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Getting Nuclear Talks Back on Track


06 Dec 2010 23:242 Comments

Obama's Iran Policy: All Tactics, No Strategy.

A0960249.jpg[ analysis ] U.S. President Barack Obama came to office with a bold agenda on Iran, intending to set his Administration apart from both his predecessor, George W. Bush, as well as Hillary Clinton, his Democratic challenger in the 2008 Presidential elections. Although at the outset of his presidency Obama was less than explicit about the particular approach he would take towards Iran, he did hint at the possibility for a strategic re-orientation towards the country, a reorientation that would allow for a resolution of the nuclear issue and for broader cooperation between Iran and the United States in the Middle East and South Asia. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama stated, "There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect."

At the same time, Obama was also clear that the tactical framework for America's Iran approach would essentially remain as it had during the Bush years, using the proverbial carrots and sticks so favored by that Administration. Eighteen months after the Cairo Speech, Obama's Iran policy is characterized by strategic ambivalence, perhaps even confusion, combined with a tactical resolve, as well as some success in placing short-term pressure on Iran. During this period, Obama's Iran approach has placed significant economic pressure on Iran's urban middles classes and private sector, while doing little to reduce tensions between the two countries and, in fact, occasioning an angrier and even more provocative foreign policy stance from Iran. With new talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the 5 Permanent Members of the United Nations' Security Council and Germany) this week, important questions are raised as to whether the parties can overcome their growing antipathy and finally reach a resolution of the nuclear dispute.

March 21, 2009: Obama's New Year's Message to the Iranian People

How did Obama's approach to Iran take such an inauspicious turn? Even before Cairo, Obama started off on the right track with Iran, sending a televised message to the government and its people on the occasion of their New Year on March 21, 2009, which had several significant components.

First and foremost, unlike his predecessor, Obama spoke explicitly to both the "people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," acknowledging their intertwined history and culture. Second, he refrained from attempting to drive a wedge between Iran's leaders. By addressing these officials all at once and as a whole, Obama put to rest useless speculation about whether his Administration would talk to the "moderates," the "pragmatists" or the ones who "really" wield power. Instead, he refocused the dialogue on matters of mutual interest without disregarding the real points of difference between the two countries. Finally, expressing his commitment to meaningful diplomacy and distaste for demonizing rhetoric and peremptory demands, Obama simply stated that the two long-time foes had a chance for "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." The process, he said in no uncertain terms, "will not be advanced by threats."

In his Iranian New Year's address, Obama advocated a decidedly diplomatic approach to U.S.-Iran relations, perhaps coming the closest of any U.S. official to putting aside the military option vis-à-vis Iran, at least for the time being. While Obama refused to ignore "serious differences [between the United States and Iran] that have grown over time," he also counseled resisting "those who insist that we be defined by our differences." His commitment was clearly to "diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues," as well as to creating "constructive ties" between the two countries.

Tehran's response was positive, albeit qualified. Importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who is constitutionally empowered to control Iran's foreign policy, delivered the country's reply. While his speech was a carefully calibrated attempt to set limits on Washington's approach to Iran, Khamanei also sent clear signals that Iran was ready to engage with the new Administration. From Khamanei's perspective, U.S. engagement had to be accompanied by concrete steps demonstrating to Iran that the United States was open to negotiation and compromise and uninterested in "deception or intimidation." Khamanei left no doubt that further pressure on Iran, either in advance of or during the talks, would be seen as a sign that the rhetoric of change was less than genuine, stating that "[o]ur nation dislikes it when you again proclaim 'talks with pressure'; we talk to Iran while we pressure them as well -- threat and inducement. You cannot talk to our nation this way... It is condescending, arrogant, and patronizing."

June 12, 2009: Iran's Disputed Presidential Elections and the Effect on U.S.-Iran Dialogue

Iran's June 12, 2009 Presidential election and the resulting protests and domestic instability threw a major wrench into both country's diplomatic calculations. Though it remains difficult to pinpoint when Iran's perception of the Obama Administration shifted for the worse, it remains significant that after a few months of hesitation both sides met in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2009 and in an unusually speedy fashion announced the general outlines of an interim agreement on the nuclear issue, mediated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agreement entailed enormously important confidence building measures, including the transfer of large amounts of Iran's low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and then to France, where the material would be converted into fuel for use in producing medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor.

If the agreement had been implemented, it would have indeed been a real breakthrough for U.S.-Iran relations. Unfortunately, however, the measure failed in large part due to domestic uproar in Iran over the terms of the agreement, which were laid out in more detail in Vienna, Austria on October 22, 2009. Objections came from across the Iranian political spectrum, and by and large depicted the agreement as an attempt by beleaguered Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters to consolidate their power domestically at the expense of Iran's national interests.

By failing accurately to gauge Iran's post-election climate, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and their cohorts were most to blame for the agreement's failure. In addition, Iranian officials were naïve in thinking that the other involved parties, particularly the United States, would not portray the transfer of LEUs as a viable, if temporary, means of checking Iran's nuclear ambitions. While Iranian negotiators attempted to present the agreement as implicitly accepting the country's enrichment program, because the transfer arrangement did not involve all of Iran's LEU, domestic opponents of the deal argued that it did not amount to U.S. abandonment of the suspension demand. During the negotiations, the Obama Administration shrewdly played its cards very close to its chest -- something it continues to do -- and never declared whether it was willing to abandon its insistence that Iran suspend all enrichment related activities in the future.

Iranian missteps aside, the Obama Administration was also responsible for the agreement's unraveling. If the United States genuinely hoped to strike a bargain limiting Iran's enrichment program and instituting an effective and robust inspection regime, the U.S. government could have counseled forbearance once it became clear that the interim agreement would encounter opposition inside Iran. A more effective response to the situation would have allowed the Iranians to make a counter-offer that was more acceptable to their domestic audience. Instead, U.S. officials failed to appreciate the degree to which the negotiations were affected by Iran's exceptional political circumstances, a state of affairs that placed "moderates" and "reformists," historically more inclined to a diplomatic resolution of Iran's nuclear program, in opposition to the interim agreement, and found hardliners in the unusual position of favoring a reduction in LEU stockpiles and limitations on uranium enrichment.

Impatient with Iran's messy domestic dynamics, the United States chose a more familiar path, announcing deadlines, engaging in rhetoric, and reminding the Iranians that the clock was ticking. Washington began insisting that the Geneva and Vienna draft agreement were the only offer on the table, transforming the tentative, interim accord into an ultimatum and insisting that its refusal by Iran would result in IAEA censure. Already under fire domestically for succumbing to Western pressure, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad could hardly give in to these new demands, though they did make a final, failed attempt to revive the uranium transfer plan through Brazilian and Turkish mediation.

Sacrificing Diplomacy for Sanctions

The American response to the interim agreement's failure involved not only pursuing an additional round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, but also passing more restrictive unilateral sanctions through U.S. Congressional action and Executive Orders, as well as pressuring foreign banking systems to limit and even cut off transactions with Iran. While the United States remained open to engagement, the government's change in approach represented a decided shift from the seductive "carrot" to the punitive "stick." In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama Administration, though still interested in dialogue, was also now exploring the use of "sanctions that bite."

Obama's re-calibrated Iran policy was led by the Treasury Department and the office of Stuart Levey, the Under Secretary for Financial and Terrorism Intelligence. One of the few remaining Bush Administration officials, Levey lost no time in expressing his confidence in the effectiveness of sanctions. Most stark about this new tactic was the decided absence of an ultimate end goal vis-à-vis the Iranian government's nuclear program. Instead of focusing on effectively changing Iran's behavior, the Treasury Department appeared more interested in the efficient implementation of sanctions for their own sake. The few attempts by Obama officials to situate the sanctions regime within a larger strategy, such as statements by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates about changing "Iran's calculations" through sanctions' pressure and the creation of divisions among key Iranian leaders, seemed more like wishful thinking than clear, well thought out strategic goal-setting.

Of course, the sanctions did work to make life difficult for the Iranian government, as well as the country's population. Financial sanctions, which were effective in limiting transactions through the UAE banks crucial to the free-flow of funds to and from Iran, were particularly biting for the Iranian private sector. Evidence also suggests that the sanctions' success caught the Iranian government off guard, as exemplified by an unexpected run on the dollar that occurred in Iran in early October 2010 and that was widely believed to have resulted at least partially from restrictions placed by foreign banking systems upon Iranian financial institutions operating abroad.

In response to the United States' engagement-sanctions approach, the Iranian government also adopted a dual track tactic. On the one hand, Ahmadinejad insisted on Iran's willingness to talk. On the other hand, he escalated his rhetorical invectives against the United States, most notably during his September 2010 visit to the UN where he described the events of September 11, 2001 as an "American conspiracy." Iran's decision to challenge the 9/11 narrative was a calculated move, fully supported by the hard-line establishment, and intended to defy and provoke a reaction from the Obama Administration. In short, the combined U.S. policy of sanctions and direct talks without preconditions was having an impact, just not the one that had been intended.

This should, however, come as no surprise. The Obama Administration was repeatedly warned by those knowledgeable about domestic Iranian politics that the country's reaction to sanctions would be entrenchment and stridency, rather than accommodation and acquiescence -- with very unfortunate consequences for Iran's domestic political circumstances.

Prospects for the Future: Overcoming the Last Year of Brinksmanship

In many ways, in the 23 months since Barack Obama took office, not much has changed in U.S.-Iran relations. There is also little goodwill on both sides. Nonetheless, there is a perceptible shift in the diplomatic winds between the two countries that may signal an end to this enduring saga, even if it may be slow in coming. Ironically, the change has much to do with the Obama Administration's decision to play the last card short of military action, namely, "sanctions that bite," as well as its declared refusal to settle for containment. As Defense Secretary Gates stated, "I don't think we are ever prepared to talk about containing a nuclear Iran. Our view is that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable."

With containment off the table, this final stage of sanctions assumes even greater importance and may force both sides into a settlement in the interest of avoiding military action. Although the Obama Administration continues to keep its cards closely guarded, the contours of an acceptable final agreement are clear. The Iranians would be allowed to keep some enrichment capabilities, whether in terms of a set number of centrifuges under increased international supervision or by linking the number of centrifuges to the actual amount of fuel needed by the Iranians (a number currently at zero as the only operational Iranian reactor, Bushehr, would run on Russian fuel). The Iranians also would commit to limit uranium enrichment to a maximum of 5% and would agree to a rigorous inspection regime by following through on their commitments to ratify the Additional Protocol to Iran's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. This Additional Protocol, which expands the inspection authority the IAEA enjoys under a country's existing NPT safeguards agreement, was signed by Iran in December 2003, implemented for a time voluntarily, but ultimately never ratified by the Iranian Parliament.

In the past, Iran has been open to intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and willing to limit uranium enrichment to 5%, though it has balked at any inspection regime that subjects it to obligations that are not exacted against other countries and that go beyond its obligations under the NPT. Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether the tactical maneuvers of the last year have effectively foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated agreement between the United States and Iran.

Both sides are caught in narratives developed not only to antagonize one another, but also to appease their respective domestic audiences. While Obama's extension of an offer to Iran for direct negotiations without preconditions was initially promising, the U.S. government ultimately reverted to Bush Administration tactics, attempting to exploit Iran's domestic weakness to obtain concessions in the international arena. Rather than success, however, this strategy has prompted the Iranian government to counter with strident rhetoric and increased domestic political repression, in the name of defending against foreign intervention in Iranian affairs. So far, the only thing that can be said with confidence about the failed nuclear negotiations is that the real losers in this political game of brinksmanship have been the Iranian, urban middle class and private sector, which have become increasingly unsettled and confused in the face of an economic pinch from abroad and political repression at home.

The December talks may be able to shift U.S.-Iran relations back onto a positive track. For this to happen, however, will require that the United States and Iran put aside the bad blood and recent acrimony, and remember the strategic importance their improved relations will have for the Middle East region and beyond.

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa and a member of Muftah's Board of Advisors. This article first appeared on Muftah.

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Obamas original intention was some form of engagement, he campaigned on it even though at the time I thought it was an unnecessarily risky gambit with no perceivable advantage from a campaign standpoint( with which constituency would he gain - only half of the exile community). Clinton termed it naive and McCain had something else in mind. So he genuinely thought engagement of value. What threw a wrench into the works was the rigged election and the kidnapping and murder of protesters, the show trials,the blood-curdling threats of violence.

pirooz / December 7, 2010 3:39 PM

An excellent analysis.unbiased,comprehensive and most informative.

Siamak Zand / December 7, 2010 4:00 PM