Obama twists and turns on Iran
"We will support Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections." Of all of United States President Barack Obama's repeated references to Iran during his near flawless, message-wise, European tour this week, this was undoubtedly the most important, as it signified a new willingness on the US's part to consent to Iran's controversial nuclear fuel cycle.
But, if only Obama could remain consistent and withstand the mounting pressures from various corners, above all Israel and its supporters in the US. These aim to prevent what is increasingly appearing as a logical and necessary adjustment in the US's policy toward Iran in the absence of any evidence of the military diversion of its nuclear program.
Close scrutiny of Obama's speeches and actions with respect to Iran during his European visit leads one to conclude that the administration's policy may be winding down, Yet it is not completely over, and that as a result it is best to describe the US's current Iran policy as a contradictory hybrid in which elements of novelty coexist uneasily with policy continuity with the past.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that by repeatedly referring to Iran in his major foreign policy speeches, such as in Prague and in the Turkish parliament, Obama has prioritized the country and is determined to fulfill his promise of a "new beginning" in relations expressed in his new year message to Iran in March.
A new beginning by relying on old and empirically untenable assumptions is difficult and has the potential to neutralize the new elements in the US's Iran policy. Worse, this may adversely impact US-Russia relations, soured by the US's missile shield in Eastern Europe, which is considered anathema to Russia's national-security interests.
Concerning the latter, despite his warm meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, at the Group of 20 summit in London last week, Obama's subsequent speeches that reaffirmed the US's commitment to proceed with the anti-missile shied are bound to raise the ire of Moscow, which has announced a major plan to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.
In other words, the fate of upcoming US-Russia strategic talks to formulate a new strategic arms reduction agreement when the existing one expires in December, may hinge on the success of Obama's Iran opening. Yet, that is unlikely to happen as long as Tehran is not convinced that real change in US foreign policy is forthcoming. Indeed, which side has the upper hand in the US's Iran policy - continuity with the past or discontinuity?
For now, the answer to this important question is lost in a thick fog of uncertainty, in light of Obama's repeat references to Iran's "nuclear weapons ambitions" and the threats posed to America's European allies by Iran's ambitions as well as its missile capability.
In Prague, Obama stated: "Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe at this time will be removed."
As stated, the Russians, who are concerned about a US strategic ring around them being tightened by the missile defense plan, are unconvinced by such rhetoric on Obama's part and are likely to proceed with their stated counter-plan of stationing new missiles in parts of Russia. At the same time, Medvedev has pledged to work with Obama in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. It is difficult to imagine how such cooperation can come about as long as gaps exist between Moscow and Washington over the US's radar and missiles in Russia's vicinity.
Interestingly, in his speech at the Turkish parliament on Monday, Obama appeared to be making a pitch to turn Turkey into a closer partner against Iran's nuclear threat by stating:
The peace of the region will also be advanced if Iran forgoes any nuclear weapons ambitions. Now, as I made clear in Prague yesterday, no one is served by the spread of nuclear weapons, least of all Turkey. You live in a difficult region and a nuclear arms race would not serve the security of this nation well. This part of the world has known enough violence. It has known enough hatred. It does not need a race for an ever-more powerful tool of destruction.
Turkey is a major interlocutor in the drama of US-Iran diplomacy and relies heavily on Iran's energy, second only to Russia's gas supplies. Thus, any attempt to break Iran-Turkey relations by relying on Turkey as a junior partner in a grand alliance against Tehran is bound to experience a bumpy ride.
But, perhaps there is a quid pro quo and Obama's explicit recommendation to the European Union to embrace Turkey is part of the scenario. Under this, in response to the US backing Turkey's long-standing bid to join the EU, its leaders would join the US's bandwagon against Iran. A big question, naturally, is what exactly the US's ultimate intention?
The "zero centrifuge" option that is still the official US policy toward Iran is unworkable as Iran has already made rapid progress in installing thousands of centrifuges and in producing more than a ton of "yellow cake", a kind of uranium concentrate used in the preparation of fuel for nuclear reactors. The military option carries the grave risk that Iran would become more determined to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle by going underground.
So, in reality, the only viable option for the West is to recognize Iran's nuclear rights and simply push for enhanced transparency and more stringent verification requirements.
The main problem with this scenario is that Israel is adamantly opposed to it and in the absence of a "secure and lasting peace" between Israel and Palestinians, the Israelis will attempt to focus attention on Iran and thus deflect from their Arab problems. There is no evidence that the new ultra-nationalist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in any way inclined to making any compromises, despite Obama's call in Ankara on both Israel and the Palestinians to "live up to the commitments they have made".
Already, Israel's new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has gone on record opposing this idea. As a result, Obama's call will likely fall on deaf ears in Tel Aviv, which will spare no efforts in muddying the White House's Iran overtures. (See Israel muddies US-Iran momentum Asia Times Online, April 1, 2009.)
Still, the worst enemy of Obama's charted path for the US's Iran diplomacy may be the unreconstructed Iran-phobia of Obama himself. He has now recycled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's recent ultimatum to Iran by giving Tehran the choice of either bracketing its nuclear weapons ambitions or facing "isolation". In a sense, one key result of Obama's European visit may have been the closing of any cognitive dissonance on Iran. (See Europe out of step with US over Iran Asia Times Online, March 26, 2009.)
But Iran is not alone. This past week, fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, inaugurated an Iran-Venezuela bank and then went on to express interest in investing in Iran's energy sector. This indicates the difficulties of current US-led efforts to isolate Iran in the international community.
In conclusion, although Obama's reference to Iran's right to a nuclear fuel cycle is a source of renewed optimism in US-Iran relations, his other, more negative, comments serve to freeze those efforts in mid action. This bounces US foreign policy back on the familiar track of coercive diplomacy.
This is a recipe for failure and the way forward is for the US to stop sending mixed signals to Iran and to remain consistent with the US president's new year message to Iran that pledged not to advance the cause of negotiation by issuing threats. Sadly, Obama's speech before the Turkish parliament was only a tiny step short of nullifying that promise.
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.