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November 15, 2010

Much Sensible Talk on Iran Nuke Talks
Posted by David Shorr

In the run-up to the resumption of P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, Ray Takeyh, Meir Javedanfar, and Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi (dunno what I'd do without RealClearWorld) have offered sound advice to the Obama administration as well as the Republican opposition.

The message to Republicans comes from Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli strategic analyst based in Tel Aviv, writing in The Diplomat. He sees the effort to keep Iran from getting the bomb as a quintessentially bipartisan issue and says Republicans should support President Obama's policy. I start with Javedanfar not just because he throws down a gauntlet for supporting the right policy rather than seeking partisan advantage -- though that has an undeniable appeal -- but because he pinpoints the essence of the policy. Warning Republicans not to reject or dismiss Iran's interest in resumed talks, he explains:

Why? Not because the talks are likely to produce any sudden change in heart on the part of the regime. Quite the contrary—with each offer of talks, and each conference held, the Iranian government has done a better and better job of convincing the West and the international community that it isn’t willing to undertake meaningful compromise. Obama, on the other hand, has been.

Part of this success, as Javedanfar highlights and I have emphasized repeatedly, is a genuine turn and breach in the Iran-Russia relationship. This prompts the author to caution Republicans against undermining President Obama's resetting of US-Russian relations. Another key factor in heightening Tehran's discomfort, he argues, was the message conveyed in Obama's Nuclear Posture Review -- that the US pledge not to attack with nuclear weapons is reserved for those nations that are parties-in-good-standing to the NPT (i.e. not Iran or North Korea). I confess genuine ambivalence here. As someone who supports a US pledge of no-first-use, I'm not keen on such hedging. On the other hand, if ever there was a situation where the ends may justify the means, this is probably it. (See Mort Halperin for a fuller explication of the NPR.)

In a Washington Post op-ed, Ray Takeyh focuses on the link to human rights and the Green Movement, and thereby helps clear up a source of ambivalence for me. Throughout the entire process, I have vigorously guarded against the trade-off between regime-change in Tehran (wonderful as that would be) and the goal of a non-nuclear armed Iran. We simply can't let Iran or anyone else believe the nuclear process is a cover story for an underlying policy of regime-change. I've said before that I'm open to ideas for how the pursuit of human rights and nonproliferation could be complementary, and now Takeyh (reinforced by the other two pieces) has convinced me. I can see how pressing for key concrete human rights steps like releasing political prisoners could reinforce rather than undermine the nuclear talks.

Moreover, they could be quite helpful in addressing an internal political dynamic that has emerged. Increasingly, the Iranian opposition has resisted a nuclear deal with the international community partly because they don't want the hard-liners to get the credit. Bringing these issues into the talks could help give the Green movement a share of the credit for improving Iran's relations with the world and, hopefully, a stake in a nuclear deal.

The Parsi and Marashi article at brings me to the lessons of the last phase of the process -- specifically the mediating role of Turkey and Brazil and the deal to transfer enriched uranium out of Iran. The authors make a strong point on the latter and leave me unconvinced on the latter, and the two issues are related. Brazil and Turkey did indeed work assiduously to bridge differences between the US-UK-Russia-France and Iran after the October 2009 agreement for Iran to ship enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for fuel rods for its civilian reactors. By spring 2010, with a new round of UN sanctions looming, they delivered a new deal that tilted heavily toward Iran and did nothing to assuage P-4 concerns over the uranium that had been enriched the intervening months. The Obama administration felt its hand had been forced; they tabled a sanctions resolution (with Russian and Chinese support) in the Security Council almost immediately.

But enough recap. Parsi and Marashi stress the highly useful role Brazil and Turkey can still play as interlocutors. Absolutely. My view is that the US had to decisively reject the revised deal and kick the sanctions into higher gear.  But it's also true that the administration could have done so much more gently, with don't-take-it-personally assurances. Hopefully, the renewed talks offer a chance to patch things up and use Turkey and Brazil's channel to Iran constructively.

On the uranium transfer / fuel swap deal, I'm afraid I don't understand Parsi and Marashi's point that the P-4 were being too rigid. This process is essentially an effort to beat the clock before Iran has a virtual nuclear-weapon capability. Capping the amount of uranium in their hands is already a partial measure -- a good one -- to turn the clock back and allow more time to negotiate a full-scale resolution. If we don't have something like the uranium deal, then it'll be all the easier for Tehran to just run out the clock.


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On the uranium transfer / fuel swap deal, I'm afraid I don't understand Parsi and Marashi's point that the P-4 were being too rigid. This process is essentially an effort to beat the clock before Iran has a virtual nuclear-weapon capability. Capping the amount of uranium in their hands is already a partial measure -- a good one -- to turn the clock back and allow more time to negotiate a full-scale resolution. If we don't have something like the uranium deal, then it'll be all the easier for Tehran to just run out the clock
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