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Iran: How the U.S. Can Hang Tough and Lose, or Give In and Win

April 22, 2010

The Obama administration’s Iran policy is on the verge of success. A breakthrough deal can easily and safely be closed that will set back the clock on Iran’s nuclear program and pave the way for an easing of U.S.-Iran relations. But the danger is that the administration will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory—either because, numbed by its own increasingly punitive approach to Iran, it doesn’t realize it has won, or because, listening to the cacophony of anti-Iran bluster rising from both sides of the aisle in Congress, it judges that the domestic political price of victory is too high.

Is this a report from another planet? It is definitely not what you’ve been reading in the news lately. But it is so. Here’s how:

The uranium exchange deal

It all has to do with the seven-month old proposal to exchange most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium for fuel for an Iranian research reactor that makes medical isotopes. The deal as originally proposed by the U.S., France, and Russia last November required Iran to ship most of its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium to Russia. A year later, after Russia had enriched the uranium to the 20 per cent level needed for the reactor fuel and France had fashioned the 20 per cent uranium into fuel packets, the packets would be delivered to the Tehran research reactor that makes medical isotopes for Iran’s 850,000 cancer patients.

If the deal went through it would significantly increase the time Iran would need to produce enough highly enriched uranium, should it chose to do so, to build a nuclear weapon. If the deal went through, it would at a minimum buy time for more negotiations and could build confidence and lead to further agreements. Last fall, it looked like a good deal for everyone. The chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces summed it up best when he said in November that “a million of our citizens will benefit from the medical treatment it can enable and we will prove at the same time the bona fides of our peaceful nuclear activities.”

Iran’s domestic turmoil intervenes

But the deal was soon caught up in Iran’s tumultuous and anguished domestic politics and as some politicians (including members of the reform movement) denounced the deal, the Iranian government delayed a formal response. When Iran’s formal response finally came it was not acceptance, but a counter proposal. Instead of an exchange of enriched uranium now for reactor fuel a year later, Iran proposed a simultaneous exchange and insisted on keeping its uranium in Iran until the fuel was ready.

Until now, the U.S. has taken this as a “no,” and until very recently there has been no challenge to the U.S. response. But just last week a paper prepared by the Federation of American Scientists argued persuasively that the administration should take the Iranian counter proposal as a “yes,” accept it, with or without variations, and declare a significant victory.

“Accepting a simultaneous exchange of Iranian LEU [low-enriched uranium] for TRR [Tehran research reactor] fuel is not a dangerous concession,” the FAS authors write, “but is the perfect test of Tehran’s nuclear intentions.”

There is little practical difference between the original proposal and the Iranian counter offer, the authors argue. Yes, moving most of Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country immediately would have been useful, but reducing its stockpile by the same amount a year later would offer almost as much advantage.

If it doesn’t work, it backfires

Most importantly, the FAS authors warn, if an exchange deal is not concluded soon, it will backfire badly. The U.S. rejection of its counter proposal has prompted Iran to start small-scale enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent arguing that, denied reactor fuel from abroad, it now has a humanitarian need to enrich to 20 per cent itself. The danger is that if Iran expands and continues enrichment to 20 per cent it will soon cut to several months the time it would need to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a bomb, should it choose to “break out” of the international inspection regime it currently accepts and begin high enrichment. As long as Iran was enriching to only 3.5 per cent, it was always at least a year away from being able to produce enough material for a bomb.

So the Obama administration has a choice: hang tough, reject Iran’s counter proposal, give Iran a reason to continue 20 per cent enrichment, move the Iranian nuclear clock forward, and lose. Or, give in, accept Iran’s offer of a simultaneous uranium-fuel exchange, deny Iran a reason to continue 20 per cent enrichment, set the Iranian nuclear clock back, and win. What would you do?

13 Comments
  1. April 23, 2010 12:38 am

    I have established a chat room under the auspices of the White House on the subject, “What is to be done about the problem of Iran?”

    In order for you to participate, it will be necessary for you to first register and establish a profile with linkedin.com. Linked In will then show you the White House’s topics that anyone can talk about policy issues.

    Since it is an official part of the White House record, staffers are monitoring it to obtain policy ideas as well as to gauge public opinion. This is yet another chance to move the Obama administration in the direction of progressive, peace issues.

  2. Eileen Kuch permalink
    April 27, 2010 3:47 pm

    Great idea, Karl. Keeping the White House constantly informed on Iran is one of the best ways of expressing our opinions.

    The proposal from the US, France, and Russia for Iran to exchange its 3.5% enriched uranium with Russia and France for 20% enriched uranium to be used for developing medical isotopes in the treatment of the nation’s cancer patients is a great proposal; and this can ease tensions between the US and Iran.

    There is no legitimate reason for ramping up these tensions. Iran has not attacked any other country – including its neighbors – in over five centuries; so, why harrass it with unnecessary, harsh sanctions? This is only a form of cutting off your nose to spite your face sort of action. Negotiate with the Iranian Government; there are many benefits to be gained here. Iran doesn’t want war; but, we know very well who does. Just tell the insane warmongers: NO WAR! NOT TODAY! NOT TOMORROW! NOT EVER!

  3. Emmett J Murphy permalink
    April 27, 2010 3:50 pm

    Jim Fine makes sense. But the formation of U.S. policy doesn’t seem to me to follow good sense rules. Politics requires some truculence, apparently, some bluster. Jim’s position has neither. It is close to the Quakerly way of reasoning something through, trying to hold it in the Light (even the light of Good Sense), in the quest for a position that is fair to all parties. If Iran s honestly trying to develop nuclear fuel for power and medical uses, this plan would, as Jim says, allow it to forge ahead and clean it from the stasin of weapon quest. If it is being devious it would, as Jim notes, slow the process significantly, allowing time for more data, more diplomacy, and more study of possible interventions. But when has policy ever developed so logically and thoughtfully?

  4. Richard Booth permalink
    April 27, 2010 4:35 pm

    Right on! I agree completely. RTB

  5. Sandra Mackie permalink
    April 27, 2010 5:59 pm

    Great article. Will it take a miracle for the bully in the sandbox to get smart and negotiate – or will we plow ahead with our usual arrogance and unwillingness to give an inch even if it means we lose?

    I recommend the article below for a pragmatic, long term solution.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/mar/20/a-solution-for-the-usiran-nuclear-standoff/

  6. epppie permalink
    April 27, 2010 6:10 pm

    Obama has NEVER wanted to make a deal with Iran. How can you stand to spout this kind of gibberish, which is entirely based on assuming that he wants to do the right thing, but just hasn’t figured it out yet? Every move he has made, apart from a rhetorical flourish or two, has been intended to deceive, and escalate. The proposed swap was a case in point. Obama knew that Iran could never accept that deal, because it would mean trusting Russia and France, two countries that have a history of reneging on deals with Iran. And predictably, when Iran came back pointing this out and making counterproposals that addressed this obvious problem (partial swaps, simultaneous swaps), Obama loudly claimed that they had simply refused the deal, a total lie. When Bush lied, you called him on it, right? WHY DO YOU REFUSE TO CALL OBAMA ON HIS LIES? Why do you continue to claim that if we are just nice to Obama he’ll finally wake up and do the right thing? Is it your goal to solve the problem, to prevent this war that Obama is obviously hellbent on, or is it your goal to try to prevent backlash from peacelovers? Why do you CHOOSE to obfuscate about the nature and intent of Obama’s policy? It IS a choice.

  7. Edwin Sisson permalink
    April 27, 2010 6:23 pm

    It’s such ideas as the one Jim Fine has given us that make me feel good all over. Imagine that, a discussion that includes the ideas of both mature behavior and Middle East politics in nearly the same breath.

    The power in this idea comes from the concept of trust. I just don’t hear the word “trust” spoken in the media regarding the Middle East; however, I feel strongly that the absence of trust is the basis for all our problems there. It seems obvious from their attitude toward the US that Iran does not trust us (and for good reason) any more than we trust them. This reciprocating mistrust will not stop until one side demonstrates a show of trust toward the other. Why not have that one side be the US; the result might be just what we all were hoping for.

    The issue of nuclear energy is the perfect backdrop against which to hold up a test of trust. The first trusting gesture characteristically results in reciprocation of trust, initiating a chain reaction. This chain reaction of trust could prove to be more powerful than the chain reaction of the nuclear fuel itself.

  8. Joe Weinstein permalink
    April 27, 2010 6:46 pm

    FCNL has various truly reasonable positions, but they do not include this zealous indulgence of an Islamo-fanatic dictatorship questing for nukes.

    Iran’s regime is the one nuke-questing regime that brags of its plan for genocide and politicide – to do away with Jews and their state. (This regime makes a point of denying Hitler’s genocide: apparently it wants history to credit just their own.) The present ‘defense’ minister, Ahmad Vahidi, received prominence and promotion precisely because of the deed for which Interpol wants him: masterminding the bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community buildings.

    Iran’s urgent nukes never had credible peaceful purpose for energy production. They make no sense for green power development: the country has enormous sunny deserts for solar power. As for cheap non-green power: for years, to this very day, the country has failed to put any urgency into correcting lack of domestic oil refining capacity, for its own use of its own enormous oil reserves. (No urgency even despite repeated threat of sanctions involving cut-off of refined petroleum products.)

    Of course, Iran doesn’t want war – i.e. combat resulting from another nation resisting Iran. Iranian nuke bombs, used or not, will anyhow give Iran hegemony in the Near East without the need to involve itself (as versus proxies) in war. They will give Iran veto power over other regimes in the region, and enable its clients to manage, control and eventually take over those regimes.

    Contra one comment above, Iran has indeed attacked other nations within the last five centuries, indeed within the past few months. Along with ally Syria into Iraq, Iran has sent weapons and killer squads into Afghanistan.

    Acceptance or not of the latest proposed deal with the regime is irrelevant to deterring or even slowing the regime from its purpose; it boasts openly of – and is implementing – plans to be able to create ever more nuke fuel ever more rapidly.

    Besides validating the regime’s defiance of the IAEA, any deal with the regime offers it a legitimacy which further exacerbates the Obama de facto policy of selling out the green reform movement.

    FCNL writers’ continual apologia for Iran’s repressive regime and its actions and threats fits in to an all-too-common dogma of US wannabe-“progressives” (including often Obama) who, when they look overseas, cold-shoulder or pillory democratic regimes and warm up to and excuse anti-democratic ones. Instead of the dubious right-wing dogma ‘my country right or wrong’ the equally dubious “progressive” dogma is ‘my country too often (or always) wrong, therefore its friends wrong and its enemies right’. Some other notable tenets of the dogma: friends don’t need or merit charity and indulgence and appeasement, but enemies do, because enemies might perpetrate evil – and after all evil must always be non-violently appeased, not resisted, because any violence in the resistance will always be more evil than the original evil itself.

  9. April 27, 2010 10:22 pm

    Joe Weinstein is repeating the same old same old. This vision of Iran as a demonic power intent on pulverizing Israel is not only trite, but it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Why would Iran that doesn’t even have one nuclear weapon try to take out Israel that has over 100 nukes? It’s hard for me to see how Israel is afraid of Iran when Iran is more than 1000 miles away from Israel’s border and has a pitiful military posture.

    Contrast that with Israel that has the latest American weapons, and there’s no contest in a face to face conflict. Conventionally, Iran would be toast in a battle with Israel close to its borders.

    Unfortunately, Joe is taking the straight AIPAC line, which means he has lots of friends in influential places who are shaping American foreign policy their own way. FCNL has to use its energy to wage the battles of their political ideas against those forces in American foreign policy that make a tidy profit off of continuing and encouraging wars in the Middle East.

  10. Reynolds Norman-Tenazas permalink
    April 27, 2010 11:14 pm

    Hi Karl Eysenbach.

    I have a Linkedin account but am unclear on how navigate it so linkedin “will then show you the White House’s topics that anyone can talk about policy issues”? Still new in Linkedin.

  11. April 27, 2010 11:51 pm

    If you have a Linked In account and profile already established, you can go to the search slot in the upper right hand of the screen and type in White House. When the list comes up, click on Lori Shulman, and you’re in the chat rooms, or you can make your own.

  12. Karie Firoozmand permalink
    April 28, 2010 11:13 am

    I find something to comment on for several other commenters.

    @epppie – True that Iran has been betrayed repeatedly by other governments and has had relations disrupted. But please ramp down your own accusations that FCNL just wants to be nice to Obama. Friends actually do like to be nice, but there are more sophisticated goals here.

    @Eileen – Joe got it right pointing out that Iran has attacked its neighbors, just not with its own military. They don’t, as far as I know, make much effort to hide the sponsorship of jihadist organizations outside Iran. They do it by providing support and training. Took a page out of the US book, sounds like.

    @Edwin – yes, the chain reaction of trust is an excellent goal. I am in favor of normalized political relations to make diplomacy possible, not to mention making it official US policy.

    @Jim – as far as I know, you are very correct about the Iranian government’s internal turmoil disrupting its operations in general and response to this in specific. We don’t know much about it, but from what I have been able to read, it is significant.

    @Joe – dealing with the regime doesn’t offer it legitimacy it already IS the government of Iran – it is legit already. The Green movement is reform, as you say, NOT revolution. Not sure why you refer to selling it out. In what way is the US supporting it? If you are famiiar with Iran’s history, you might agree with me that it is playing with fire to interfere in another country’s political struggles (see Nicaragua and other Central American countries for other similar stories). You should remember, too, that FCNL might be progressive by politics, but it is a religiosly affiliated lobby and, as such, resists war and supports peaceful reconciliation. Did you really not know that?

    @Karl -yes, of course there are people getting rich off of wars. You have heard of the phrase “permanent wartime economy”, right? But you should not say those are Joe’s friends unless you know Joe’s friends. Let’s let Joe speak for himself as he believes and leave AIPAC out of it. I didn’t register his Jewish name until you said that and then my knee jerked.

    @everyone – I’m glad people care about Iran enough to write. Remember that since the discovery of oil, Iran has been exploited by Britain, France and the US and has reasons aplenty to be hostile. The whole revolution in 1979 based itself on the reign of a US-installed and US-backed Shah. He tried to develop the country and raise the standard of living and was somewhat successful. But he was also a weak leader who could not handle his job without the US telling him what to do: repress dissent. Hence the revolution. Could not have happened the way it did without British and US meddling. It’s going to be complicated to take it from here. But let’s try.

  13. Steven Spencer, MD permalink
    April 30, 2010 8:34 pm

    I support the Federation of American Scientists position.
    Steve Spencer, MD

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