Squandering a Chance with Iran

Under pressure from hardliners in Congress and Israel, the Obama administration backed away from what could have been a historic agreement with Iran over limiting its nuclear program. Instead coercive diplomacy has become almost an end in itself, as Gareth Porter explains.

By Gareth Porter

After more than a year of negotiations between the United States and Iran, the two sides have failed to reach an agreement by the agreed deadline in July. They have agreed to continue negotiating, but the failure to meet the deadline was clearly not caused by the lack of time.

To understand why the talks have remained deadlocked, it is necessary to review the Obama administration’s stance on diplomacy with Iran in the context of the long U.S. history of favoring “coercive diplomacy” over traditional negotiations in managing conflicts with adversaries.

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Reliance on coercive diplomacy is deeply imbedded in the strategic culture of U.S. national security institutions. It has evolved over decades of U.S. military and economic dominance in international politics, which has allowed the United States to avoid genuine diplomacy repeatedly.

Based on that military supremacy, the United States avoided negotiations with its communist adversaries up to the early 1970s, when Henry Kissinger courted China and launched his détente policy with the Soviet Union. But that brief period of serious negotiating came in the wake of political pressures for reducing U.S. military spending and foreign military presence during the long and exhausting U.S. war in Vietnam. It soon gave way to renewed reliance on coercive diplomacy during the Reagan administration.

The concept of coercive diplomacy emerged from the belief that the United States could use the threat of force to leverage favorable outcomes in international conflicts, as the United States assumed wrongly, as we now know – that the threat of force by the John F. Kennedy had forced Khrushchev to back down in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

But the practice of coercive diplomacy came to include the use of trade and technology denial for coercive purposes as well, and Iran was one of the first applications of the concept. The Reagan administration used its diplomatic clout with France and Germany to choke off all technical cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program in 1983, even though it acknowledged it had no reason to suspect that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons.

A few years later, the George H. W. Bush administration banned exports of peaceful nuclear technology to Iran and pressured its allies to do the same. The technology denial policy, aimed at strangling the Iranian nuclear program, was a pure expression of the concept of “coercive diplomacy.”

The George W. Bush administration’s accusation that Iran was using its nuclear program as a cover for development of nuclear weapons was aimed at preparing the political ground for regime change by force, if necessary. But in 2005, it became part of a strategy for coercive diplomacy to force Iran to stop enrichment.

U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice pressured Britain, France and Germany to eschew genuine negotiations with Iran and use the threat of economic sanctions to force an end to Iranian enrichment. The Bush administration would later accuse Iran of having a covert nuclear weapons program, based on intelligence documents that I have shown in my book Manufactured Crisis to be fabrications, but when it first used coercive diplomacy to force an end to Iran’s nuclear program in the 1980s the Reagan administration did not claim that Iran had done anything to indicate an interest in nuclear weapons.

The Obama years

Ironically, although the Obama administration appeared to be committed to traditional diplomacy with Iran on the surface, his administration has relied even more heavily on coercive diplomacy against Iran than its predecessor.

Obama sent an unpublicized message to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in May 2009, offering to conduct talks with Iran on a range of issues “without preconditions,” Gary Samore, a former Obama official, admitted last year. But within weeks of his inauguration, Obama gave his approval to a plan for cyber war against Iran’s nuclear program in order to gain more leverage.

Khamenei did not know about the cyber-war decision. He did know, however, that Obama was planning to use new sanctions to compel Iran to accept these policy changes, which included the unfreezing of assets and the lifting of some sanctions.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked in the spring of 2009 for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) assistance in purchasing nuclear fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, the Obama administration blocked Iran’s recourse to the market, hoping to use Iran’s need for fuel for the TRR to put additional pressure on Iran.

Samore drafted a proposal under which Iran would have to send as much 75 to 80 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia to be turned into fuel assemblies for the reactor, giving the U.S. a stronger position in future negotiations.

The Washington Post reported on Oct. 22, 2009, that US officials said the proposed uranium swap “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.”

The administration even used its Nuclear Policy Review (NPR) in the spring of 2010 as a heavy-handed means of coercing Iran. The new nuclear policy suggested that Iran was one of the few exceptions to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons in case of a conventional attack “against the US or its allies or partners.”

Obama explicitly linked the new policy to the administration’s broader campaign of coercive diplomacy with Iran, saying: “[W]e want to send a very strong message both through sanctions, through the articulation of the Nuclear Posture Review that the international community is serious about Iran facing consequences if it doesn’t change its behavior.”

The administration’s main hope for coercing Iran, however, was the imposition of the sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sectors that took effect in mid-2012. In May 2012, a senior U.S. official told the New York Times that those sanctions – and especially the moves by EU member states to cut imports of Iranian oil – would “increase the leverage” on the negotiations that had begun with Iran that spring.

After Hassan Rouhani was elected President of Iran in 2013, with a commitment to a negotiated solution to the issue of the nuclear program and sanctions relief, the Obama administration assumed that its coercive diplomacy – especially in the form of sanctions – had forced Iran to negotiate. Although the administration had now given up the hope of ending Iran’s enrichment completely, the administration lost no time in making it clear that the U.S. objective was the “dismantling” of most of the Iranian enrichment capacity.

Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Dec. 11, 2013, a little more than two weeks after the Joint Plan of Action had been announced, that the United States had imposed sanctions on Iran, “because we knew that it would hopefully help Iran dismantle its nuclear program. That was the whole point of the [sanctions] regime.”

In April 2014, Kerry announced that the administration would require Iran’s agreement to reduce its enrichment capability so that it would take at least six to twelve months to achieve a “breakout” capacity i.e., enough low enriched uranium for one bomb’s worth of weapon’s grade enriched uranium.

Robert Einhorn, former proliferation official in the Obama administration’s State Department, explained in an article published on May 9 that anything more than  “a few thousand” centrifuges would give Iran “an unacceptably rapid breakout capability.”

Iran had already declared that dismantling its nuclear infrastructure was a “red line” in the talks, but that it would take measures that would assure that its low-enriched uranium could not be enriched to weapons-grade level. Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif revealed to the New York Times on July 14 that Iran had proposal to retain 9,400 Separative Work Units (SWU), which would represent less than half the enrichment capacity installed in its two enrichment facilities.

An unidentified senior U.S. official responded to the Iranian proposal by implying the right to demand that Iran submit to the will of the coalition arrayed against it. “[T]his is not a negotiation between two equal parties,” the official said. “This is the international community assessing whether Iran can come in line with its numerous non-proliferation obligations, to which it has been in violation for years.”

Later, Iran agreed to draw down its stockpile of low-enrichment uranium by shipping it to Russia to be converted into fuel assemblies for its nuclear reactor at Bushehr. That would have the same effect in increasing the “breakout” timeline announced by Kerry as the deep centrifuge reduction the U.S. was demanding. But by then, the United States had escalated its demands on Iran, saying that it would have to increase that mythical measure of risk to at least a year.

U.S. negotiators continued to demand that Iran accept a dramatic cut in existing operational enrichment capacity to as few as 5,000 centrifuges. Meanwhile, the U.S. delegation was making it clear that the P5+1 would not provide “extensive” relief from sanctions until late in the implementation of the agreement, keeping the “architecture of sanctions” in place as leverage on Iran.

The whole U.S. posture in the talks has thus reflected the perspective of a dominant power accustomed to employing coercive diplomacy, with sanctions replacing military force as the source of presumed coercive power.

Iran’s refusal to play its assigned role in the relationship between superpower and lesser state challenges Washington’s strategic assumptions. Now Obama must weigh the appeal of coercive diplomacy to the U.S. national security state against his own strong desire for an agreement.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy. His latest book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February 2014. [This article previously appeared at Middle East Eye with a disclaimer that the views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.] 

7 comments for “Squandering a Chance with Iran

  1. Abe
    November 27, 2014 at 17:14

    The root of the problem:
    The second decade of America’s Foreign Policy “Coup”

  2. Abe
    November 27, 2014 at 16:12

    […] with his inconsistent and adventurous politics Barack Obama has turned the Middle East into a zone of ongoing conflict and unmanaged chaos that threatens the national security both of Saudi Arabia and Israel. The strategic partnership between Washington and the two states is now at threat due to Obama’s stupidity. And the White House’s stated intention to normalise relations with Iran would mean cancelling the results of Israel and Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy efforts of the last decades. “Colour” revolutions in the Arab world, the war in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, several coups in Egypt, instability in Lebanon, armed conflicts in the Palestinian Authority have de facto clearly identified the spheres of interest for Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and Israel have had to endure ambitions of regional leadership by Erdogan’s Turkey, a NATO member. But the assumption of the same role by Tehran, demonstrated in the conclusion of conflict with the United States and the continuation of its nuclear programme – this would be too much for the Saudis and Israelis. After all, the entire map of the region would have to be redrawn. They devoted a place for Iran a long time ago – this is the place of an enemy, a revolutionary Shiite expansionist, a threat to the energy security of the West, etc. Especially when there are hundreds of billions of dollars on this map, rich oil and gas reserves, financial interests of American and European business, and the very survival of the Al Saud dynasty. And Saudi Arabia and Israel succeeded, albeit at the last minute.

    To do this, Saudi Arabia threw on the table the most important trump card to influence the US – it simply threatened to stop oil dumping against Russia and thereby stop the degradation of the Russian economy, which would mean a shameful failure for Washington in Ukraine and the area of the EU. Over a few hours the Saudis suggested to the White House that on November 27 at the meeting of OPEC ministers they would go with Moscow’s proposal to cut oil production. And it worked. On November 25 in Vienna Saudi Arabia has officially announced to Russia, Venezuela and a number of OPEC countries that it won’t be cutting its oil output. Saudi stayed true to their word on Iran. The Especially since the Republicans, long-standing and reliable partners of Riyadh, gained additional leverage after congressional elections over the White House and its “lamest of lame ducks”: Obama and Kerry. Although they were already limping – in Iraq when ISIS was on the verge of taking Baghdad. So the President and US Secretary of State, living out the rest of their time in the White House, will not have the final word on the Iranian issue. When faced by an ultimatum from Israel and Saudi Arabia, they simply surrendered. And the next few months will bring nothing new: either Iran will have to give up “in full ” by capitulating on all counts both its nuclear dossier and sovereignty over oil and gas, or Obama will have to take a suicidal step and give in to Tehran. And then leave the White House early after his impeachment.

    It is unlikely that the Iranian leadership will raise the white flag and accept the role of a US-Israeli-Saudi puppet.

    Iran’s Nuclear Programme: Who’s in Charge in Washington
    By Viktor Titov

  3. Abe
    November 26, 2014 at 22:10

    The economic strangulation of Iran is in alignment with the strategy for Israel outlined by Oded Yinon in the 1980s. Well advanced since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, here is Yinon’s broad plan being enacted in the Middle East (from the translation by Israel Shahak):

    […] Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unqiue areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today.

    Iraq, rich in oil on the one hand and internally torn on the other, is guaranteed as a candidate for Israel’s targets. Its dissolution is even more important for us than that of Syria. Iraq is stronger than Syria. In the short run it is Iraqi power which constitutes the greatest threat to Israel. An Iraqi-Iranian war will tear Iraq apart and cause its downfall at home even before it is able to organize a struggle on a wide front against us. Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will assist us in the short run and will shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations as in Syria and in Lebanon. In Iraq, a division into provinces along ethnic/religious lines as in Syria during Ottoman times is possible. So, three (or more) states will exist around the three major cities: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, and Shi’ite areas in the south will separate from the Sunni and Kurdish north. It is possible that the present Iranian-Iraqi confrontation will deepen this polarization.

    The entire Arabian peninsula is a natural candidate for dissolution due to internal and external pressures, and the matter is inevitable especially in Saudi Arabia. Regardless of whether its economic might based on oil remains intact or whether it is diminished in the long run, the internal rifts and breakdowns are a clear and natural development in light of the present political structure.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    November 26, 2014 at 10:10

    The p5+1 should be renamed to ‘p5+1& then another 1’. Put another way, it’s the elephant in the room who isn’t really in the room.

    When I was growing up there was fear of Russia, who also had nukes. Even with all that fear, we didn’t threaten to bomb Russia just out of fear. Yet, when it comes to the safety of Israel, well that’s another story. Israel broke US laws with operation NUMEC stealing uranium right from under America’s nose, in order to build their own nuclear arsenal. What nuclear convention was held over that? None, but that’s okay, it’s Israel. Why not tell Israel to just live with it. Also, remind Netanyahu & Company how if Israel didn’t have nukes then maybe other Middle Eastern countries wouldn’t feel they needed nukes in order to level the playing field.

    While we’re at it, someone please enforce the 1917 Logan Act. AIPAC’s relationship with the US Congress is illegal, and it should be brought to an end immediately.

  5. Abe
    November 26, 2014 at 02:35

    Military attack on Iran has been prepared since 2004

  6. Abe
    November 26, 2014 at 02:27

    This farce has been perpetuated since the 80s:

    1984: West German intelligence sources claim that Iran’s production of a bomb “is entering its final stages.” US Senator Alan Cranston claims Iran is seven years away from making a weapon.

    1992: Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

    1995: The New York Times reports that US and Israeli officials fear “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought” – less than five years away. Netanyahu claims the time frame is three to five years.

    1996: Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres claims Iran will have nuclear weapons in four years.

    1998: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claims Iran could build an ICBM capable of reaching the US within five years.

    1999: An Israeli military official claims that Iran will have a nuclear weapon within five years.

    2001: The Israeli Minister of Defence claims that Iran will be ready to launch a nuclear weapon in less than four years.

    2002: The CIA warns that the danger of nuclear weapons from Iran is higher than during the Cold War, because its missile capability has grown more quickly than expected since 2000 – putting it on par with North Korea.

    2003: A high-ranking Israeli military officer tells the Knesset that Iran will have the bomb by 2005 — 17 months away.

    2006: A State Department official claims that Iran may be capable of building a nuclear weapon in 16 days.

    2008: An Israeli general tells the Cabinet that Iran is “half-way” to enriching enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon and will have a working weapon no later than the end of 2010.

    2009: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak estimates that Iran is 6-18 months away from building an operative nuclear weapon.

    2010: Israeli decision-makers believe that Iran is at most 1-3 years away from being able to assemble a nuclear weapon.

    2011: IAEA report indicates that Iran could build a nuclear weapon within months.

    2013: Israeli intelligence officials claim that Iran could have the bomb by 2015 or 2016.


  7. Zachary Smith
    November 25, 2014 at 23:54

    But by then, the United States had escalated its demands on Iran…

    A person has to conclude that BHO and his neocons aren’t a bit serious about negotiating anything with Iran besides a complete surrender.

    I’d nearly forgotten another instance of the duplicity of the Israel-Firsters in DC:

    If ever there was any need to prove that the US — not just under Bush but also under Obama — is using the “Iranian nuclear threat” as a manufactured pretext and cover for an entirely different policy of imposing regime-change on Iran, one only need remember the Turkey/Brazil nuclear deal with Iran, and how Obama pulled the rug out from under its own allies after they had gotten a “Yes” from Iran to terms that the Obama administration itself had endorsed in a letter just 1 week earlier — thus again moving the goalpost to ensure that the nuclear threat pretext would be kept alive.


    So far they’ve just “moved the goalposts” every time any kind of an agreement is reached, or even approached.

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