Obama moves the 'red line' on Iran

Posted in Europe , United States , Iran | 08-Jun-09 | Author: Kaveh Afrasiabi| Source: Asia Times

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands as they participate in a bilateral meeting at the Prefecture in Caen, France Saturday, June 6, 2009.

Just days before Iran's presidential elections on Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released another report on Iran's nuclear program that confirms the absence of any evidence of military misuse as well as Iran's nuclear transparency. The report nonetheless fails to give Iran a complete clean bill of heath and raises questions about the alleged studies and "possible military use". [1]

This new report by the IAEA's director general Mohammad ElBaradei will be discussed by the agency's governing board later in June. For now, it appears to have given some ammunition to disparate and diametrically opposed positions on Iran's nuclear program.

While Iran's official reaction is that the new report confirms the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, some former officials, such as Iran's former envoy to the IAEA, Mohammad Sadegh Ayatollahi, have criticized it as ambiguous. In the West, the focus has been on the report's claims about Iran's ability to install some 7,000 centrifuges, to pile up more low-enriched uranium, as well as Iran's refusal to allow IAEA inspection of the heavy water reactor under construction in Arak.

The IAEA report is bound to perpetuate the present nuclear standoff, irrespective of its crucial conclusions regarding the agency's surveillance of Iran's enrichment facilities, improvements in Iran's nuclear accountancy, and 27 unannounced inspections of the enrichment plant in Natanz.

In his Paris visit over the weekend, United States President Barack Obama joined his host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in issuing a dire warning about the dangerous consequences of Iran's possession of nuclear weapons. That it would set off a dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The concern followed Obama's much-anticipated speech in Cairo, in which he claimed that Iran's nuclear program has "reached a decisive point".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has echoed her boss by stating, "I think part of what is clear is we want to avoid a Middle East arms race which leads to nuclear weapons being in the possession of other countries in the Middle East. And we want to make clear that there are consequences and costs."

The trouble with such policy statements is that Israel possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads. The US has no clue how to bring Israel into a serious discussion on a nuclear weapons' free zone in the Middle East. This was illustrated by Obama's rather vacuous reference to the issue in his Cairo speech - a passing reference to general disarmament. If Obama is serious about dialogue with the Muslim world, many believe he must seriously consider the Muslim Middle East's anxieties about Israel's nuclear arsenal.

With respect to Iran, whose leaders adamantly insist that their nuclear program is completely peaceful, all the four presidential candidates are in unison over Iran's nuclear right. Very little change in strategic terms should be expected after June 12, no matter who the winner is.

In fact, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has accused his reformist rivals of demonstrating weakness in nuclear negotiations and compromising Iran's nuclear rights. His challengers barked back by defending the past policy of suspending the enrichment program under former President Mohammad Khatami as "limited and temporary", to paraphrase Iran's former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani. An important point made by Rowhani and other former officials is that short of the "confidence-building" temporary suspension, Iran would have not been able to resume the enrichment activities, as it did in early 2006, without facing severe consequences.

Still, there are substantive differences among the four presidential candidates on the nuclear issue. These divergences, however, appear to be on the secondary "tactical" issues and the degree of flexibility that is deemed legitimate in the course of upcoming negotiations.

Ahmadinejad appears to have the upper hand in the current national debate on the nuclear issue because the West's "red line" on Iran's program has for all practical purposes evaporated. This came about due to Iran's rapid mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and has introduced a great deal of policy uncertainty on the part of the "Iran Six" - the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.

In Europe, a new policy movement to adjust to the changing realities is slowly emerging. A recent statement by Slovenia, the current president of the European Union Council, calls for "restoring confidence between Iranians and the international community". If Ahmadinejad is re-elected, as anticipated by some pollsters inside Iran, changes in Iran's approach to confidence-building can be expected.

At this stage, it is unclear what the Obama administration's posture in future negotiations will be. Obama's has said he is willing to respect Iran's nuclear rights as long as Iran's activities complied with Iran's obligations toward the IAEA. In the latest Iran report cited above, ElBaradei called for a "new modality" of information-sharing on Iran's nuclear program, thus calling into question the adequacy of US efforts to inform the agency about Iran's so-called "alleged studies."

The drift of Washington's Iran policy appears to be setting the stage for talks. This is evident in Obama's soft-selling of the Iran nuclear issue in his Middle East tour last week and the earlier regional tour by his point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, who Time magazine said was on a mission aimed at "drawing everyone in". The articles quotes a senior administration official who commented on Ross's trip to the Persian Gulf states: "we 're also setting a stage that creates a justification, if this doesn't work, to dramatically different things".

All the talks of "crippling sanctions" may mean the US is using upcoming multilateral negotiations with Tehran as a ruse to rationalize further coercive actions against Iran. If this is the approach the Obama administration is quietly plotting toward Iran, it is almost certainly bound to fail. It will lead to the opposite of confidence-building.

At a time when Iran feels confident and its leverages in the region have been bolstered, the only chance of exiting the nuclear standoff is a coherent Western strategy that respects Iran's right to possess a nuclear fuel cycle on the basis of rigorous IAEA inspections.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.