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26 February 2013

U.S.-Iran Relations: In Diplomacy We Trust

Obama, courtesty of The Official White House Photostream/flickr
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US President Barack Obama

Tracy Lee believes that the reelection of Barack Obama may help to ease tensions between the United States and Iran. What she does not expect to change, however, is Washington’s tough diplomatic stance over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

By Tracy Lee for Diplomatic Courier (DC)

Having clinched a second term, the Obama Administration will continue its hardline diplomatic stance in the showdown over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, exercising more legroom amid heavy sanctions and tightening its grasp in attempts to get closer to a solution.

Pre-election, speculation churned that the adversaries, which have not had formal diplomatic relations for over three decades, inched closer toward face-to-face talks. The White House has since called those reports “not true,” but reiterated that it wants to see a “diplomatic resolution to the problem.”

But with a standing offer for bilateral talks in an environment that is conducive enough for negotiation, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said earlier this month that such talks “must be real and tangible and that there has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to.”

“The administration does seem committed to trying to make (negotiations) work, using the P5+1 (the UN Security Council's five permanent members—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—plus Germany) and to at least consider and offer Iran a better bargain without sacrificing the level of security on nuclear issues, but this is an ongoing process,” Anthony Cordesman, security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Diplomatic Courier.

“Iran has very powerful political and military motives to go ahead with its nuclear program,” he added noting that the government is “certainly not rushing out to an agreement.”

“One doesn’t know to be cautiously optimistic or cautiously pessimistic.”

Tehran has vehemently and repeatedly denied accusations by Western powers that they are seeking to develop a nuclear-weapon capability and has said their program is entirely for peaceful purposes.

In what is raising a flurry of concerns, particularly from the West and Israel, a quarterly report from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), revealed November 16th that Iran is ready to double its uranium enrichment in the underground Fordo uranium plant near the holy city of Qom.

The report said that Iran had finished the installation of its nearly 2,800 centrifuges. Not all centrifuges are operational, the report said, but it pointed to concerns of Iran’s increased stockpile of its most sensitive nuclear material, which could be converted relatively easily to weapons grade.

Iran’s capability of enriching uranium remains the driving point in discussions, but so far Iran has been unwilling to make concessions. The last high-level multilateral talks under the P5+1 folded in June 2012 when Iran rejected calls to scale back on its nuclear program by curtailing its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent.

Fresh talks are again on the table. Negotiators from the P5+1 have been meeting to discuss efforts in order break the impasse.

Cordesman underscored that now is not the time to make any “dramatic new offers” through U.S.-Iran direct channels—that could be done through the P5+1, he said. Instead, it’s important to evoke “some kind of meaningful response from Iran,” he said.

“The greatest challenge frankly is if you compromise, to find a compromise that is workable that will really bring an end to the nuclear program and will do so over time,” he said. “The most serious challenge if you can’t reach a negotiation in the next 12 to 18 months [from Obama's relection] is how to make the choice between military options and containment, and how to persuade not simply Israel but our Gulf allies—Turkey, other states in the region—that our choice is the right one and one that they will support.”

In 2009 President Obama sought out to reset relations with Iran through “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” But it dwindled as the hotly contested Iranian presidential election later that year was met with the regime’s violent crackdown on its opposition supporters and created a shift in political landscape.

Further attempts proved to be back-and-forth. A fuel-swap deal was fostered by the U.S. with the IAEA in October 2009, which would have required the international community to supply fuel for Tehran’s research reactor, and included the implementation of safeguards. Tehran originally agreed to those terms, then retracted.

In conjunction with more Iranian pressure on opposition supporters and new reports of enrichment activities, the negotiating window between the two seemed narrow as the Obama Administration took measures to further isolate Iran.

Washington’s unilateral economic sanctions, along with other sanction packages by the international community, targeting oil exports—Iran’s primary source of revenue—and banks, have devastated the Iranian economy. The sanctions took a bite out of the Iranian rial, which took an unprecedented plunge last October, losing nearly 50 percent of its foreign exchange value in less than a week. It also cost Iran their petroleum exports, which has already been cut nearly in half, and has caused inflation that left Iranians scrambling for American dollars and chicken as the price of meat skyrocketed.

In its monthly oil market report, the International Energy Agency (IEA), which represents major energy consuming nations, reported that Iranian exports averaged 1.3 million barrels per day last October, compared to the average of 2.3 million per day in October 2011. According to The Telegraph, these drops meant a daily revenue loss for Iran of $109 million at current market prices.

Earlier this month a new set of sanctions went into play against Iran that pressured countries buying Iran’s oil, including China, to purchase oil in local currency. Limiting Iran, the country would be stuck using it only towards goods and services in that country. This comes six months after the U.S. said it would block access to the U.S. financial system for those countries buying Iranian oil, but allow them time to wrap-up their trade.

“If the sanctions are too rigid, if they affect critical things, like food supplies, they can produce a negative reaction,” Cordesman said. “If sanctions are gradually discussed—confront Iran with a steadily greater prospect of even more serious impacts—they might be productive.”

But a pressing point is trying to predict how Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other top tiers of leadership, will react to additional pressures by the West, Cordesman explained, noting that “trying to predict that gets into the same kind of mind reading that is involved in criminology,” Cordesman said. “It’s an interesting intellectual sport, but establishing any credible level of confidence is impossible.”

In the first foreign policy move announced after the election, the White House said four Iranian officials and five organizations had been targeted with sanctions for censorship that included instances where satellite broadcasts were jammed.

“It is true that countries under siege find ways to survive and it’s no question, in my view, that the Iranians will try and figure out many ways to endure these sanctions and try to work around them,” Stephen Schlesinger, senior fellow at New York-based think-tank, The Century Foundation, told Diplomatic Courier. “But the question in their minds: is it really worth it to continue on this route when the desirability of negotiations is right around the corner?”

All those incentives become increasingly attractive as sanctions tighten, particularly as Iran runs the risk of losing several years of economic growth and development, along with a dampened influence in the Middle East, Schlesinger said.

There is always a debate whether a country is being aggressive enough or whether it is being sufficiently potent with non-military weaponry against a regime like Iran, Schlesinger said, adding that with the slow ratcheting up of restrictions, there is “plenty left in the [Obama Administration’s] agenda for additional tightening of the screws, on Iranian society.”

At his first post-election news conference, Obama said he would “try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran, and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved.”

“I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk though, but that would be very much the preferable option,” Obama said.

With Obama’s reelection, the White House is in a better position to prevent an outbreak of any sort with Tehran, creating “a huge breathing space” for negotiations, Schlesinger said.

“My instinct is that [Obama] will accept this situation as it is, continue to do the sanctions regime, hope for a negotiated settlement, but not start a war,” he said.

With Israeli leadership, who argue that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state, signaling that it would wait until spring or summer of 2013 before taking military actions on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Schlesinger said it would buy more time for the US to engage in diplomacy.

“There is a big breathing space. I think another 6 to 8 months [from Obama's reelection] could have a tremendous impact because by then, the sanctions would have had that additional half year or so to bite, and all these additional restrictions will have had kind of played out… The economy is certainly not going to get better in Iran; it’s certainly only going to get worse,” Schlesinger said. “Frankly, the Iranians have to also calculate that they might get a deal with Obama, and they may never get a deal with the next president that comes along.”


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Direct Talks between Iran and the US on the Iranian Nuclear Program: Not Necessarily Negative
The P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship
Iran: US Concerns and Policy Responses


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Editor's note:

This article was originally published by ISN partner Diplomatic Courier, and appeared in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.

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