Thursday, May 20, 2010

Parsi, Sick, and Cohen lament in concert as U.S. spurns fuel deal

As the drama of Iran's election and post-election resistance movement unfolded last year, I came to appreciate the blogs of Gary Sick and Scott Lucas - the latter, Enduring America. deploying an array of Iranian and Iranian-American voices and other analysts along with Lucas. * Both blogs did a good job mapping out the extent to which the Revolutionary Guard, in concert with (or in increasing control of) religious hardliners, had effected a militarist takeover of key ministries and industries during the Ahmadinejad era.   Both, at the same time, offered long-term perspective on the missed opportunities between the U.S. and Iranian governments, whose interests potentially converged on several fronts over the last two decades.  The New York Times' Roger Cohen, while perhaps somewhat too credulous about the benign intentions of the Iranian government prior to the stolen election of last June, basically shared these perspectives.

In the past week, as the Obama Administration spurned the fuel swap deal with Iran brokered by Turkey and Brazil -- with U.S. encouragement, they claim -- those who have seen potential in wide-angle negotiations between the U.S. and Iran have writhed in frustration. These include Cohen, Sick and National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi, whose ABC news was reposted on Enduring America. Their arguments overlap, and mutually reinforce, e.g., that the new agreement preserved the essential features of the original deal (albeit at a point at which Iran has had another eight months to process fuel -- the 1200 kilograms to be removed from Iran now represents 55% rather than 70% of its stock, according to the U.S); that the Administration's chief grounds for rejecting the deal -- Iran's insistence that it would continue to enrich uranium -- was not a condition of the original agreement; and that spurning Brazil and Turkey sets back the new multilateralism that Obama seemed last year to embrace.  Behold their shared agony:

Linking the TRR deal to suspension of enrichment is a new component;  it was the White House itself that decided last year to go forward with a deal to swap Iran’s LEU for fuel rods without a suspension in order to throw back Iran’s break out capability.

Furthermore, the earlier justification for the sanctions push was a reaction to Iran’s failure to accept the swap proposal presented to it in October 2009. Administration officials stated on numerous occasions that sanctions would only be pursued if the diplomatic track failed to produce results. Sanctions would be needed to get Iran back to the table and to convince them to accept the deal...

The sudden change of heart in Washington is particularly surprising mindful of the fact that the three objections Iran lodged against the 2009 TRR deal that the LEU needed to be shipped out in one shipment, that the swap would take place outside of Iran, and that the fuel rods would be delivered to Iran nine to twelve months have now all been withdrawn. Iran has agreed to the terms the US insisted on.
The five major powers had made up their minds (without consulting other members of the Security Council that currently includes both Turkey and Brazil), and these two mid-level powers were told in so many words to get out of the way.

The gratuitous insult aside, which approach do you believe would most likely result in real progress in slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program? We have been imposing ever-greater sanctions on Iran for more than fifteen years. When we started they had zero centrifuges; today they have in excess of 9,000. To those who believe that one more package of sanctions will do what no other sanctions have done so far, I can only say I admire your unquenchable optimism.

More likely the Turkish ambassador to the UN had it about right when he said quite plainly about sanctions, “They don’t work.”

Would a negotiating track do better, perhaps mediated by two middle-level powers who have built up some credibility with Iran, like Algeria when it finally engineered the end to the US-Iran hostage crisis in 1980-81?  We’ll never know. Tonight the hardliners in Iran (and their American counterparts) are celebrating.


Iran, doing the bazaar routine, said yes, maybe and no, infuriating Obama. Iran now wanted the LEU stored on Iranian soil under I.A.E.A. control, phased movement of the LEU to this location, and a simultaneous fuel rod exchange. Forget it, Obama said.

Well, Turkey and Brazil have now restored the core elements of the October deal: a single shipment of the 1,200 kilograms of LEU to a location (Turkey) outside Iran and a one-year gap — essential for broader negotiations to begin — between this Iranian deposit in escrow and the import of the fuel rods.

And what’s the U.S. response? To pursue “strong sanctions” (if no longer “crippling”) against Iran at the United Nations; and insist now on a prior suspension of enrichment that was not in the October deal (indeed this was a core Obama departure from Bush doctrine).

Obama could instead have said: “Pressure works! Iran blinked on the eve of new U.N. sanctions. It’s come back to our offer. We need to be prudent, given past Iranian duplicity, but this is progress. Isolation serves Iranian hard-liners.”

No wonder Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, is angry. I believe him when he says Obama and U.S. officials encouraged Turkey earlier this year to revive the deal: “What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty.”

Yes, Turkey has. I know, the 1,200 kilograms now represents a smaller proportion of Iran’s LEU than in October and it’s no longer clear that the fuel rods will come from the conversion of the LEU in escrow. But that’s small potatoes when you’re trying to build a tenuous bridge between “mendacious” Iranians and “bullying” Americans in the interests of global security.

Cohen holds out one ray of hope that's been lurking at the back of my mind:
The French and Chinese reactions — cautious support — made sense. The American made none, or did only in the light of the strong Congressional push for “crushing” sanctions. Further sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear behavior; negotiations might. I can only hope the U.S. bristling was an opening gambit.
There is of course another side, or many more sides, to this. Obtaining Chinese and Russian support for the latest round of sanctions has been numbingly difficult and represented a major application of American leverage. The Iranian government is unfathomably deceitful and expert at pulling the ball back as the kick is in motion. The continued compliance with sanctions from the Chinese and Russians is surprising, an indicator of how much we don't know. Perhaps this is not just an 'opening gambit,' but one in an endless series.

It's curious, too, is that the U.S. has seemed mindful of the wisdom of enlisting emerging powers (including Brazil) in its attempts to influence Chinese economic policy -- but then first allegedly encouraged and then apparently ditched the efforts of Turkey and Brazil on this front.

UPDATE: The FT's Philip Stephens, while more sympathetic to the western powers' assumption of bad faith on the Iranians' part than Parsi, Sick and Cohen, shares their sense of  the short-sightedness of dismissing the efforts of Turkey and Brazil:
The off-stated ambition of western governments is that the world's rising powers should bear some of the burden of safeguarding international security and prosperity. The likes of China, India and, dare one say, Turkey and Brazil, are beneficiaries of a rules-based global order and, as such, should be prepared to contribute. They should, in a phrase coined some years ago by Robert Zoellick, act as stakeholders in the system.

Seen from Ankara or Brasilia, or indeed from Beijing or New Delhi, there is an important snag in this argument. They are not being invited to craft a new international order but rather to abide by the old (western) rules. As I heard one Chinese scholar remark this week, it is as if the rising nations have been offered seats at a roulette table only on the strict understanding that the west retains ownership of the casino.

As it happens, the US understands better than Europeans the shifting distribution of power. Barack Obama's administration has been thinking hard about the new geopolitical geometry, even as Europe remains trapped in its anxiety to cling on to the old Euro-atlantic order.

In its excellent exercise in crystal-ball gazing, Global Trends 2025 , the US National Intelligence Council presciently included a scenario in which Brazil acts as a mediator at a moment of crisis in the Middle East. Imagining a different future, though, is not the same as coming to terms with it. If the west wants global order, it has to get used to others having a say in making the rules.
 * Per the comment by Scott Lucas below, in the initial posting I attributed Parsi's piece to Lucas.

UPDATE 5/21: Brazil is not resigned to the deal's death (Haaretz):
Meanwhile, Brazil on Friday said it still sees room for a negotiated solution to Iran's nuclear program but acknowledges Tehran's plans to continue uranium enrichment are a concern neither country addressed in talks, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said.

"Of course there need to be reassurances, discussions - many things still need to happen. It's difficult but there is a way out," Amorim told foreign correspondents in his office. "You need to give it some time to work."


  1. Thank you for the kind remarks about our coverage of Iran on Enduring America.

    The opinion you attribute to me is not mine; it is an analysis from Trita Parsi that we posted on the website.

    Best wishes,

    Scott Lucas

  2. Uysh, I believe I've made that error on Enduring America before - reading "posted by" as a byline. Apologies. Corrected now.

  3. No apology needed. Keep up all the valuable work,