed.
On October 1, 2009, Iran held a meeting with 5 permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, commonly referred to as P5+1. This and the following meeting on October 19, 2009 were the only two formal “engagements” that Iran had with the Obama Administration. The meetings apparently centered around two subjects: the newly reported underground facility near Qom that was intended for future nuclear enrichment, and the swap of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) for higher enriched uranium intended to be used by a reactor in Tehran that produces isotopes for medical purposes. The Qom facility had been known by the US for years, but the Obama Administration had kept it a secret as a useful card to put on the table in any face-to-face meeting with Iran. But Iran preempted the move by reporting the facility to the IAEA before President Obama went public with what was made to be sensational news. As far as the nuclear swap is concerned, various accounts of this meeting, particularly those in Persian, reveal that the US asked Iran to send out 1,200 kilos of 3.5% enriched uranium and receive in exchange, after a year, 116 kilos of nearly 20% enriched uranium.
The swap deal was viewed by a number of analysts as a ploy intended to get enriched uranium out of Iran. For example, Gary Sick, who served on the US National Security Council under Presidents Ford and Carter, wrote that the “Western negotiators came up with a clever ploy [that had] . . . many dimensions. First, it reduced the Iranian LEU stock below the level required to produce a nuclear device. Second, it established the principle that Iranian enrichment could be conducted outside the country.” Even some US officials described the deal as a clever ploy. For example, on October 28, 2009, in his speech at the Israeli lobby group J Street, National Security Adviser James Jones stated: “If implemented, this arrangement would set back the clock on Iran’s breakout capability because it would reduce Iran’s stockpile far below the amount needed for a weapon.”
Actually, as far as Iran’s interest was concerned, the deal was worse than what appeared on the surface. There was no clear indication that the P5+1 offer included a guarantee that Iran will receive the nearly 20% enriched uranium after a year. Nor was it clear that the Western negotiators would allow Iran any future enrichment once the 1,200 kilos of 3.5% enriched uranium had exited Iran. The Washington Post reported on October 22, 2010, that according to US officials and other diplomats “the deal would be only the first step in a difficult process to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and that suspension remains the primary goal.”
A number of interviews with President Ahmadinejad, particularly in Persian, reveal that he was in agreement with the arrangement and that Iranian representatives at the P5+1 meeting did not object to this deal. Yet, the deal was viewed with much skepticism in Iran and was opposed by numerous opponents of Ahmadinejad who, after the contentious presidential election of June 2009, were eager to challenge him on various issues. For example, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian Majles (Parliament), argued that the deal was a deception and Ahmadinejad had been duped. Even the leader of the opposition to Ahmadinejad’s government, Mirhossein Mossuavi, criticized the deal. On October 29, 2009, Reuters quoted Moussavi as saying: “The discussions in Geneva were really surprising and if the promises given (to the West) are realized then the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined. . . . And if we cannot keep our promises then it would prepare the ground for harder sanctions against the country.”
Under massive pressure at home, Ahmadinejad’s government tried, rather clumsily, to backtrack and modify the deal. For example, in order to get assurance that the deal will be carried out, it proposed to exchange enriched uranium simultaneously, in different stages, and on the Iranian soil. These attempts to amend the deal were all rejected offhand by the US and its allies. Over the next few months Ahmadinejad’s government actually withdrew some of its own amendments. For example, they agreed that the exchange could take place in Turkey. They also agreed that the exchange could be done not in different stages, but in one stage. Yet, the US rejected all such offers and began the final push for a new round of UN sanctions.
The US behavior was expected and followed the script of “tough diplomacy.” Creating the illusion of engaging Iran by having a face-to-face meeting, offering the Iranians something that would likely be rejected, announcing that we tried our best to engage, but that they did not “unclench their fist,” and preparing the world community for aggressive actions, were all in accord with the blueprint provided by Dennis Ross and his associates in WINEP. The “tough diplomacy” had run its course.
By early January 2010 the Israelis were predicting that the fourth UNSC sanction resolution against Iran would pass very shortly. For example, according to AFP on January 3, 2009, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon predicted that such a sanction will pass “within a month.”
What stood between Iran and the sanction, however, was China, which was still resisting. Twisting China’s arms, cajoling it, and even threatening it had begun much earlier. For example, on November 26, 2009, the Washington Post reported that in his trip to China Obama had warned the Chinese against not supporting the UN sanctions and that “two weeks before President Obama visited China two senior White House officials traveled to Beijing on a ‘special mission’ to try to persuade China to pressure Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.” The officials were Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader, both senior officials in the National Security Council. According to the report, the two informed China that if “Beijing did not help the United States on this issue, the consequences could be severe.” Ross and Bader, the report went on to say, told the Chinese that “Israel regards Iran’s nuclear program as an ‘existential issue and that countries that have an existential issue don’t listen to other countries’.”
Subsequently, on January 29, 2010, AP reported that Secretary of State Clinton “warned China” that “it risks diplomatic isolation and disruption to its energy supplies unless it helps keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” She was quoted as saying: “As we move away from the engagement track, which has not produced the result that some had hoped for, and move forward on the pressure and sanctions track, China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supplies.” “We’re going to work as hard as we can,” she stated further, “to get the strongest possible resolution.”
It is interesting to note that by this time many in the current administration, including Secretary Clinton, were stating openly that the Obama Administration’s policy had been, throughout, not just an “engagement policy” but a two-track policy. Indeed, on January 4, 2010, Clinton specifically stated that “our approach [toward Iran] . . . has always proceeded on two tracks; we have an engagement track and a pressure track.” This “two-track” policy was actually not much different than the policy followed by the Bush Administration, except that the previous administration used to call it a “carrot and stick” policy and implemented it in a brutish and dim-witted way. The architects of Obama’s “two-track” policy were more refined and clever than their neoconservative brethrens.
In February 2010 the US and Israel achieved another milestone in their containment of Iran. For years, the two countries had tried to oust Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, for resisting to issue a harsh report on Iran. With ElBaradei’s term coming to an end in late 2009, Yukiya Amano, who was the preferred candidate of the US, took over the post of the director general. On February 18, 2010, under the leadership of Amano, IAEA put forward the longest and harshest report ever written on Iran. The report rehashed, and presented as near facts, all the allegations against Iran put forward by the US, Israel, and their allies, allegations that all the previous IAEA reports had treated with skepticism. Amano’s report made the push for the passage of the fourth UNSC sanction resolution against Iran easier.
By mid March 2010 China’s resistance to slowing down the US-Israeli push for the fourth sanction resolution had weakened, as the Obama Administration exerted much pressure and sent envoys, such as James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, to China. In addition, the US offered economic incentives to China in exchange for the Chinese support for the sanction. For example, the Obama Administration delayed its report to Congress on currency manipulation by China. Toward the end of March 2010 China joined the P4+1 to discuss the US proposal for the fourth round of UN sanctions.
Now, the only stumbling block on getting a near unanimous vote in the Security Council for the imposition of another set of sanctions on Iran was the presence of three non-permanent members of the Security Council, Turkey, Brazil, and Lebanon, which opposed the sanctions. The US and its allies had tried since at least December of 2009 to get the approval of these countries, particularly Turkey and Brazil. Yet, none of the usual tactics used by the US had worked. These “most problematic” countries, as the Jerusalem Post of March 5, 2010, called them, continued to resist, despite many trips by US officials to Turkey and Brazil. These countries knew well that the ultimate aim of the US and Israel was to do to Iran what had been done to Iraq. For example, in opposing further sanctions on Iran, on March 9, AP quoted Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as saying: “We don’t want to repeat in Iran what happened in Iraq. It’s not prudent for the world, it’s not prudent for Iran.”
Brazil and Turkey tried to halt, or at least slow down, the push for the sanction resolution by talking to Iran and persuading it to accept the swap deal. Even though the Obama Administration tried hard to stop the two countries, on May 17, 2010, an agreement was reached in Tehran between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil concerning the swap and a declaration was made. Despite much pomp and circumstance in Iran and attempts by the Iranian government to show the agreement as something new, the provisions of the declaration show that this was basically the same deal that had been offered to Iran in October of 2009. The only difference was that Iran would send the low enriched uranium to Turkey rather than Russia, as it had been originally proposed. Yet, even though Iran capitulated and offered to accept the original demand of P5+1 to swap different levels of enriched uranium, the US rejected the offer. Department of State Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley stated on May 17, 2010, that the “joint declaration does not address the core concerns of the international community. Iran remains in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions, including its unwillingness to suspend enrichment operations.” A day after, Secretary of State Clinton appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and nonchalantly stated: “we have been working closely with our P5+1 partners for several weeks on the draft of a new sanctions resolution on Iran. And today, I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China. We plan to circulate that draft resolution to the entire Security Council today.” And that was that.
The US rejecting the implementation of its own proposal made it clear that the swap deal was a ploy, as some had suspected. The intention of the Obama Administration was, from the beginning, to use the deal to impose “crippling sanctions” against Iran. Back in October of 2009 the US, Israel and their allies had expected Iran to say no to the deal, which would have triggered immediately the push for the fourth round of UN sanctions. But if Iran had agreed and carried out the deal, then, after shipping out its entire enriched uranium, it would have been given an ultimatum to stop any further enrichment or face the fourth round of UN sanctions. In either case, Iran would have faced the same set of sanctions.
To many observers, who had not followed the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran closely and did not see the swap deal as a ploy, the rejection of the Turkey-Brazil-Iran agreement appeared incomprehensible. But this was very much along the original script written by Dennis Ross and his colleagues in WINEP. Given the script, the “tough diplomacy” had to be followed by “collective sanctions that the Iranians would see as biting” (Dennis Ross, Washington Post, May 1, 2006). Since the phase of “tough diplomacy” was over and the “biting” or “crippling” sanction phase had already started, nothing, not even Iran’s capitulation on the issue of swap, could change the script.
On June 9, 2010 — after much delay caused by such unforeseen events as Brazil and Turkey resisting the repetition of the Iraq scenario — the fourth UN sanction resolution against Iran was passed by the Security Council, with Brazil and Turkey voting “no” and Lebanon abstaining. The passage of the resolution officially ends the “tough diplomacy” phase of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy. So far, the policy has followed closely the script written by Dennis Ross and his associates in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If the script is followed all the way through, we should expect the next phases to consist of more severe unilateral sanctions, a naval blockade, and, ultimately, military actions against Iran. The last phase would complete the US-Israeli policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq.
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Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment (Routledge, 2008). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in Payvand on 10 June 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.