Obama Shies from Iran Nuke Deal

Official Washington’s ideology of “tough-guy-ism” has prevented a potential breakthrough in nuclear talks with Iran. Afraid of being called weak, President Obama has balked at accepting Iran’s right to enrich uranium even at low levels and under international supervision, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett say.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

To maintain the illusion of some prospect for progress in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will meet with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Istanbul next week. Purportedly, Ashton will see if the P5+1 dialogue with Iran can be put back on track after yet another round of nuclear talks with Iran failed last month.

Publicly, Western officials blame the failure either on the Islamic Republic’s upcoming presidential election or on that old fallback, Iranian “intransigence.” In reality, talks failed because America and its Western partners remain unwilling to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting with election officials on May 6, 2013. (Iranian government photo)

As a sovereign state, Iran is entitled to enrich, if it chooses; as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is entitled to do so under safeguards. The NPT explicitly recognizes signatories’ “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. That this inalienable right includes the right to enrich is clear from the NPT itself, its negotiating history, and decades of state practice, with multiple non-weapons state parties having developed safeguarded fuel-cycle infrastructures potentially able to support weapons programs.

If Washington recognized Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal with Tehran could be reached in a matter of weeks. As long as Washington refuses to do this, no substantial agreement will be possible.

Yet the Obama administration is no closer than its predecessor to accepting safeguarded enrichment in Iran. This is partly due to pressure from various allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, and their American supporters, who expect Washington somehow to defy legal principle along with political reality and compel Tehran to surrender indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.

But the real reason for U.S. obstinacy is that recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights would mean accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests. No American president since the Iranian Revolution, not even Barack Hussein Obama, has been willing to do this.

Washington’s unwillingness is grounded in unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture: difficulty coming to terms with independent power centers (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself.

Because these attitudes are so fundamental, it is unlikely Obama will invest the political capital required to bring America’s Iran policy in line with strategic reality before his presidency ends. And so the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities will grind on.

The world has experienced such diplomatic stasis before. In 2003-2005, Britain, France, and Germany worked (ostensibly) to prepare a nuclear settlement with Tehran; Iran suspended enrichment for nearly two years to encourage diplomatic progress. The initiative failed because the Bush administration refused to join the talks unless Tehran was willing to abandon pursuit of indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.

In 2009-2010, efforts to negotiate the exchange of most of Iran’s then-stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor collapsed for similar reasons. In the May 2010 Tehran Declaration brokered by Brazil and Turkey, Iran accepted all of Washington’s terms for a fuel swap, yet the Obama administration rejected the Declaration because it openly recognized Iran’s right to enrich. Three years later, the administration is once again undermining chances for diplomatic success with its inflexibility regarding Iran’s nuclear rights.

The world has also seen what happens when America and its European partners demonstrate bad faith in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran, Iran expands its nuclear infrastructure and capabilities. When Iran broke its nearly two-year enrichment suspension in 2005, it could run less than a thousand centrifuges; today, it has installed 12,000 centrifuges, more than 9,000 of which process uranium gas to produce enriched uranium.

In February 2010, Iran began enriching uranium to the near-20 percent level needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) after the United States and its partners refused to sell the fuel; Iran consistently offered to suspend near-20 percent enrichment if it could obtain an adequate fuel supply for the TRR. After Obama torpedoed the Tehran Declaration, Iran accelerated production of near-20 percent uranium and began indigenously manufacturing fuel plates for the TRR.

With America and its European partners once again blowing an opening to accept Tehran’s nuclear rights and close a nuclear deal, we are likely to see another surge of nuclear expansion in Iran. Certainly Iran will continue enriching, at the 3-4 percent level needed for power reactors and at the near-20 percent level needed for the TRR, and installing more efficient centrifuges. Iran also plans to commission a heavy water reactor, perhaps as early as next year.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consistently certifies that no nuclear materials have been diverted from safeguarded Iranian facilities, all of these steps will be cited by Israel, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and other U.S. constituencies hankering for military action as evidence that time for diplomacy has run out.

Additionally, the Islamic Republic may find legitimate reasons, for example, building maritime reactors, to begin enriching above 20 percent. While such higher-level enrichment would be done under IAEA safeguards, this would also be interpreted in America and Israel as provocative Iranian “escalation.”

Obama would prefer to avoid another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East; thus, he will keep endorsing ploys (like Ashton’s trip to Istanbul) to maintain a façade of diplomatic “engagement.” But his unwillingness to revive America’s deteriorating regional position through serious diplomacy with Tehran will increase pressure on him to order U.S. strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities before his presidency’s end.

Rather than openly abandon the delusion of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Obama will try to placate hawkish elements by escalating America’s ongoing “dirty war” against the Islamic Republic, including economic warfare against civilians, threatening secondary sanctions against third countries in violation of U.S. WTO commitments, cyber-attacks, support for groups doing things inside Iran that Washington elsewhere condemns as “terrorism,” stoking sectarian tensions, and fueling further violence in Syria to prevent Tehran from “winning” there.

But that, too, will only further destabilize the Middle East and bring America and Iran ever closer to overt confrontation.

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. Direct links to previous postings of this article: http://goingtotehran.com/what-u-s-failure-in-nuclear-diplomacy-with-iran-will-mean ; http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/why-the-failure-in-almaty-is-a-big-deal/article4686641.ece?homepage=true; http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/05/2013589151459212.html

6 comments for “Obama Shies from Iran Nuke Deal

  1. elle
    May 14, 2013 at 05:35

    iran had the right to develop a civil nuclear program,there is no denial .
    but for some reason all the supporters of iran seem to forget that the reason
    the United Nations imposes four rounds of sanctions on Iran for illicit nuclear activities, condemns it for illegally arming the murderous Syrian regime, and denounces Tehran’s massive abuse of human rights.
    stop kidding yourselves…

    • F. G. Sanford
      May 14, 2013 at 07:07

      Yes, elle, and we, on the other hand, are aiding the Taliban Al Nusra terrorists in Syria, and providing fifteen million dollars a day in aid to Israel. Since Israel has undeclared nuclear weapons and has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that aid is illegal under the Symington amendment. But hey, it’s your tax dollars at work. Don’t complain about the “blowback”.

    • rayan
      May 14, 2013 at 15:58

      iran has EVERY rights, full scall URANIUM ENRICHMENT, with no limits.PERIODE.
      Even to developpe nuclear deterrence.

      if a country like ” israel ” that occupy his neighbors ( golan, west bank, gaza a part of libanon ) so iran can.

      and that’s why iran is goint to have nukes at any price

  2. F. G. Sanford
    May 14, 2013 at 04:49

    The Iranians should really just suck it up and consider the advantages of submission to U. S. hegemony. After all, consider the benefits it brings to the nations which comply. The Nicaraguans, for example, get to smuggle as much cocaine as they want to the United States. Then, there is the Karzai government, which has successfully reconstituted its heroine industry. NATO allies and the Americans provide a lucrative market for those exports. Mexico cooperates in the drug war, receiving weapons, cash and other incentives in return for exporting its drug industry to the United States. Canada genuflects as well, and has succeeded in selling petroleum products to Americans that no other country will buy. By behaving itself, China has been able to purchase America’s toxic debt at remarkably attractive rates. And, we have given China most of our manufacturing industry in return for high unemployment at home. What a bargain! History has provided numerous examples of these mutually beneficial arrangements. The Marshal Islanders, for example, get health care benefits for allowing nuclear tests in their territories. Other countries buy our industrial waste and recyclable electronics, providing an opportunity for youth employment. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and beryllium are recycled in healthy, open air waste dumps, where children develop a responsible work ethic. Wealthy petromonarchies who comply are afforded the pleasure of retaining their household slaves while torturing, murdering and imprisoning the criminal elements of their societies. Imagine the excitement! They get attractive diplomatic portfolios and defense opportunities in exchange for doing business with our weapons manufacturers. And, the money they siphon from the unbridled exploitation of their country’s natural resources is safely hidden from their own people in clandestine American financial instruments. Castro was a complete fool. He got his country off the payroll, but they had to sacrifice the advantages of organized crime, prostitution, gambling, money laundering and slave wages. I admit that’s an exaggeration: J. Edgar Hoover insisted there was no such thing as organized crime. But if I were Ali Khamenei, I’d get with the program while interest rates are favorable and gold is undervalued…probably a good time to beef up the harem, too. A few dozen child brides just to keep up with the Saudis and the Bahrainis wouldn’t hurt either. I bet the Americans would even turn a blind eye while I rounded up a few thousand political opponents and tossed them into prison without a trial. With my advanced scientific community, I could partner with Karzai and make amphetamines. Then, we could sell “speedballs” to his clients instead of just heroine. Maybe, I could even pick out some nice beach front territory in Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan and set up an occupation…build some settlements, who knows. I bet it wouldn’t be hard to get some American weapons to defend it against those angry terrorists, either. Funny how they always want their land back. Think of the money that would flow in if I let them have an air base. You know, somewhere up there near Tabriz, close to Russia. They’d pay millions! Yep, membership has its advantages!

  3. Revo
    May 13, 2013 at 22:56

    Unfortunately, Obama has surrendered to the reactionary agenda of reactionary, trouble-making Republicans. He has become another Republican in Democrat cloak.
    All he has been doing is to please his master Israel and American Taliban–monstrous Republicans.

  4. mahmood delkhasteh
    May 13, 2013 at 18:10

    I think Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, as well as other readers, might be interested in reading Banisadr’s and my take on their approach to Iran:


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