May 18, 2010

NIAC Memo: Iran’s Nuke Deal Irritates Washington

A noticeable irritation can be sensed in Washington. After months of investing in a new UN Security Council resolution and an escalation of the conflict and apparently winning agreement among the permanent members of the council for such a measure two emerging powers had the audacity to intervene and find a solution. Brazil and Turkey should keep their expectations low, however, because there will not be any thank you party for them in Washington anytime soon.

Only two days after the announcement of the Brazilian-Turkish brokered deal with Iran that would see 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium shipped out of the country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate panel that the United States and its partners seeking new sanctions against Iran have come up with a draft proposal for a new round of penalties. UN Ambassador Susan Rice held a press conference at the UN today unveiling the new resolution.

A day earlier, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley spoke dismissively about the Brazilian-Turkish deal. “The United States continues to have concerns about the arrangement. The joint declaration does not address core concerns of the international community,” Crowley said, “Iran remains in defiance of five U.N. Security Council resolutions, including its unwillingness to suspend enrichment operations.” Crowley then went on to link the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) deal with the Security Council demand for a suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities. “Public statements today suggest that the TRR deal is unrelated to its ongoing enrichment activity. In fact they are integrally linked,” he said.

These developments have taken many observers by surprise. Linking the TRR deal to suspension of enrichment is a new component. It was the White House itself that decided last year to go forward with a deal to swap Iran’s LEU for fuel rods without a suspension in order to throw back Iran’s break out capability.

Furthermore, the earlier justification for the sanctions push was a reaction to Iran’s failure to accept the swap proposal presented to it in October 2009. Administration officials stated on numerous occasions that sanctions would only be pursued if the diplomatic track failed to produce results. Sanctions would be needed to get Iran back to the table and to convince them to accept the deal.

The sudden change of heart in Washington is particularly surprising mindful of the fact that the three objections Iran lodged against the 2009 TRR deal that the LEU needed to be shipped out in one shipment, that the swap would take place outside of Iran, and that the fuel rods would be delivered to Iran nine to twelve months have now all been withdrawn. Iran has agreed to the terms the US insisted on.

This may explain Namik Tan’s, the Turkish Ambassador to the US, comments to the Associated Press, “We have delivered what they were asking for. If we fail to get a positive reaction it would be a real frustration.”

But there are several factors that can shed light on Washington’s apparent reluctance to take yes for an answer.

First, the Senate and the House are in the final phase of sending a broad sanctions bill to the President. The bill has several problems from the White House’s perspective, including its limitations of Presidential waivers as well as the impact it will have on US allies who will be subjected to these sanctions.

Progress on the UN Security Council track has in the past few months been an important instrument to hold back Congress’s own sanctions push. With Congress eager to sanction Iran, particularly now when the Brazilian-Turkish deal conceivably could derail or delay the UN sanctions track, the Obama administration feels the need to pacify the Congressional sanctions track by accelerating the UN sanctions track.

Second, the Brazilian-Turkish deal explicitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrichment and would, as a result, eliminate the option of pursuing the zero-enrichment objective. While most analysts agree that the zero-enrichment objective simply isn’t feasible, the White House has kept its options open on this issue. It has neither publicly confirmed it as a goal, nor rejected it. This, it has been argued, would provide the US with leverage. Even if it no longer is America’s red line, it can still be America’s opening position in a negotiation, the argument reads.

Third, there is a sense in the Obama administration that after the events of last year, a nuclear deal with Iran could only be sold domestically if Iran is first punished through a new round of sanctions. Only after a new round of sanctions would there be receptivity in Washington for a nuclear agreement with Iran. Hence, any nuclear deal that comes before a new round of sanctions would complicate the Obama administration’s domestic challenges. A deal without punishment even a good deal simply wouldn’t be enough.

Understandably, Washington’s reaction to the Brazilian-Turkish deal has created some apprehension in the international community. The Obama administration has worked diligently to overcome the credibility gap America developed with the international community under President George W. Bush. One element of this effort was to utilize diplomacy as a premier tool of US foreign policy.

Punitive measures such as war or sanctions would no longer be the instruments of first resort. But the reaction to the Brazilian-Turkish deal may undo some of the progress the Obama administration has achieved with the international community. Washington’s lack of appreciation for the breakthrough may fuel suspicions of whether sanctions are pursued to achieve success in diplomacy, or whether diplomacy was pursued to pave the way for sanctions and beyond.


This article also appeared on ABC News.  Dr. Trita Parsi is the President of the National Iranian American Council and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer award for Ideas improving World Order.




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