No (Iran) War for Zero Enrichment!
Posted by David Shorr
In the run-up to next week's scheduled P5+1 talks with Iran in Moscow, there are a lot of big issues at play. What effect do US and Israeli domestic politics have? Do sanctions need to be eased? Do the major gaps between the positions of Iran and the others portend a drift toward war?
Let's start with the good news / bad news from the US presidential campaign trail. The Romney camp is finally clarifying their candidate's Iran position. Contrary to the appearances they themselves fostered, Gov. Romney has not given up on diplomacy and decided war is the only course. Ali Gharib over at ThinkProgress reviews recent statements from Romney advisers, including Barbara Slavin of Al-Monitor's interview with Rich Williamson, and concludes that Romney's Iran position is nearly identical to what President Obama is already doing.
...with one notable exception. Williamson reiterated that a Romney Administration's bottom line with Iran would hew to right wing demands by factions in US and Israeli insisting that Iran be halted from enriching uranium even to low levels. So even after their attempts to clarify, the Romney campaign is still faced with an important question: how can you claim to favor a diplomatic solution when your proposed outcome is completely unworkable?
NO NUCLEAR WEAPON, OR NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES?
We need to be clear what's at stake here. The Obama administration has painstakingly built an impressive international coalition and the toughest-ever set of sanctions all with the aim of inducing Iran to negotiate seriously rather than just stalling for time. All of which to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In other words, all with the aim of avoiding a war.
Our friends on the right are using different goalposts, however. Beyond stopping Iran from getting the bomb, they want to stop Iran from having any civilian nuclear program either. There is no debate over the fact that Iran has the burden of proving the civilian purpose of its activities. Their record of deception is the heart of the dispute; it's why the stringent sanctions have been imposed. But the point of the negotiations is for Iran to meet that burden of proof. We need to look at the optimistic scenario of diplomatic progress -- not because signs are hopeful or the path is clear, but to ask how war can be avoided.
So let's say Iran indeed gets serious about the negotiations, cooperates more fully with inspectors, and allows its stocks of enriched uranium to be removed from the country. Imagine an agreement whereby the civilian character of Iran's nuclear program is verified through stricter measures than for any of the many countries with similar programs (easier said than done, no question). The position of right wingers in Congress, the Israeli government, and apparently candidate Romney is to go to war rather than take that deal. The best deal we would ever get from the Iranians because a negotiated agreement with zero Iranian enrichment is a fantasy.
There is a lot of tea leaf-reading of the Obama administration's position on enrichment, which has its own ambiguities. But I think there's less ambiguity than meets the eye. Just think of the many statements, including around Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit for the AIPAC conference, on the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. Every time that word is used -- as opposed to the conservatives' favorite, capability -- it isn't very hard to read between the lines.
SLIP-SLIDING INTO WAR
Of course the negotiations do not yet have momentum toward a deal; in fact they are quite fragile. This leaves some analysts worried about a breakdown in diplomacy and inexorable drift toward war. Robert Wright of the Atlantic believes President Obama may not have left himself any way out. There's a real quandary here: is either side ready to give the kind of significant concessions that would prompt the other side to reciprocate. This is a bargaining process, after all.
For Wright, this is all about election-year politics, Jewish voters, and the pro-Israel lobby. I'd offer another explanation; it might be about Iran's nuclear program. Not to be too flip, but let's not forget that Iran has shown a marked pattern of dealing in bad faith. Again, that's why we have the sanctions. Bob indeed gives the outlines of an attractive potential deal, but there's a key point that shouldn't be elided: sanctions can only be eased in exchange for pretty major moves by Iran. Here's how former senior Obama administration official Colin Kahl explained it to Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen:
Big sanctions have been put in place to hold Iran accountable. With UN Security Council resolutions, it’s difficult to scale them back for minor actions.
This dilemma may be the reason behind the idea, reported by Rozen, of trying to "go big" and enlarge the talks' scope.
THE CAMPAIGN RHETORIC DISCOUNT
The other big topic of speculation (especially on Twitter with @robertwrighter and @TonyKaron) is the question of whether a President Romney would actually be so trigger-happy toward Iran. What are we to make of all the tough election-year posturing from the Republicans? Is it really an indication of how they'd govern?
I'd just like to say that it matters what candidates and advisers say on the campaign trail even if it's different from what they'd do in office. Sure, let's stipulate that cooler heads prevail in a Romney administration. This would bring predictable headaches from the Republican base (would Bolton be in or out of the admin?), but that's really none of my business.
My real concern is about the level of foreign policy discourse in our political system and culture. What argument really is there for shrugging off campaign rhetoric, rather than scrutinizing it as a platform for governing? Should we be comfortable with a big gap between what politicians tell voters and the limited options of the real world? It's particularly strange to hear people discount rhetoric at a moment when the media has been doing a better and better job in closing that gap. I was struck the other day, for instance, to hear Chuck Todd press a Republican on the question of what results will be achieved by being more confrontational with Russia.