The US and Iran: Time to Talk
The most important step in the current US-Iran crisis is for the two sides to talk. Senator Lugar and others agree. It sounds doable, right? But the reality is that the United States and Iran have not been talking in any in-depth, sustained way since the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis. In the negotiations between the E3 (Britain, France, Germany) and Iran in 2004-2005, the United States was on the sidelines. It was hailed as a breakthrough when Secretary of State Rice just approved those negotiations. But the United States was not there to engage on its priority issues — Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Iranian policy towards Israel, human rights — nor on priority issues for Iran — its uranium enrichment program, an end to existing US sanctions, security assurances.
The Bush administration did, however, exact a price for its backing of the negotiations that virtually assured their failure — that Iran would not be permitted to engage in any uranium-enrichment related activities whatever in the foreseeable future.
In an interview with Amy Goodman of the Democracy Now radio program following up on his New Yorker article, Seymour Hersh made the point about the failure to talk:
Bush doesn’t talk to people he’s mad at. He doesn’t talk to the North Koreans. He didn’t talk to the insurgency. When the history is done, there were incredible efforts by the insurgency leaders in the summer of 2003. I’m talking about the Iraqi insurgency, the former Sunni generals and Sunni and Ba’athist leaders who were happy to see Saddam go, but did not want America there. They wanted to talk to us. Bush wouldn’t. Whether it got to Bush, I don’t know, it got in to four-stars. Nobody wanted to talk to them. He doesn’t talk to the president of Syria; in fact, specifically rejects overtures from al-Asad to us. And he doesn’t talk to the Iranians. There’s been no bilateral communication at all.
Iran has come hat-in-hand to us. A former National Security Council adviser who worked in the White House, Flynt Leverett, an ex-CIA analyst who’s now working at Brookings, wrote a piece [in January] in the New York Times, describing specific offers by the Iranians to come and ‘let’s deal.’ Let’s deal on all issues. I’m even told they were willing to talk about recognizing Israel. And the White House doesn’t talk. And it’s not that he doesn’t talk, it’s that nobody pressures him to talk. There’s no pressure from the media, no pressure from Congress.
With other non-governmental organizations, Michael Spies and I, on behalf of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, have been meeting with diplomats from the countries on the Security Council and other key countries. We’re picking up indications that there’s a desire to get the United States and Iran talking.
Are the issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program capable of resolution? It certainly seems possible, assuming the United States is willing to drop the posture of simply delivering to Iran the ultimatum that it must cease all enrichment-related activities. It should be noted that this all would have been much easier before Ahmadinejad came into office. He continues to stoke the fires of confrontation.
In May, a British/French draft of a resolution on Iran was made available informally outside the Security Council chambers.
The draft states that the Council is “acting under Chapter VII” of the UN Charter. This means that it is based upon a finding of a threat to international peace and security, is legally binding, and could be the basis for later imposition of sanctions or authorization of force. When asked about the draft outside the chambers, China’s representative, Ambassador Wang, said that China will not accept a Chapter VII resolution. Russia’s position has been similar. Some elected members of the Council might also prefer a non-Chapter VII resolution but the ten elected members of the Council so far have not attempted to press their views, leaving dealing with Iran up to the permanent five members.
There is indeed no basis for a finding of a threat to international peace and security. Further, it is hard to see how a hard-line resolution confronting Iran is going to lead to a productive outcome. The draft requires Iran to suspend all enrichment-related activities. Also, going beyond the presidential statement and the February IAEA board resolution, it requires Iran to suspend construction of a heavy water reactor. Previously Iran had been asked only to consider this step. Iran has said it will continue safeguards implementation, and therefore IAEA monitoring of its enrichment facilities, provided that Iran’s nuclear dossier remains “in full” in the framework of the IAEA. So Iran might stop cooperating with the IAEA on safeguards if a Chapter VII resolution is adopted.
As of May 24, discussions among the permanent five plus Germany had failed to yield agreement on the form a resolution could take or on incentives to be offered Iran. If Russia and China hold firm and are prepared to veto a Chapter VII resolution, perhaps the Council will consider alternative approaches, such as establishing a mediation commission, or working more intensively with all relevant parties to find a mutually acceptable solution before the June IAEA Board meeting.
Outside the zone of potential confrontation at the Security Council, it remains the case that a solution to the nuclear issues is within reach. The outlines of a compromise were visible when Russia floated the possibility that an industrial-scale enrichment facility in Russia could be combined with small-scale enrichment activities in Iran. At a March 29 forum hosted by the Ralph Bunche Institute at the City University of New York, Iran’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif, former chief negotiator in the E3/Iran negotiations, said that this would be acceptable to Iran. ElBaradei indicated something like this approach is workable. But the proposal was shot down by the Bush administration before it could really be explored.
Zarif himself noted in a New York Times op-ed that in the talks with the E3, Iran had proposed elements of a deal going well beyond what is in place for other non-weapon countries that have enrichment or reprocessing facilities, including the continuous on-site presence of atomic agency inspectors at the conversion and enrichment facilities, and the immediate conversion of all enriched uranium to fuel rods, thereby precluding the possibility of further enrichment.
Why would the Bush administration not accept a deal subjecting a limited Iranian enrichment program to heightened IAEA supervision? To its credit, the administration has clearly realized that the spread of reprocessing and enrichment facilities beyond the dozen or so countries now possessing them — far more than just the spread of nuclear reactors — creates the potential for the spread of nuclear weapons arsenals. A country which has learned to enrich uranium for reactor fuel could later defy or withdraw from the IAEA/NPT and make weapons. Some argue too that clandestine enrichment could be conducted parallel to monitored activities.
However, it has gotten a little late in the Iran case (it would have been helpful if the United States had been dealing with Iran over the past couple of decades instead of, for example, supporting Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s). Indeed, before the 1979 revolution, as Dafna Linzer reported in the Washington Post, the United States not only supported the Shah’s very ambitious program for construction of nuclear reactors but also offered to assist with construction of a reprocessing facility in Iran!
At this point, the best course for the United States, E3, and other concerned countries would seem to be:
• to have the IAEA hold the Iranian nuclear program very close (is it more likely that weapons development will proceed in the presence or in the absence of IAEA?!);
• to de-emphasize the importance of the nuclear program (perversely, Western hostility towards Iran’s nuclear aspirations has only served to reinforce them);
• to create incentives, like a guaranteed fuel supply, for Iran to quietly drop or minimize development of the extremely expensive and technically challenging enrichment technology.
However, rational consideration of a workable solution is impeded by what Professor Evand Abrahamian calls the “symbiotic relationship of mutual paranoia.” In particular, rational consideration is impeded by the US policy of regime change. All of this is exacerbated by the messianic and belligerent tone taken by the two leaders. To start changing the relationship, there must be dialogue. There’s plenty of time — it’s doubtful, and there’s little evidence, that Iran has made a firm decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Further, it’s many years away from having the enrichment capability to build an arsenal of deliverable weapons comparable to the existing nuclear-armed states (the sort of arsenal an aspiring regional power might want), and three to five or so years from having the enrichment capability to build a handful of weapons.
If there is no solution reached through negotiations, where are we headed? It looks like stalemate ahead in the Security Council. It may not be possible for the E3 and the United States to persuade Russia and China to go along with a binding resolution requiring Iran to cease enrichment activity. Sanctions imposed by the Council look unlikely, and authorization of military action is out of the question.
If the Council gets stuck, there are two possible paths ahead (absent negotiations). In Path One, the United States will recruit other countries to join in the sanctions it already applies to Iran. It will pursue its policy of isolating Iran and promoting regime change through media efforts, support for civil society and opposition groups, and probably covert action aimed at damaging the nuclear program and stimulating ethnic conflict. None of this is likely to persuade Iran to give up its enrichment program, and voices in Iran calling for withdrawal from the NPT and pursuit of nuclear weapons, not just enrichment capability, will be strengthened.
Path Two would start with a US attack on Iran, with at least some of the horrendous consequences — certainly including further undermining of international law and institutions — that many have outlined. It would have unpredictable bad consequences as well.
This look at the future leads back once again to the point: Let’s talk. As Senator Lugar indicated, a cooling down period would be a good place to start.