Timing Right to Call Ahmadinejad's Nuclear Bluff
by ALI GHARIB in New York
26 Dec 2010 22:58
[ opinion ] One would need to suspend disbelief altogether to be willing to take Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his word, but a solid case can be made that this is a moment when the United States should listen up and call his bluff.
Ahmadinejad, at the close of a regional economic summit in Turkey on Thursday, called the upcoming talks in Istanbul with the United States -- as part of the P5+1 -- a "historic opportunity." Reuters had the report: "We hope the Istanbul meeting becomes a good meeting with lasting results," Ahmadinejad declared at a news conference.
"It will be a very important meeting ... an historic opportunity to change (the policy of) confrontation to interaction and cooperation.... It will be in everybody's interest," he said.
Reuters noted that hopes are slight for a breakthrough at the upcoming meeting, but there have been hints -- as well as push-back from Congress -- of an emerging fuel swap deal similar to the one orchestrated by Turkey and Brazil in May.
That deal was promptly rejected by the United States in favor of U.N. Security Council sanctions. At the time, the United States had a perfectly good reason to swat aside the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) fuel-swap deal, as it was known. The TRR fuel pact was a confidence-building measure, but one that Iran hoped would forestall the sanctions that the United States had spent months of diplomatic efforts to put in place. This was a case of having to subvert one track -- engagement -- of the dual-track U.S. strategy toward Iran to reaffirm the other -- pressure.
But now those sanctions, and others -- are now in place. While the United States is imposing some additional sanctions with the European Union, nothing so broad is in the immediate offing. The latest moves don't mean the United States can't push for a new confidence-building measure, at the same time perhaps calling Ahmadinejad's bluff.
Such a deal would also throw a bone to Turkey, a fellow NATO member and rising power that maintains good relations with Iran, as well as Pakistan, positioning itself as a credible mediator between the Islamic Republic and the West. (Turkey's relations with Israel are also on the mend -- notwithstanding overwrought neoconservative objections -- suggesting the country's tilt to the East is not as complete as Middle East hawks portray it.
Plus, there's really not much for the United States to lose in striking a TRR-like pact -- if there is no fuel-swap deal to ship some of Iran's nuclear material off its soil, the Islamic Republic simply hangs onto its entire stockpile. Since the United States is imposing new sanctions ahead of the talks anyway, a deal can't be dismissed as a way to wriggle out of the latest round of pressure. That might be why the United States has demonstrated a degree of willingness to strike a temporary compromise. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that some continued Iranian enrichment might be possible, a notion reiterated by Obama administration counter-proliferation czar Gary Samore.
Despite an off-the-cuff remark at a neoconservative conference on Iran suggesting that he takes a hawkish perspective on the Islamic Republic (speaking of throwing a bone), Samore said that "interim steps" might be possible in pursuit of an end to Iranian enrichment. Outside the conference hall, I asked him for clarification and he confirmed that he did mean "there can be incremental measures" that leave Iran enriching. An AIPAC official, Charles Perkins, standing nearby, asked Samore if a deal like the Brazil-Turkey one might be on the table, to which he responded unequivocally, "Yes."
If, in Istanbul next month, Iran balks at U.S. and P5+1 efforts to arrange a confidence-building fuel swap, the Islamic Republic's intransigence will be put on full display. If, on the other hand, Iran agrees to such a deal, little harm will be done to the West's longterm prospects of ending the nuclear standoff without drastic measures -- and Iran will turn over a sizable chunk of its nuclear material. If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 make the Iranians an offer they can't refuse, it could be a win-win situation.
John Limbert, a Naval Academy professor and distinguished former foreign service officer who was an Iranian hostage and later ran the Iran desk at Obama's State Department, is fond of saying, "They always zig when we zag." The inverse is also true and, at this moment, the United States seems to be the one doing the zigging. But a zigging line and a zagging line just might cross paths, and the Obama administration should take advantage if the opportunity arises in Istanbul. It may not work, but to do nothing, and to try nothing, is to passively slide down the path to confrontation.
Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist who blogs daily on U.S.-Iran relations at LobeLog.com.
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