Obama on Iran: The Substance behind the “Signal”

August 5, 2010

Yesterday, President Obama called a small group of journalists into the White House to talk about Iran.  According to the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, Obama’s agenda was to signal Iran that the United States might “accept a deal that allows Iran to maintain its civilian nuclear program, so long as Iran provides ‘confidence-building measures’ to verify that it is not building a bomb.”  The President said that his Administration is prepared to lay out “a clear set of steps that we would consider sufficient to show that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons.”  The President’s vision for renewed diplomacy with Tehran also included a proposal for talks on Afghanistan, where the two sides “have a ‘mutual interest’ in fighting the Taliban.”

That the President feels he must call in Western journalists to signal Tehran is a sad commentary on the Obama Administration’s failure to develop a discreet and reliable channel through which to communicate with Iranian leaders.  Ignatius reminds us that Obama “sent two secret letters” last year to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  But Obama also opted not to respond to a congratulatory letter sent to him after the 2008 U.S. presidential election by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a letter which Ahmadinejad has told us was “unprecedented” and “not easy to get done” on his side.  In that context, Obama’s letters to Khamenei were seen in Tehran as an attempt to go “over the head” of Iran’s elected President — another iteration, in a failed pattern dating to Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra scandal, of U.S. administrations trying to create channels to individual Iranian leaders rather than dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system.  This amused neither Khamenei nor Ahmadinejad.

Furthermore, it is not clear that the Iranians will receive whatever signal the President is trying to send through his meeting with a group of Western journalists.  It seems that not all the journalists got the signal.  While Ignatius emphasizes Obama’s strategic depth and genuine interest in a peaceful nuclear settlement, The Economist‘s Peter David reports that Obama “unveiled no new policy” and began “to talk more about the other unspecified ‘options on the table’.”  Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic thinks the real point was to send a message — to non-Iranian international and U.S. domestic audiences — that “Obama’s policy of engagement joined with sanctions is having the desired effect of isolating Iran from the international community” and that it will be at least a year before Tehran comes close to even a theoretically plausible nuclear “breakout” capability.  Ambinder’s colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, “got the sense that this session represented something of a victory lap for [Obama’s] national security team.”  (Goldberg’s presence in the briefing suggests to us that at least part of the Administration’s agenda was to send reassuring messages to Israel and pro-Israel constituencies in the United States.)

Ignatius and several other attendees report that the President referred to “rumblings” the Administration is picking up that new sanctions are having a political effect in Iran.  A senior Administration official noted specifically the bazaar strike last month as an example.  But this is another sad indicator of how badly informed the Administration’s analysis of Iranian domestic developments is.  The bazaar strike — which was, effectively, a repeat of a similar episode in 2008 — was a largely successful effort by a traditional business elite to resist the imposition of additional taxes by the Iranian government (something that the IMF is recommending).  It was not in any way a signal that the bazaaris are now, as a result of sanctions, allied to what is left of the Green movement.

But, apart from the Administration’s maladroit handling of its diplomatic exchanges with Tehran, poor grasp of on-the-ground realities in Iran, and mixed messaging, it is important to consider the substance of what the President said.  Obama’s ideas about engaging the Islamic Republic are not bad, at a relatively high level of generalization.  They are certainly much better than those of most of the cabinet- and sub-cabinet-level officials he has appointed to work on Iran policy.  But, as in the past, the real question is whether Obama is ready to expend political capital, assume political risks, and take hard policy decisions to make his ideas effective vis-à-vis Tehran.  To date, Obama has not been prepared to do so, and that — not Iranian “intransigence” or purported internal divisions — is the real reason his efforts at engagement have not borne fruit.

On the nuclear front, the key issue is whether the President’s severely hedged openness to a deal that might allow Tehran “to maintain its civilian nuclear program” includes a willingness to accept Iran moving ahead with internationally safeguarded uranium enrichment on its own territory.  In advance of renewed nuclear talks, which seem likely to start next month, senior Iranian officials say that Tehran is prepared to discontinue enriching uranium at the nearly-20 percent level required to fabricate fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — a thoroughly safeguarded facility in the middle of Tehran that produces medical isotopes — if the international community guarantees the provision of new fuel for the TRR and accepts the Joint Declaration on nuclear matters that Iran negotiated with Brazil and Turkey in May.

There is nothing new in these Iranian positions — which are certainly not the product of intensified international, U.S., and European sanctions.  Since the Iranians first raised the TRR issue last spring, they have always linked their pursuit of enrichment to the near-20 percent level to the international community’s failure to come through, in a credible and timely way, to help Tehran refuel the TRR.  Iran accepted the idea of “swapping” a significant part of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU, enriched only to 3-4 percent) for new fuel for the TRR — an idea originated by the Obama Administration and formalized last fall by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s then-director, Mohammed El Baradei.  But, when the Iranians asked to negotiate particular details of the plan, the Obama Administration — under domestic and Israeli pressure — turned Baradei’s proposal into a “take it or leave it” proposition, something that Baradei himself says should not have been done.  By not bargaining with Iran, the United States handed Tehran the perfect justification to start enriching to higher levels — which is precisely what Tehran did, starting in February 2010.

By the time that Brazil and Turkey stepped up their diplomatic efforts with Iran over the TRR issue earlier this year, the Administration had already decided to keep previous commitments extracted from it by Israel and pro-Israel interest groups in Washington to move ahead with a new UN sanctions resolution.  The Administration cynically insisted that Brazil and Turkey include provisions in any deal they might broker with Tehran which U.S. officials assumed would trigger an Iranian rejection; some Administration officials calculated that, when the Brazilians and Turks “struck out” in Tehran, it would be possible to leverage them into supporting new sanctions in the Security Council.  Ultimately, of course, the Iranians accepted the terms Obama spelled out in a letter to his Brazilian counterpart in April 2010; it was the Obama Administration that reneged on the TRR deal, so that it could accelerate work on a new sanctions resolution that would finally be adopted in June.

Even against this backdrop, Tehran continues to say that it would stop enriching at higher levels if it is guaranteed new fuel for the TRR — and the United States and its partners accept the Joint Declaration Iranian officials negotiated with Brazil and Turkey in May.  This latter point underscores the issue of enrichment — at the lower, 3-4 percent level — as the heart of the matter.  The Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal includes, as its first substantive item, a forthright acknowledgement that the Islamic Republic has the “right” to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

In the face of multiple UN Security Council resolutions demanding that the Islamic Republic suspend all uranium enrichment, Tehran wants its right to enrich acknowledged as an essential condition for progress toward a larger nuclear deal.  In our conversations with them, Iranian officials have consistently indicated that acceptance of safeguarded enrichment in Iran would open up possibilities for cooperative solutions to other contentious points in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear diplomacy with the world’s major powers — including ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Obama Administration remains internally divided on the enrichment issue.  If President Obama is finally prepared to show real leadership on this issue and accept safeguarded enrichment in Iran, he can get a nuclear deal that addresses the proliferation concerns associated with Iran’s fuel cycle activities and put relations with the Islamic Republic on a more positive trajectory.  If he does not, Obama will blow yet another opportunity for strategically consequential diplomacy with Tehran.

On Afghanistan, the key question is whether President Obama is really willing to take the steps necessary to show Iran that its interests in Afghanistan are, in fact, still aligned with those of the United States.  Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Tehran cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan, in part, to prompt Washington to reconsider its longstanding hostility toward the Islamic Republic.  But Tehran also cooperated because it accepted U.S. representations that Washington wanted an independent and stable Afghanistan that would not be hostile to Iran.  (Hillary Mann Leverett was one of a small number of U.S. officials engaged in ongoing discussions with Iranian counterparts about how to deal with Afghanistan and Al-Qa’ida during this period.)

Now that the Obama Administration is acquiescing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to negotiate power-sharing arrangements with the Taliban — as a way of facilitating the draw-down of U.S. forces — Tehran no longer credits Washington with either good intentions or strategic competence in Afghanistan.  Obama and his advisers seem not to grasp how much the strategic situation in Afghanistan has shifted, from Tehran’s point of view, since the first 18 months after 9/11.  Today, Obama will have to take affirmative steps to convince Iranian policymakers that he does not intend to turn over Afghanistan to the strongly anti-Iranian Taliban and its chief external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — two of Iran’s most important regional rivals.  Otherwise, Afghanistan is likely to become a point of increasing tension between Washington and Tehran — not an arena for cooperation.

On a positive note, Obama’s Iran briefing at least affirms that he does not believe there is any reason, in the near-to-medium term, for a military confrontation.  But it also provides no indication that Obama has a genuinely substantive plan to put U.S.-Iranian relations on a more stable and strategically productive footing.

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 under a Creative Commons license. 

| Print