September 14, 2009
With time running out on a US-imposed deadline, Iran’s nuclear programs are again moving to international centre stage. The Obama administration warned last month that the US would press for tough new sanctions against Tehran unless it responded positively to an offer for negotiations on the nuclear issue by the end of September.
The US agreed last Friday to take part in talks involving the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany (P5+1) with Iran after Tehran released a five-page proposal on Wednesday. US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, however, spoke dismissively of the Iranian document, declaring that the US was simply taking part in the meeting to “test Iran’s willingness to engage.”
A breakthrough is unlikely even if the talks go ahead. The US and its European allies are demanding that Iran shut down its uranium enrichment and other nuclear facilities, which Iran has repeatedly rejected. Last week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again vowed not to give up Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to produce nuclear fuel. Tehran’s proposal makes no reference to the country’s nuclear programs.
Washington’s decision to take part in the meeting appears aimed more at pressuring Russia and China, than at any serious negotiations with Iran. Both countries have veto rights in the UN Security Council and have indicated their opposition to any further sanctions. The US and the European powers are pressing for the P5+1 meeting with Iran to be held before the opening of the UN General Assembly session next week, with an eye to using the UN gathering to intensify pressure on Tehran.
Last week, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against punitive measures against Iran, saying:
“Some of the sanctions under discussion, including oil and oil products, are not a mechanism to force Iran to co-operate, they are a step to a full-blown blockade and I do not think they would be supported by the UN Security Council.”Under pressure from Washington, the UN Security Council has already imposed a series of sanctions against Iranian companies and individuals allegedly linked to the country’s nuclear programs. In addition, the US has imposed its own unilateral financial sanctions and has pressured other countries to follow suit. What is now under discussion is a ban on the export of refined oil products to Iran—a move that would have a crippling economic impact as the lack of refining capacity means Iran has to import about 40 percent of its petrol needs.
Within the US, the media and political establishment are gearing up for a confrontation with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons. Last Thursday, the New York Times featured the overblown claim that US intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran had “created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon.” The article provided no evidence that Iran was planning to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons-grade material or that American intelligence agencies had revised their 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Tehran had abandoned plans for nuclear weapons in 2004.
The newspaper’s claim was in line with comments by the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Glyn Davies, who told the organisation’s annual gathering last week that Iran had a “possible breakout capacity.” While insisting on exercising its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has repeatedly rejected claims that it intends to build nuclear weapons and has dismissed alleged evidence provided to the IAEA by Western and Israeli intelligence agencies as fabrications.
The New York Times followed up last week’s article with an editorial on Saturday entitled “That September Deadline,” backing new sanctions against Iran, if talks failed.
“American and European officials say they are now developing a more persuasive list of sanctions if Tehran continues to resist; a ban on new energy investment in Iran and a possible cutoff of gasoline exports to Iran are two leading possibilities,” the editorial declared. “If Washington and Europe cannot get Russia and the Security Council to go along, they must be ready to move on their own this time.”Last Thursday, the Democrat chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, warned that he would proceed with legislation imposing US sanctions on Iran’s petrol imports.
“Thus far Iran has thumbed its nose at President Obama’s generous offer to engage. If Iran does not reverse course… I will mark up my bill next month and begin the process of tightening the screws on Iran.”Berman was speaking as pro-Israeli lobby groups held an “Advocacy Day on Iran” demanding tougher US action.
The Obama administration is under pressure from Israel, which has declared that it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and issued thinly veiled warnings of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In an unusual move last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret trip to Moscow on a private jet. While no details have been released, he reportedly urged the Russian government not to proceed with the sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran—a potential obstacle to an Israeli air raid.
Even without an Israeli attack, American moves to impose punitive sanctions against Iran run the risk of heightening tensions in the Persian Gulf and provoking military conflict. The logic of a ban on exports of petroleum to Iran is that it must be enforced—either by pressuring exporting countries into line or, should that fail, imposing a blockade on Iran. The Obama administration has not ruled out US strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations.
As if to underscore that such options are under consideration, France’s military chief, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, declared on Thursday that a military intervention was no longer a viable option. Answering a question at the Atlantic Council in Washington, he said:
“It is very difficult to plan a military operation in Iran, because we are not sure in one shot to be able to solve a problem and if you fail in one shot, it is a catastrophe.”On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin also warned against military action, saying any attack on Iran would be “very dangerous, unacceptable.” It would encourage Islamic extremists, he said, and “lead to an explosion of terrorism.” He added: “I doubt very much that such strikes would achieve their stated goal.”
The intensification of pressure on Iran underscores the fact that Obama’s stance toward Tehran is not fundamentally different from that of the Bush’s. Washington is seeking to fashion an Iranian regime that is more amenable to US ambitions to establish economic and strategic dominance over the energy-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. Obama’s offer of talks on the nuclear issue has always been backed by the threat of economic punishment and military attack if Iran failed to agree to the US terms.
September 13, 2009
"Healthcare is hard," may be the Obama administration's catch-phrase of the moment, but it's a cakewalk compared with the challenge facing Obama on Iran. Under pressure to turn up the heat on the Iranians - from European allies, Israel and bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill - Obama had demanded that the Islamic Republic respond by September to a Western offer to resume negotiations - or else face escalating sanctions.
Tehran's response came this week, in the form of a package of proposed subjects for talks that included non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, but omitted any mention of Iran's uranium enrichment efforts that have been the focus of Western anxiety. It's hardly the response that Obama had hoped for, but the U.S. and its five partners in the "P5+1" negotiating group (France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China) went ahead and asked for a meeting with Tehran anyway - if for no other reason than to "test the proposition" that Iran is ready for dialogue, as State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley put it.
The reality, of course, is that even if Iran is ready to engage in a serious negotiating process, its ideas on everything from the agenda and timeframe to the outline of an acceptable compromise will be markedly different from those of the U.S. and its allies. And this week's statements from Russia and China opposing any new sanctions highlights the international differences of opinion on Iran that will only make things harder. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin drove home that point in comments reported Friday, stressing that Moscow had no reason to doubt the peaceful intent of Iran's nuclear program.
The U.S. and its allies are not saying Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons; they're warning that allowing Iran to assemble the full nuclear fuel cycle to which it is entitled as a signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty - particularly uranium enrichment - gives it an infrastructure that could quickly be converted to produce bomb materiel.
Stating Washington's case at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna this week, Ambassador Glyn Davies warned that Iran had already created enough low-enriched uranium that, if it kicked out nuclear inspectors and reconfigured its enrichment plant, could be re-enriched to provide materiel for a single bomb. "We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear option," Davies said.
Moscow sees the problem in terms of strengthening the safeguards against Iran weaponizing nuclear materials, rather than trying to prevent it attaining "breakout" capacity by denying its right to enrich uranium.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated this week that Iran has no intention of ending uranium enrichment, or of negotiating away its nuclear rights. That doesn't necessarily preclude a diplomatic solution to the standoff, but it underscores the likelihood that the Western powers might have to compromise on their own demands in order to achieve one.
In some previous rounds of negotiation, Iran has been more open to discussing strengthening of the IAEA monitoring regime and other safeguards against weaponization. Right now, however, it's far from clear that Iran is in an accommodating mood, given its fierce and ongoing domestic power struggle.
Ultimately the fate of diplomacy rests on three factors: Iran's willingness to compromise; the West's willingness to compromise; and, perhaps most important, the timeframe allowed for negotiations.
President Obama is under considerable pressure to show that engagement with Iran produces results - but there may not be any by this fall, the unofficial deadline set by the Obama Administration. If that prompts Obama to seek further sanctions via the U.N. or impose them unilaterally, however, the resultant divide between the West and Russia and China will work to Iran's advantage.
New sanctions would also end immediate prospects for a diplomatic solution, because Iran has long declared that it won't negotiate in response to ultimatums. And a continuing stalemate would leave Obama facing either the possibility of an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, or being forced into escalating U.S. pressure until Tehran cries uncle. Both options could greatly destabilize the Middle East.
At least on health care, Obama can claim victory with incremental change. On Iran, there is no incremental option: Unless Tehran is ready to back down - which appears highly unlikely - the President will be pressed to raise the stakes. And then the game gets truly dangerous.
September 11, 2009
As nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West continue to move slowly, U.S. President Barack Obama is coming under growing pressure from what appears to be a concerted lobbying and media campaign urging him to act more aggressively to stop Iran's nuclear programme.
Obama has given Tehran an end-of-September deadline to respond substantively to his offer of diplomatic engagement. But already hawks in the U.S. – backed by hardline pro-Israel organisations – have pressed him to quickly impose "crippling" economic sanctions against Tehran, and some are arguing that he should make preparations for a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The pressure campaign kicked off in earnest this week. On Thursday, hundreds of leaders and activists from the U.S. Jewish community descended on Washington to lobby for harsher sanctions, while widely-publicised media reports suggested that Iran is already nearing the verge of a nuclear capability.
Leaders from Jewish groups came for a national "Advocacy Day on Iran," during which they met with key Congressional figures.
Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that the clock "has almost run out" on Iran's nuclear programme, and indicated that he would move ahead next month with a bill imposing sanctions on Iran's refined petroleum imports "absent some compelling evidence why I should do otherwise".
The bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), has for months been the top lobbying priority of hawkish pro-Israel lobbying groups led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). To their frustration, Berman has held up consideration of the bill for most of the past year
Not all U.S. Jewish groups are lining up behind the legislation, however.
Americans for Peace Now (APN), for instance, issued a statement arguing that "arbitrary deadlines are a mistake" and that "pursuing sanctions that target the Iranian people, rather than their leaders, is a morally and strategically perilous path that the Obama Administration must reject."
M.J. Rosenberg, a foreign policy analyst at Media Matters Action Network, suggested on the website TPMCafe that the advocacy day "marks the start of the fall push on Iran."
The advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) has launched an intensive television advertising campaign this month claiming that the U.S. "must isolate Iran economically to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon."
UANI's two co-founders are now both high-ranking officials in the Obama administration – Dennis Ross, currently overseeing Iran policy at the National Security Council (NSC), and Richard Holbrooke, now the State Department special representative in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Also on Thursday, the New York Times published a front-page story claiming that U.S. intelligence agencies believe "that Iran has created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon," although the article did not provide an estimate of when Iran could have a nuclear capability.
The same day, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former Senators Charles Robb and Daniel Coats and retired four-star Air Force General Chuck Wald. Claiming that Iran "will be able to manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2010," the authors urged Obama "to begin preparations for the use of military options" against Iran.
However, official U.S. intelligence estimates provide a far slower timeline. In February, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair told Congress that Iran would be unable to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) until at least 2013, and stated that there is "no evidence" that Iran had even made a decision to produce HEU.
Iran insists that its nuclear programme is intended solely for civilian purposes. In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community released a National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.
The campaign comes on the eve of a series of key international meetings in late September, including the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Pittsburgh.
Iran and its nuclear programme are expected to be a major topic for world leaders who will attend these meetings, and hawks in Washington and Jerusalem hope that Obama will use them to push for the imposition of far-reaching economic sanctions by the U.N. Security Council as soon as possible.
While Obama faces pressure to move quickly to sanctions, the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still struggling at home to overcome challenges to its legitimacy resulting from the disputed presidential election in June. Many analysts suggest that Iran's government is currently in no position to respond coherently to U.S. engagement.
This week, Ahmadinejad's government finally issued a formal reply to proposals by the P5+1 powers - the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany - for talks on its nuclear programme and related issues.
But the five-page-reply has been deemed too vague by Washington, with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley dismissing it Thursday as "not really responsive" to U.S. concerns.
Other analysts suggested that the Iranian proposal was more promising than initial media reports would indicate.
"Iran's uncompromising stance and its cursory references to nuclear matters are most likely an opening bid, and not a red line," wrote National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi in the Huffington Post.The Obama administration, however, continues to hold out hope for the engagement strategy. "We'll be looking to see how ready Iran is to actually engage, and we will be testing that willingness to engage in the next few weeks," Crowley said. At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov all but ruled out his country's cooperation with new sanctions against Tehran at the Security Council, and called instead for renewed negotiations based on Iran's reply.
He suggests that the proposal's language "may offer an opening to push strongly for transparency and acceptance of intrusive inspections and verification mechanisms."
Lavrov's comments came shortly after a secret and still-mysterious visit to Russia by Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The latest developments - along with growing amount of attention being paid to U.S. policy in Afghanistan, at the expense of Iran - have only added to the frustration of Iran hawks in Washington. They believe increasingly that economic sanctions alone, even if they are imposed multilaterally, are unlikely to be enough to persuade Tehran to halt what they see as its drive to obtain a nuclear weapon.
For this reason, many suggest that the U.S. should either make preparations to attack Iran militarily itself, or step aside and allow Israel to do so. "No one should believe that tighter sanctions will, in the foreseeable future, have any impact on Iran's nuclear weapons program," former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, a noted hardliner, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month. "Adopting tougher economic sanctions is simply another detour away from hard decisions on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or support using force to prevent it." Earlier that month, the Journal featured an article by Gen. Wald - who was one of the co-authors of Thursday's op-ed urging preparations for a military strike - entitled "Of Course There's a Military Option on Iran."
But critics suggest that the constant threats of military action against Tehran will only make the regime's leadership more intransigent on the nuclear issue.
"Pointing a gun at their heads merely reinforces their desire for a reliable deterrent, and probably strengthens the hand of any Iranian officials who think they ought to get a bomb as soon as possible," wrote Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, on the website of Foreign Policy magazine.