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Can the U.S. Lower its Raised Finger and Stretch Out Its Hand to Iran Again?

May 21, 2010

It was a shameful display of ugly Americanism and junior high school lip by our nation’s top diplomat. The day after Brazil, Turkey, and Iran reached agreement on a nuclear fuel swap deal that had eluded negotiators for eight months, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced at a Senate hearing that the United States was submitting a new Iran sanctions resolution to the UN Security Council that very afternoon.

That was not a move calculated to encourage Iran to follow through on the deal; quite the opposite. But that wasn’t all. She then told Sen. John Kerry,

And let me say, Mr. Chairman that I think this announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran, over the last few days, as any we could provide.

Secretary Clinton’s gratuitous swipe at the efforts of Brazil and Turkey, as well as Iran, prompted as staid an academician and former National Security Council advisor as Gary Sick to write a (very good) commentary entitled “Giving the Finger to Iran (and Turkey and…).”  Sick argues that not only has the United States humiliated the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, it has also foreclosed the possibility that negotiations could succeed where nine years of sanctions have failed. Sick writes:

Would a negotiating track do better, perhaps mediated by two middle-level powers who have built up some credibility with Iran, like Algeria when it finally engineered the end to the US-Iran hostage crisis in 1980-81? We’ll never know. Tonight the hardliners in Iran (and their American counterparts) are celebrating.

The Iranian hardliners had already begun asking questions about the deal, fearful that Iran had given away too much. Now they don’t have to worry since everyone knows that Iran will never be willing or able to negotiate under the threat of sanctions.

But is it really too late? Can the U.S. climb down from the rejectionist and insulting position that Secretary Clinton articulated? And could Iran still take the next steps required to implement the deal? All may not be lost.

Presidential phone call: A day after Secretary Clinton’s smack down, President Obama telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to begin to repair the damage. The same day a White House statement hinted at a more reasonable position on the fuel swap deal. “Iran’s persistent refusal to meet with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program and [its] recent refusal to halt enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent do not build confidence,” the statement said. An unnamed senior U.S. official was more explicit in a leak to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. To make the deal fly, the official said,

Iran must first meet with the P-5 and Germany for detailed discussions, as specified in the original Geneva proposal. And second, Tehran must agree to forgo its own enrichment to 20 percent. Iran’s assertion that it had a unilateral right to continue enrichment to the 20 percent level, regardless of the exchange of fuel, cemented Russian and Chinese support for sanctions, said the senior official.

These are not unreasonable conditions. Will Iran be willing to meet them? The Brazil-Turkey-Iran declaration is explicit on meetings with the P5 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany. It notes the “decision of the Islamic Republic of Iran to continue as in the past their talks with the 5+1 countries in Turkey.” If Iran sticks to the terms of the declaration, the first U.S. condition should not be a problem—if, that is, the U.S. and others are willing to meet in Turkey instead of the usual venues of Geneva and Vienna.

There is another “if” on the U.S. side that is important, and probably critical. The U.S. must be willing to engage Iran in a much broader diplomatic dialogue that includes Iranian as well as U.S. concerns. There must be a forum, or fora, to discuss Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, the end of sanctions, and Iranian access to global markets and technology, as well as Iran’s nuclear program. If the U.S. insists that all it will talk to Iran about is its nuclear program nothing will happen.

A 20 percent solution. The second U.S. condition may pose a bigger hurdle to breaking the impasse. On the optimistic side, the U.S. demand that Iran halt 20 percent enrichment represents a major climb down from the first statements by Secretary Clinton and State Department officials in reaction to the announced agreement. These statements strongly implied that the U.S. had reverted to insisting that Iran halt all uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks and holding off on additional sanctions. Suspension of all enrichment was never part of the nuclear fuel swap deal and insistence on it now would be the same as a categorical rejection.

Iran began 20 percent enrichment last fall, after talks on the fuel swap broke down, arguing that if it could not obtain 20 percent fuel from abroad, it would have to make it at home. So far, however, its 20 percent enrichment is on a very small scale; only its 5 percent enrichment is on an industrial scale. The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, did say after the tripartite agreement was announced that “We will continue our 20 percent uranium enrichment work.” But there could be a hint of ambiguity here. “Continuing” could be an implicit pledge not to expand 20 percent enrichment to an industrial scale. An explicit commitment from Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment would be good, but that is not the only safe and acceptable solution. A commitment, tacit or explicit, not to expand 20 percent enrichment and to give it up when the 20 percent fuel is delivered a year from now would pose no substantial additional risk.

The two conditions the U.S. is posing for acceptance of the nuclear fuel swap deal—and for holding off on further sanctions—might not be beyond the ability of negotiations to resolve, particularly with the help of Brazil and Turkey. Prospects would be much, much brighter if the U.S. had not started off with the Bush-Cheney axis-of-evil attitude and talking points on Iran. President Obama may have realized that his foreign policy team had run away with the ball and he may be resolved to take it back. His realization may have come before the hardliners in Iran run far away with the Tehran ball. We should have an idea soon. The tripartite declaration requires Iran to give formal notice to the International Atomic Energy Agency of its acceptance of the nuclear fuel swap by May 24. It’s hard to exaggerate what’s at stake. This may be the last chance to avoid more futile sanctions and a descent into another Middle East war.

4 Comments
  1. Russell permalink
    May 21, 2010 11:25 am

    I’m very disappointed at Mrs Clinton’s action. We have to accept successes of other countries’ negotiators and build on them, not act in defiance of them. There is a complete absence of time for the Brasil-Turkey to show its worth.

  2. Ruth Busch permalink
    May 25, 2010 5:10 pm

    I find Mrs Clinton’s remarks insensitive. She should be better coached on diplomacy.

  3. May 25, 2010 5:51 pm

    I sincerely hope these actions by Secretary Clinton are not signs that she is another war-hawk. I have had (and still do) much respect and high regard for her for many years. However, if I find she definitely is another war-monger I will not hesitate to stand up against her.

  4. Karie Firoozmand permalink
    May 26, 2010 3:47 pm

    The last sentence of this article came as a big jolt to me. I’m used to believing that the US will not attack Iran (and that Iran most definitely will not attach the US). Is this simplistic? If the recent efforts don’t work out, we are no worse off except that now Iran is enriching uranium to 20%. That’s serious, but I don’t have the knowledge to discuss just how serious it is.

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