Features | Security | Central Asia

Why No One Wants an Iran Deal

The U.S., China, Russia and Israel all have reasons for not wanting to negotiate a settlement to the Iran nuclear crisis. So does Tehran.

By Mark Hibbs for

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.

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.

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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.

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.”

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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.

There are good reasons why both China and Russia on Iran in the P-5 group are what the Swiss call unsichere Kantonisten. But my Carnegie colleague Dmitri Trenin has taken it one step beyond, accounting for friction in the IAEA board room last month over the IAEA Iran report as a casualty of the failure of both sides to come to grips with U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense that he describes here. If he’s right, unless Beijing and Moscow change their calculus or reach an agreement on strategic issues with Washington standing in the way, getting the United States, Russia, and China to unite over a diplomatic outcome that would lift Washington’s profile in the Persian Gulf would be tantamount to squaring the circle. Russia and China are also smarting over the Western P-5 states’ role in Gaddafi’s ouster. Then there’s Syria. Some U.S. officials likewise see Russia’s offer to Iran as a purely cynical move to buy time.

Israel’s calculus

Wouldn’t a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis be in Israel’s interest? Probably not, the way some strategists there see it. Under the Shah, Israel enjoyed fairly good relations with Iran especially vis-a-vis Arab states in the region. Another Carnegie colleague, Karim Sadjadpour, has explained at length that were Israel to attack Iran, it would artificially prolong the life of the current Iranian regime. That’s important because at a time when Israel is bracing for a coming wave of democratic anti-Israeli sentiment from its newly-freed Arab neighbors, Israel will want to invest in a future Iran which, as in the past, was willing to live with Israel in peace.

That logic also would imply that Israel wouldn’t be interested in a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis that would legitimate Iran’s current rulers. Indeed, given the fact that U.S.-Israeli ties will be to a large extent driving Washington’s moves on Iran in 2012, the same goes for the United States: If, as Donilon says, the president has now concluded that Iran is a “pariah state,” then the United States won’t be interested in negotiating a nuclear deal that would help assure its survival.

Khamenei’s ultimate logic

And, finally, Iran: The Israeli threats we heard about last month in the run-up to the IAEA report, I was assured, would be leveraged by the P-5+1 to try to convince Iran to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the nuclear conflict. Whether they make any headway is a different matter. Ahmadinejad, the key figure in the P-5′s efforts to engage Iran since 2009, is in deep trouble. When the post-revolutionary regime dusted off the Shah’s nuclear program beginning in the 1980s, after the Iran-Iraq war and under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, it acquired a potentially strategic dimension which it has retained. 

With more sanctions underway, Khamenei’s lesson to Iranians will be that the West’s recent experience with North Korea and Libya teaches that Iran’s nuclear assets aren’t bargaining chips, but are ultimate guarantors of the survival of the nation.

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Mark Hibbs is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program, based in Berlin. This is an edited version of an article orginally published by Arms Control Wonk here.