Obama’s New Year message and the nuclear nettle

(ABC News Photo Illustration)

Sooner or later, the U.S. president must move to specifics with Iran.

Middle East
Tehran Bureau | comment

Barack Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran is pushing important buttons. As Iranians go about the ancient rituals of their New Year, many will feel a warm pride that the U.S. president has praised their “great civilization.”

Obama’s message is in marked contrast to George Bush’s inept call for Iranians not to vote in the 2005 presidential election, when Tehran state TV relayed his words again and again in order to draw people to the polls.

Against Bush’s designation of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” Obama quoted the 13th century poet Saadi: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.”

Now Iran will ask, where’s the beef?

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an advisor to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has quickly welcomed Obama’s broadcast, stressing Iran’s interest in “the overcoming of the problems between the two nations, the solving of issues that run deep.”

But Javanfekr also reiterated demands of the U.S. – that it apologize for past behaviour including support for Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, and that it end sanctions. And he noted that U.S. backing of Israel was not “a friendly gesture.”

This was a predictable response. Until serious negotiations begin, both sides will continue to reiterate how the other should change.

The most pressing issue, which has led to the tightening of sanctions against Iran in recent years, is the nuclear one. And here there are certainly no signs of any change in the U.S. position. Gordon Brown’s speech on Tuesday at Lancaster House in London, repeated the demand, shared with the U.S., that Iran suspend or even end its uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of its nuclear programme.

Brown acknowledged Iran’s “absolute right to a civil nuclear programme,” but he did so in the context of its Bushehr reactor, built with Russia. This, he said, was as an appropriate means for it to realize its “absolute right.”

Brown knows perfectly well that Russia has itself enriched the uranium for Bushehr and will subsequently remove the spent nuclear fuel – and that therefore Tehran does not see Bushehr as an alternative to its own enrichment of uranium in a self-sufficient atomic programme. Indeed, Iran has never wavered in its insistence that it has the right not just to a nuclear programme but one in which it enriches its own uranium.

Although Tehran did suspend enrichment during talks with the European Union between 2003 and 2005, it made clear this was temporary, what Iran called a “good will gesture” and what its enemies and critics called playing for time.

But Iranian officials at that time made repeated references to their willingness to compromise. Various accounts surfaced – from both Tehran and from European diplomats – of discussions of a compromise in which Iran would agree to limit, but not to end, its uranium enrichment. In other words, Iran would restrict the number of centrifuges it used for the enrichment process to what was called “laboratory level” enrichment. This would be done under full UN inspection, including the snap-inspection system of the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (Iran has not implemented the protocol since 2006, when the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency referred it to the UN security council).

The beauty of the idea – it was never officially formulated – is that it would allow the Iranian leadership to claim “victory” because the west would have recognized its “absolute” right to nuclear technology.

But it would also impose limits on Iran’s programme, which today continues to expand, and it would bring the programme under far closer UN supervision.

Iran’s critics – especially in the American right and in Israel – would resist such an agreement on the grounds that it accepts Iran’s mastery of enrichment technology. They point out, quite rightly, that the same methods used to enrich for energy can be used to manufacture a bomb.
But sooner or later, if Barack Obama is serious about engaging Iran, he will have to decide whether he is prepared for such a compromise over the nuclear issue.

He may well decide that other areas offer a better earlier chance of progress: co-operation over Afghanistan and Iraq, where the two sides have clear common interests, is the obvious choice.
Obama may have already decided that some kind of engagement with Syria, even if it leads nowhere, can deliver a “peace process” that itself seems like a foreign policy success. He may also have already decided to leave any real initiative over Tehran until after June’s presidential election, which may help clarify the balance of internal forces in Iran.

But if engagement is really to succeed, Obama will sooner or later have to grasp the nuclear nettle.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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