Why No One Wants an Iran Deal
Image Credit: Daniella Zalcman

Why No One Wants an Iran Deal


Given the diplomatic fallout that began raining down with the pre-release of the International Atomic Energy Agency board report on Iran to the P-5 at the beginning of November, I surmised then that there might be a chance that Russia would embellish a two-page offer that it floated to Iran this summer, and that the Obama administration might regard that as a potential opportunity to keep things from spiraling out of control in 2012.

Something like that could transpire. But the more likely prospect is that we will wait indefinitely and in vain for any action to develop a roadmap to resolve this crisis, because it would appear that none of the players – not the United States, not the Euro P-2+1, not Russia and China, not Iran, and not Israel – really wants a negotiated settlement.

The logic for the United States letting Russia move forward on its offer to Iran with some background guidance from Washington was this: President Barack Obama through election day 2012 will be under pressure from Congress and Republican foes to be firm on Iran, depriving him of any freedom to lead the way toward a diplomatic resolution which the United States has said it favors. The P-5+1 might persuade Iran to seriously take up the Russian-sponsored gambit in light of increasing threats from Israel that its patience is running out. Russia and China might join with the West because the outcome would lift nuclear sanctions and permit their bilateral relations with Iran to return to business as usual.

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That scenario assumes that all the parties involved have an interest in negotiating a settlement to the crisis. In fact, none of them may have an interest in reaching such an outcome.

The U.S. policy on Iran’s nuclear program is now in effect a one-track policy of implementing more sanctions and containing Iran; there’s no real commitment to being part of a diplomatic solution with the current Iranian regime. Administration officials dedicated to serving the President will make sure that no outside-the-box thinking on Iran will go forward if it puts Obama’s re-election at risk.

Russia and China may not accommodate U.S. interests during any negotiation of a deal with Iran because of antagonisms with the United States over bigger strategic issues, and they may conclude that cooperation with the United States on Iran provides them few benefits.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has shown a desire to engage with the West, is losing his grip and a truculent Ayatollah Khamenei will rule out Iran making any concessions over its nuclear program, teaching Iranians that Muammar Gaddafi made a fatal mistake by giving his WMD programs up.

Israel, contrary to some conventional wisdom, isn’t bluffing, and is prepared to attack nuclear installations in Iran if it concludes that Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the Middle East is in dire jeopardy. What may ultimately hold Israel back is the calculus that doing this would defer any prospect of internally-generated regime change in Iran. A negotiated deal would in its view result in a nuclear weapons capability in the hands of a regime that is hostile to Israel.

It’s worth looking at these points in a little more detail.

An emerging one-track U.S. approach

Officially, the United States follows a two-track course of carrots and sticks on Iran. That’s been the case since 2009, when Obama told Iranians, for example on occasion of the Nawruz holiday, that “the administration is committed to diplomacy” and a process that “will not be advanced by threats.” In the meantime, Iran appeared to respond favorably to concern about its enrichment program. Ten months after Obama’s inauguration, Iran took up a uranium swap plan meant to deter it from raising its enrichment level. No agreement was reached. This autumn, Ahmadinejad on three occasions, including in the U.N. General Assembly offered to reduce Iran’s level of enrichment from 20 percent to 5 percent U-235. My colleague, James Acton, in October recommended that the United States take up this offer, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Why not? There are several fundamental reasons, but the bottom line is that, since 2009 the United States has lost interest in the diplomatic track. In 2010, the United States encouraged Brazil and Turkey to offer to negotiate with Iran on a fuel swap deal to remove 1,200 kilograms of Iranian-enriched LEU in exchange for supply of 20 percent-enriched uranium for its safeguarded TRR research reactor.

At Carnegie this year, Celso Amorim, who was Brazil’s foreign minister when the Brazil-Turkey-Iran diplomacy was happening, related that after the United States had prompted Brazil to make this deal with Iran and Iran agreed, the U.S. backed out. In Amorim’s words, the deal would have been an important confidence-builder with Iran, and Amorim quoted then-IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei as remarking on the occasion in Brazil that “If the agreement was not accepted, it’s because the countries that proposed it cannot take yes for an answer.” I’ve heard nothing so far to convince me that Amorim’s account is fundamentally incorrect. For his part, ElBaradei has gone on record with a tale of repeated lost diplomatic opportunities in Iran for which he apportions a lot of the blame on the United States and its allies in the IAEA board of governors and the U.N. Security Council.

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