Why Should Iran Trust President Obama?

In the run-up to a new round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran on Monday, Western commentators are re-hashing old arguments that the Islamic Republic is either too politically divided or too dependent on hostility toward the United States for its legitimacy to be seriously interested in a nuclear deal.  From this perspective, the Obama administration has been more than forthcoming in its efforts to “engage” Tehran; the obstacles to diplomatic progress are all on the Iranian side.

But a sober examination of the Obama administration’s interactions with Iran since President Obama took office in 2009 reveals a dismaying mix of incompetence and outright duplicity that has done profound damage to American credibility.  In light of this record, the question is not whether the United States should have any confidence it can productively engage the Islamic Republic.  The real question is: why should Iranian officials believe they can trust President Obama and his administration to deal with them straightforwardly and with a genuine interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff?

The recent release of the WikiLeaks cables confirms the assessment we have been offering since May 2009: The Obama administration has failed to follow up on President Obama’s early rhetorical overtures to Tehran with bold steps and substantive proposals to demonstrate its seriousness about rapprochement.  Strategic engagement — think Nixon and China — is not the same as “carrots and sticks.”  In fact, strategic engagement requires a self-conscious effort by the United States to put “sticks” aside in order assure Iran that it is serious about realigning relations.  And that is something the Obama administration has never been willing to do.  (Obama’s vague letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — dispatched as Obama ignored two letters sent by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — were seen in Tehran as just the latest U.S. attempt to “game” Iran’s political system rather than to come to terms with it.)

Of course, this could all be characterized as the product of incompetence and political timidity — both are surely important drivers of the Obama administration’s Iran policy.  But, more ominously, the administration has treated participation in nuclear negotiations with Iran primarily as a way of bringing international partners and the American public on board for more sanctions, and, eventually, military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets — as we warned in May 2009.

In his celebrated Iranian New Year message in March 2009, Obama said that U.S.-Iranian rapprochement “will not be advanced by threats.”  But, at the same time Obama was taping this message, officials in his administration were telling European Union member states that Washington remained committed to the “pressure” track of the “dual track” approach (see this cable).  And State Department talking points (see this cable) disclosed as part of the WikiLeaks documents note that “the two elements of the P-5+1 strategy — engagement/incentives and pressure — were always intended to run in parallel, because without a credible threat of consequences, it is unlikely that Iran will make a strategic or even tactical change in direction.”

That, unfortunately, suggests there is something fundamentally dishonest about the Obama administration’s approach.  Such an appraisal is supported by the way in which the administration has dealt with the question of refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — an issue that will be on the table again.

The issue of refueling the TRR arose in early June 2009 — before the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election — when Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent a letter to the Agency’s then-director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, requesting IAEA assistance in finding a supplier from which Iran could purchase new fuel for the TRR.  Baradei, in turn, showed the letter to the United States and Russia.

Instead of taking the Iranian letter as the straightforward confidence-building measures — Iran buys the fuel, so it does not need to produce it — the Obama administration decided to put Tehran in a bind.  By offering to swap new fuel for the TRR for the majority of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), the United States could set a precedent that would constrain the development of Iran’s enrichment program without requiring the United States to “give up” anything of strategic significance.  And, if the Iranians balked at the proposal, the United States could cite that as further evidence of Tehran’s unwillingness to accept a “cooperative” solution to concerns surrounding its nuclear activities.  This was particularly important, for — as the WikiLeaks documents confirm — the administration had agreed with Israel to set the end of 2009/beginning of 2010 as a “deadline” for progress in nuclear talks with Iran; after that, Washington would launch a concerted campaign for new United Nations Security Council sanctions.

The Obama administration’s “swap” proposal for refueling the TRR was crafted, quite deliberately, to advance this Machiavellian agenda.  When the proposal was tabled in October 2009, the Iranians agreed “in principle” to a fuel swap, but wanted to negotiate details of timing and implementation — primarily to ensure that, after giving up a substantial quantity of LEU, they would actually receive new fuel for the TRR.  But discussions with Iran to find a mutually acceptable outcome regarding the TRR — even if those discussions ultimately proved successful — would not advance the administration’s real agenda: getting the Security Council to adopt a new sanctions resolution.  (Strikingly, we were told by senior British officials in November 2009 that the British government did not want the TRR proposal to succeed because, as a practical matter, that would make it impossible to get the Security Council to authorize new sanctions against Iran.)

So, instead of negotiating, the administration made the “swap” proposal a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.  The only diplomatic outcome acceptable to the Obama administration was Iran’s “surrender” to the original fuel swap proposal; if the administration could not get that — and get it by December 31, 2009 — then it would focus exclusively on sanctions.  Thus, the WikiLeaks documents show that the administration rebuffed Turkey’s initial efforts in November 2009 (see this cable) — made at the behest of the IAEA — to put itself forward as a depository for the Iranian LEU, pending the Islamic Republic’s receipt of new fuel for the TRR.  As administration officials told Israeli counterparts at the time, the United States was planning to “pivot to apply appropriate pressure” against Iran (see this cable).

In early 2010, having made its “pivot” to pursue “crippling sanctions” against Iran, the Obama administration used tactics reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s approach during run-up to the Iraq war to press other countries.  Among other things, the administration sought to use the prospect of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations to pressure other states into supporting new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  The WikiLeaks documents reveal that, in December 2009, senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher that “he was not sure Tehran had decided it wants a nuclear weapon” (see this cable).  As far back as 2005, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv reported that Israeli officials were casting doubt on their colleagues’ worst-case assessments of Iran’s nuclear activities; a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, for example, noted that Israeli assessments had “from 1993 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest” (see this cable).

But senior Obama administration officials ignored these cautionary points.  Instead, senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Gates, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, and Dennis Ross peddled the unsubstantiated public rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to argue that Israel believed it would be necessary to attack Iran to prevent it from fabricating nuclear weapons.  The cables show that U.S. officials used the hyped threat of Israeli military action to press China and Turkey to support tougher sanctions against Iran, even though Israeli sources had given them serious grounds to doubt Netanyahu’s highly politicized public rhetoric.

The Obama administration then adopted a duplicitous approach to dealing with Turkey and Brazil over the TRR.  In early 2010, Turkey and Brazil put themselves forward as potential mediators of a deal to refuel the TRR.  While the Administration was not interested in a deal, a group of senior U.S. officials — with the NSC’s Dennis Ross at the helm — persuaded Obama to manipulate his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts for what they argued would be a huge diplomatic payoff.  These officials had never bought into Obama’s early rhetoric about engagement, and had their own convictions that the Islamic Republic was an inherently irrational and/or unreliable interlocutor.  They judged that, if the United States continued to insist on certain conditions in any prospective arrangements to refuel the TRR, it could effectively guarantee that Tehran would never accept a deal.

On the basis of this deeply flawed assessment, these administration officials devised a plan: Lead the Turks and Brazilians to think that the United States is still interested in a diplomatic solution on refueling the TRR.  Let them go to Tehran, before the Security Council voted on a new sanctions resolution, in a high-profile effort to find such a solution — but insist on terms for refueling the TRR that the Iranians will surely reject.  Once the Turkish-Brazilian effort failed, the United States would be in a position to insist that both governments — non-permanent members of the Security Council — support intensified sanctions.  And that would give Washington a unanimous vote in the Council authorizing a new sanctions resolution.

This is the backdrop to the letter that President Obama sent to Brazilian President Lula in April 2010; U.S. and Turkish officials tell us that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan received a virtually identical letter around the same time.  The letter lays out a number of conditions that would need to be met for an international arrangement to refuel the TRR to be acceptable to the United States.  The Tehran Declaration which Lula and Erdoğan negotiated in Iran the following month meets every one of these conditions.  But the United States immediately — and derisively — rejected the Tehran Declaration as a basis for further negotiations and continued pushing for a new sanctions resolution, which the Security Council adopted in June (with Turkey and Brazil voting against it).

In conversations we have had with senior Iranian officials since May, our Iranian interlocutors have come across as both puzzled and troubled by the Obama administration’s categorical rejection of the TRR.  Why would President Obama act in a manner so deeply damaging to the credibility of the United States on a matter of the highest international importance?  As time goes on, the sad truth is becoming clear: in fact, no arrangement to refuel the TRR was acceptable to the United States in the spring of 2010.  To put it bluntly, Obama lied to President Lula and Prime Minister Erdoğan.  He set them up to fail, so he could get their votes for the sanctions resolution.  From the White House’s perspective, the worst possible thing that these two leaders and their foreign ministers could have done was to succeed in winning Iran’s agreement to the Tehran Declaration.  Without that, the duplicitous plan concocted by Obama’s “expert” team of Iran advisers would have succeeded brilliantly.

This is a truly appalling record — one that should embarrass every American who values his country’s international credibility and cares about its effectiveness as an international actor.  The record is certainly raising questions for major non-Western governments about the Obama administration’s real intentions toward Iran.  And, in Tehran, it is raising the prospect that no American administration — even one headed by Barack Hussein Obama — can accept and deal honestly with the Islamic Republic.

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.  She is also 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 3 December 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

| Print