Obama’s Missed Iranian Connection?

By cozying up to Israeli hardliners and embracing Official Washington’s hostility toward Iran, President Obama may be squandering an opportunity to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute and inviting a worsening crisis in the Middle East, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett explain.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Contrary to conventional wishful thinking in American policy circles, developments in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 and the Iran-related messages coming out of President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel strongly suggest that the risk of a U.S.-initiated military confrontation with Tehran during Obama’s second term are rising, not falling.

This is because Obama’s administration has made an ill-considered wager that it can “diplomatically” coerce Iran’s abandonment of indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. This is dangerous. For it will become clear over the next year or so, the timeframe Obama himself has set before he would consider Iran able to build nuclear weapons, that the bet has failed.

If the administration does not change course and accept Iran’s strategic independence and rising regional influence, including accepting the principle and reality of internationally-safeguarded uranium enrichment in Iran, it will eventually be left with no fallback from which to resist pressure from Israel and its friends in Washington for military strikes at least against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The just-concluded technical discussions in Istanbul between Iran and the P5+1 should dispel triumphalist optimism about the prospects for progress in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran. After higher-level political talks in Kazakhstan last month, some prominent Iran experts declared that U.S.-instigated sanctions had gotten the Iranians back to the table, perhaps ready to make a deal along lines dictated by the Obama administration.

But a sober reading of the Istanbul meeting says otherwise: Iran has not been “softened up” by sanctions. (Based on our observations in Iran, only those who haven’t been there recently could possibly think that sanctions are “working” to bring Iran’s population to its knees and change official decision-making.)

Tehran’s conditions for a long-term deal remain fundamentally what they have been for years, above all, U.S. acceptance of Iran’s revolution and its independence, including its right to enrich under international safeguards. Just as importantly, the Obama administration is no more prepared than prior administrations to accept the Islamic Republic and put forward a proposal that might actually interest Tehran.

And Obama’s ability to modify sanctions in the course of negotiations, or lift them as part of a deal, is tightly circumscribed by laws that he himself signed, belying the argument that sanctions are somehow a constructive diplomatic tool.

In Istanbul, U.S. officials provided more details about the proposal advanced by the P5+1 in Almaty (itself a slightly modified version of a proposal initially tabled last May). And their Iranian counterparts had essentially the same negative reaction as before.

The proposal calls on Iran to stop enriching uranium at the 20-percent level needed to fuel an internationally safeguarded research reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes, to ship abroad most of the 20-percent enriched uranium it has already produced, and, in effect, to shut down the new enrichment site at Fordo it has built inside a mountain to protect it from being bombed.

In return, Iran would receive only marginal sanctions relief: Washington would waive, for six months, the imposition of recently legislated measures threatening to sanction third countries that supply gold or other precious metals to the Islamic Republic.

In Istanbul, Iranian representatives rejected the American terms as lacking in “balance between what they are asking and what they are offering.” U.S. negotiators told the Iranians that, after six months, Washington might be willing to temporarily waive more consequential banking and financial sanctions, but that it would then also demand “more significant steps” from Tehran.

In Istanbul, the U.S. side declined to say what those might be. Privately, though, Obama administration officials say that their goal remains a complete halt to Iranian enrichment.

This is a recipe for diplomatic failure and, before the end of Obama’s presidency, strategic catastrophe. The United States is reaching the end of its ability to threaten ever more severe sanctions against third countries doing business with Iran, but rarely implement such “secondary” sanctions, without eroding the deterrent effect of the threat.

At the same time, America cannot actually impose secondary sanctions on major international players like China without risking serious diplomatic, economic, and legal blowback.

Moreover, Tehran will continue developing its indigenous nuclear capabilities. Iran is now enriching at the 3-4 percent level needed to fuel power reactors and at the 20-percent level needed to fuel its research reactor. It will continue to expand and update its centrifuge infrastructure, and could easily begin enriching at higher levels, for maritime reactors, in connection with its space program, or for other legitimate purposes.

All will be done under International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring, and the Agency will continue to report that Iran is not diverting nuclear material from its declared nuclear facilities.

But this will do nothing to alleviate Israeli concern that a nuclear-capable Iran is an unacceptable challenge to Israel’s freedom of unilateral military initiative, or Israeli pressure on the Obama administration to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities through war.

Under these circumstances, Obama will face a choice as fateful as it is unpalatable. He could, in effect, admit that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to dictate strategic outcomes in the Middle East. This is reality, but a reality that any American president would be loath to affirm so openly.

Or, to avoid acknowledging this reality, he could launch another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, not to remove a chimerical “existential threat” to Israel, but to protect Israel’s military dominance over its own neighborhood. This would prove disastrous for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.

The only way out of this self-generated dilemma is serious diplomacy, that treats Iranian interests in a serious way. But this would require the Obama administration to do something that not even a re-elected President Obama has shown a willingness to do, to accept the Islamic Republic of Iran as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests, and to come to terms with it as an unavoidably important player in the Middle East.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of the new book, Going to Tehran. [This article was originally published at Al Jazeera and Huffington Post.]

8 comments for “Obama’s Missed Iranian Connection?

  1. delia ruhe
    March 25, 2013 at 15:07

    What the US needs to do is recognize Iran’s rights as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and demand that Israel either recognize them too or get rid of their nukes and declare the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

  2. Peter Loeb
    March 24, 2013 at 06:12

    The Manns’ continue to produce their excellent analyses.

    With the Christian “Easter” soon approaching (again), I am increasingly finding
    strengths in meditations on Islam. Admittedly this remains, and probably shall
    always remain, as an UNBELIEVER. It remains that there are many truths for me in the Qur’an. I have difficulties with the Hadith. The Judeo-Christian worldview lacks the perspective to comprehend. Instead of “Easter”, I shall recognize 10 October, THE MASSACRE OF KARBALA (680 CE) for the strengths It offers.(See bl a Tarif Khalidi IMAGES OF MUHAMMAD…2009)

  3. F. G. Sanford
    March 24, 2013 at 04:45

    Once they manage to get U.S.A. entangled in a regional war, the unfettered removal of Palestinians will proceed as planned. If Libya looks like Poland and Syria looks like Czechoslovakia, then, unfortunately, Tehran may look like Stalingrad. Perhaps that’s what it will take to finally break us of the imperialist insanity we now seem to be pursuing. Geopolitics is not a science. It’s a rationalization of self-interests. The sooner we realize that none of our interests are served by intervention on behalf of Israel, the better off we will be. I’m surprised no one points out that relinquishing our sovereignty with a Senate Resolution to support military interventionism in the form of “preventive war” is not just illegal under international law. It also amounts to wholesale treason.

  4. Roger Thomas
    March 24, 2013 at 03:47

    The Zionists being the major aggressors along with its poodles, USA and UK, possess a huge nuclear arsenal. Any Middle Eastern country opposed to their brutal, expansionist invasion needs a nuclear capability if only as a deterrent. They constitute the most dangerous threat to the World by being the spur to others to go nuclear. How do they get away with with it? The same way they escape any sanctions for their apartheid regime which has perpetrated some of the worst crimes and abuses of human rights ever witnessed, I suppose.

    Iran needs a nuclear capability whilst Zion is so armed.

  5. Izminc.org
    March 23, 2013 at 20:23

    Nigga anit got me until he say “a brother here iz all the money they stole from you ptah for all the hard life’s work u have done. Other than that boot up itz time for war and y’all late but early .slavery not the sun a wake up just give it a little time ho ass ……………………………………………………………………. And Iam not hard to find u see everyday run your new trillion budget and spend two trillion now now now make that six trillion more debt blame the rest on war

  6. Izminc.org
    March 23, 2013 at 20:10

    Mine I am not mad but u know they have to dumb it down u never know who might survive
    Peace and love

  7. Izminc.org
    March 23, 2013 at 20:07

    Fuck with mine I anoint mad @u when there iz no food and the sky still fallen I ll be happy for u thanks USA for shitting on ptah
    All that this has given and been taken from ptah the popes finally shows the true Virgin Mary and Christ black we are right here waiting for your anit Christ really

  8. Izminc.org
    March 23, 2013 at 19:59


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