So, is anyone in the U.S. administration seriously interested in negotiation with Iran at the close of 2011 and into next year? The name Bob Einhorn comes up in some conversations. Perhaps a few others in the State Department may be on a shortlist and who probably don’t want to be named. But U.S. policy on Iran is in the president’s lap, assisted by an interagency process which, as the 2012 election gets more and more attention, will be overshadowed by the designs of people who serve the president, and that means campaigning and strategizing to ensure his re-election. National Security Council Advisor Tom Donilon will be a player. At Brookings a week ago, Donilon gave a speech in which he said that Obama’s handshake offer to Iran had been rejected, and he described Iran as a “great nation” – those were also the president’s words in 2009 – which had become a “pariah state.” Donilon enumerated U.S. policy in Iran as amounting to having several components intending to isolate and encircle Iran, impose unprecedented sanctions, build up U.S. allies’ defenses in the region, and, lastly, “leaving the door ajar diplomatically” but at the same time underscoring that “no options are off the table.”
I don’t see any real diplomacy in this. But Donilon’s message is one that leaves Obama fairly invulnerable to attacks from his Republican opponents during the coming year that the president is soft on Iran. Leading the field on the Iran issue from the right is one candidate who is openly advocating regime change. Based on what Donilon said last week, there won’t be any significant move away from what looks from here to be a de facto one-track containment policy.
And the other Western P-5+1 states? If anything, they are even more determined to tighten the noose around Iran next year. Germany’s diplomatic machinery, which was seen in recent years as resisting a U.S.-led escalation of pressure on Iran, under different management is taking what looks like an unprecedented hard line. France and perhaps Britain are more hawkish than the United States.
Russia and China
The Russian offer to Iran was set forth to Iran this summer and is described in a two-page memo that has been shared with the rest of the P-5+1 group. It isn’t clear how Iran has responded. Its initial responses, including from Ahmadinejad, weren’t committal and left the matter under consideration. As far as I can tell, Washington and the other P-5+1 states have said nothing definitive, but the internal U.S. reaction at this point ranges from lukewarm interest to outright dismissal.
What’s in the Russian offer? It contains the germ of what could become an agreement by Iran to limit enrichment to 5 percent U-235 [as Ahmadinejad offered at the United Nations in August following up from meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian counterparts]; an agreement by Iran to limit enrichment activity in Iran to just one [in some versions of what’s on the table two] locations in Iran; and – finally and crucially – an agreement by Iran to afford the IAEA access to sites, personnel, and data to permit it to conclude whether the Iranian nuclear program is in its judgment dedicated to peaceful use only. That means implementation of the Additional Protocol.
When Lavrov announced in August that he had made this offer to Iran, some verification-minded U.S. observers muttered that the Russians were prepared to concede to Iran that the 2007 “work plan” – agreed to by Iran and the IAEA about the scope of outstanding issues that must be resolved pursuant to the IAEA’s mandate from the board of governors and the U.N. Security Council to investigate Iran’s nuclear activities – could be declared “closed.” For both the IAEA and at least the Western P-5, such an agreement would be a non-starter. In a separate meeting held this summer between the IAEA and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Salehi offered to intensify cooperation with the IAEA provided the IAEA agree to take off the table its dossier of information on what the IAEA called a “possible military dimension” (PMD) to the nuclear program and what Iran routinely refers to as “alleged studies.”
The Salehi offer to the IAEA and the Russian offer to Iran aren’t necessarily the same, but in fact, if the Russian gambit is ever fleshed out and something like real negotiations on a de-escalation roadmap were to bear fruit, they would result in something that would probably never be acceptable to the U.S. Congress, and maybe to any U.S. administration, relying as it would upon a verdict by the IAEA that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that this Iranian regime would thereafter continue to pile up an inventory of enriched uranium and have done at least some of the homework needed to build nuclear bombs.