Obama Needs to Go the Whole Mile on Iran Diplomacy

Vali Nasr
Vali Nasr
Vali Nasr Former Brookings Expert, Dean, School for Advanced International Studies - Johns Hopkins University

March 13, 2012

Last week, President Barack Obama skillfully shifted the debate on Iran, pushing back against “idle talk of war” and making the case for diplomacy.

To make it work, the U.S. now needs a clear road map to show allies and the American people how serious and sustained talks with Iran can bear fruit.

Since November, the administration’s policy of applying pressure to compel Iran to negotiate has rushed instead toward conflict. A worrying International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear activity in that month prompted a new round of crippling sanctions against Iran’s central bank and oil industry. Iran responded by threatening to close the Strait of Hormoz and cut off oil sales to parts of Europe. Israel and the U.S. administration’s Republican critics concluded that the one- two punch of sanctions and talks wasn’t working, and it was time to go to war.

The president stood his ground to get the pressure-and-talk strategy back on track, and there are some hopeful signs that he did the right thing. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed Obama’s defense of diplomacy, describing the U.S. president’s talk of a window of opportunity as “good words.” He also repeated his 1995 fatwa that building nuclear weapons is a “great sin.”

Clear Signal
This was meant as a clear signal to the international community that Iran would not cross Obama’s red line. Equally important, Khamenei’s intervention put an end to talk inside Iran that the country should now build nuclear weapons to protect itself against further Western pressure and any potential military attack. The fatwa and a straightforward letter from Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, declaring Iran’s readiness to resume talks has given the U.S. administration hope that this time, diplomacy may succeed. After all, the environment for the talks today is better than at any other time since Obama took office in 2009. Economic pressure on Iran is cutting to the bone, and a grave crisis looms if things don’t change.

At the same time, Iran’s parliamentary elections on March 2 to some extent repaired the political damage that Khamenei suffered in the 2009 election fiasco, when Iranian authorities jailed opposition leaders and violently suppressed large-scale protests against ballot-box fraud. The appearance of normality on voting day this month and the mandate Khamenei received when his supporters trounced those of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have left the supreme leader stronger. Ahmadinejad’s drubbing means there is now only one decision maker in Tehran — and to everyone’s relief, it is not Ahmadinejad.

But the window for negotiations is narrow. Whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have agreed to in his recent meeting with the U.S. president, in public he offered no endorsement of diplomacy. Obama’s critics on the right will look for the slightest opening to dismiss diplomacy as having failed and again push for war. Doing so would have the added benefit for them of potentially driving up oil prices at the cost of the fragile U.S. economic recovery, on which the outcome of the election hinges. Obama can protect diplomacy from politics, but only if he sees tangible gains early on.

Iranian leaders look eager to give Obama enough to keep the hawks at bay. They also fear, however, that if they concede too much too early, officials in Washington may conclude that what works isn’t diplomacy but pressure, and so they would be inclined to pile more of it on.

Follow the Map
Dennis Ross, who oversaw Obama’s Iran policy until late last year acknowledges a U.S. endgame in which “Iran can have civilian nuclear power, but it must not have nuclear weapons.” If the supreme leader’s fatwa is any guide, Iran would be fine with such an outcome, but only if the U.S. and its allies are willing to accept Iran’s right to enrich nuclear fuel. To get from where we are to that point, talks would have to follow a road map that makes clear the sequence of issues to be discussed and agreements to be reached in building toward a mutually acceptable result. Without such a road map, the U.S. will end up relying on pressure, triggering Iranian obduracy — and we will be back where we started.

Iran has already agreed to the Russian proposal, according to which Iran would address concerns of the international community one by one, each time in exchange for the lifting of a sanction. Iran’s leadership is interested in the idea, because it protects them from a scenario in which Iran is expected to make all the concessions upfront and is promised the benefits at the end. Iran would see this as a trap.
The U.S. has rejected the “step-by-step” approach because small concessions are reversible. As sanctions are lifted, Iran might feel less compelled to provide further concessions. In effect, such a piecemeal process would go only so far and then collapse under the weight of its own success.
Even so, there has to be credible reciprocity to build trust and create momentum in the talks. Trading a temporary freeze on uranium enrichment for a temporary freeze on oil sanctions serves as a useful first step. But with the full weight of sanctions yet to bear on Iran, the U.S. has the greatest leverage right now. It should use it to get Iran to talk about big concessions in exchange for meaningful reductions in sanctions.

Officials in Washington would like Iran to suspend the enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level and to hand over its stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium. Instead, Iran would buy the fuel rods it needs for medical isotopes from abroad. In exchange, Iran’s right to enrich uranium up to 3 percent to 5 percent should be formally recognized — that would be sufficient for a civilian nuclear-power program, but not for bomb making. Iran should also agree to intrusive international inspections and implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, giving the U.S. and its allies a measure of confidence that Iran isn’t working its centrifuges overtime to create weapons-grade fuel.

Lift Sanctions
The U.S. and its European allies, for their part, would need to be ready to lift significant sanctions. The U.S., separately, must be open to starting bilateral talks with Iran about regional security and the future of U.S.-Iran relations. Iran’s perception of opportunity and threat in its neighborhood is the principal reason it has invested its national security in the pursuit of nuclear capability.
How Iran has acted in the region is also a big reason why U.S. sees Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to peace and security in the Middle East. But Iran will not drop its nuclear ambitions unless it feels secure in the region. That is something the U.S. can address, and it is why talking to Iran about its nuclear program cannot be divorced from a broader conversation about regional security.