Too confrontational on Iran?

In the face of growing impatience with Iran’s stalling tactics, Obama insisted on giving the Islamic regime space and time to come to the table.

US President Barack Obama 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
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 commence.
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 uranium.
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 20%.
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 bad deal.
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 enrichment.
Not something that would inspire confidence.
Obama did 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.
Dealing 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 author of Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Non- Proliferation (forthcoming, 2012).