US President Barack Obama 390 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
Arguing that US President Barack Obama has been too confrontational in dealing
with Iran’s nuclear ambitions would seem to fly in the face of reality. After
all, this is the president who came into office and insisted on doing away with
the precondition that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before talks
This is the president that, in a clear break with his
predecessor, offered Iran his outstretched hand, if Iran would only unclench its
fist. Indeed, this is the president that offered unconditional diplomacy to
Iran, against the better counsel of many.
Could it be that this president
is now deemed too confrontational? Criticized for being too quick to move to
harsh sanctions? Strangely enough, this is precisely the argument that some Iran
watchers are currently attempting to advance. They claim that Obama gave up on
diplomacy too soon; not only that, but he rejected the fuel deal that Turkey and
Brazil were able to conclude with Iran – a so-called “confidence-building
measure” that they criticize Obama for dismissing because he was too bent on
setting sanctions in motion.
The truth is that Obama’s approach to Iran
has unfolded in the context of his own experience of dealing with Iran, as well
as against the backdrop of lessons that had already been learned from previous
attempts to negotiate. If Obama has lately become much tougher on Iran, it is
most likely because he has come to the conclusion that there is no other way to
effectively deal with this determined proliferator.
Obama started out by
assuming a controversial position. Although the international community had been
confronting an intransigent Iranian nuclear policy, Obama spent the entire first
year of his presidency advancing his diplomatic agenda, not deterred even by the
regime’s brutal repression of popular protests that erupted all over the country
in the wake of the fraudulent presidential elections in June 2009. In the face
of these developments, and growing impatience with Iran’s stalling tactics in
some quarters, Obama nevertheless insisted on giving the Islamic regime space
and time to come to the table.
Over the summer of 2009 an opportunity
presented itself to test whether Iran had finally decided to negotiate seriously
with the international community. It hinged on Iran’s request for 20 percent
enriched uranium fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which the US saw as an
opportunity to significantly reduce Iran’s growing stockpile of low enriched
The contours of the fuel deal offered to Iran in October 2009
were that 1,200 kg. of low enriched uranium (about 75 percent of Iran’s
stockpile at the time) would be shipped first to Russia to be enriched to 20%
and then on to France to be turned into fuel for the small research reactor.
Iran would get its fuel, and the international community would get a breather. A
seemingly win-win situation. But after stalling for several months, Iran finally
came back with its answer – it rejected the deal. In a further act of brazen
defiance, in February 2010, Iran itself began enriching uranium to
What the Obama administration learned was that not only was Iran not
interested in building confidence, it was obviating any basis for confidence by
initiating 20% enrichment.
Obama concluded that it was high time to move
to the harsher measures that he had warned would be implemented if Iran remained
obstinate, and he got to work convincing Russia and China to come on board. In
May 2010, just as he was on the verge of introducing a proposal for a fourth
round of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, with Russian and
Chinese backing, Turkey and Brazil announced that they had brokered a new fuel
deal with Iran.
In recent commentary, Trita Parsi, a US-based Iran
observer, praises this deal as the product of the superior negotiations
techniques of Turkey and Brazil. He laments Obama’s rejection of what he
describes as a version of the fuel swap that Obama had sought, in favor of a
stubborn march to sanctions. The problem with this argument is that the
Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal was not a confidence-building measure – it was simply a
Among its problems was that it mentioned absolute numbers
(1,200 kg. of low enriched uranium) which by May constituted only 50% of Iran’s
stock. More importantly, however, the very first clause of the 10-clause deal
openly granted legitimacy to Iran’s enrichment activities on the basis of its
NPT rights. Absolutely no mention was made of the fact that the UNSC had already
passed several resolutions that deemed otherwise. And having begun to enrich to
20% several months earlier, this was included in Iran’s so-called legitimate
Not something that would inspire confidence.
not reject the deal due to his being set on sanctions; on the contrary, it was
the fuel deal trio that sought to undermine US determination to pursue
legitimate sanctions, by quickly pushing forward a lousy deal.
with Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been an almost decade-long process, and by the
time Obama became president, the lessons of Iran’s negotiations techniques had
already been learned. While Obama was determined to negotiate, he quickly found
himself in the clutches of Iran’s familiar delay tactics. He failed to find a
serious partner for negotiations to get Iran to back away from its military
ambitions in the nuclear realm. Instead he found Iran determined to advance to
its goal, and stubbornly moving forward. Under these circumstances Obama’s move
to a much tougher stance in facing Iran was the correct policy, testimony to his
experience.The writer is the director of the Arms Control Program at the
Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is
Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the
Future of Nuclear Non- Proliferation (forthcoming, 2012).