Gatekeepers close door to Iran diplomacy
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
In his recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, United States
President Barack Obama promised that the "door to diplomacy" is open to Iran
should Tehran "choose to walk through it".
It turns out that this is not entirely true and there are certain obstacles
other than Iranian intransigence operating as "gatekeepers" that are likely to
slam that door shut.
One set of gatekeepers is the Israelis and their formidable array of Washington
influence-peddlers, who are nowadays using Israel's offer of a freeze on some
1,300 housing units in the West Bank as a bargaining chip with the White House,
hoping that in return
the Obama administration will give in on Tel Aviv's push for more aggressive
action against Iran.
Call it the Israeli version of a "grand bargain": settlement freeze and,
perhaps, a shy nod to Palestinian statehood in exchange for an American iron
fist on Iran. But the linkage between the two issues has been overstretched and
may backfire on its protagonists in the US and Israel.
Throwing cold water on the furnace of the military option on Iran, US Defense
Secretary Robert Gates this week stated that there is basically no military
solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, and that a military strike would
perhaps make Iran "more determined" to pursue its nuclear program
clandestinely. Irrespective of such red flags in Washington, Israel continues
to push for the military option, its editorials already branding the coming
nuclear talks between Iran and the "Iran Six" or "P5+1" - comprising the five
permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany - as
doomed to failure.
In turn, this raises the question of whether or not the Obama administration is
capable of withstanding the onslaught of the next wave of anti-Iran diplomacy
orchestrated from within the US Congress, scene to stronger pro-Israel
sentiments in the aftermath of the recent mid-term elections. In other words,
what about the other gatekeepers in congress, who have never been in sync with
Obama on his "Iran engage" policy?
Add to these another set of gatekeepers, in the form of various policy makers
in the administration, such as Dennis Ross, who is in charge of Iran policy in
the White House; speaking before a Jewish lobby group late last month, Ross
made a veiled threat against Iran. "But should Iran continue its defiance,
despite its growing isolation and the damage to its economy, its leaders should
listen carefully to President Obama who has said many times: 'We are determined
to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons'."
But perhaps an even more formidable obstacle chaining the supposedly open US
diplomatic door to Iran is policy incoherence and the absence of realistic
benchmarks for successful Iran diplomacy.
To elaborate, it is unclear what the US hopes to gain from the nuclear talks
scheduled for early December. The answer to this simple question has turned
complicated in part because there are actually two sets of talks - on the
nuclear fuel swap on the one hand through the Vienna Group and, on the other,
the "Iran Six" talks on broader nuclear and non-nuclear issues, which are about
to be merged as one at the December talks.
That is unfortunate, since: (a) the Vienna Group, consisting of the US, Russia,
France and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is smaller, and
usually it is easier to reach accords than in larger groups with more
heterogeneous sets of interests; and (b) unlike the Vienna Group, that operates
around the legal framework of the Iran-IAEA Safeguard Agreement, which
stipulates that the IAEA should assist Iran with technical needs, the "Iran
Six" actually operates in a legal void with no set parameters for bounded
Not only that, reports from Washington indicate that an earlier attempt to
present Iran with a new nuclear swap formula, calling on Iran to substantially
increase the volume of its low-enriched uranium slated for out-shipment, has
met serious objections from various corners and has been shelved for the
What may happen instead in December is that a similar and revised swap deal
will be hurled at Iran that is pegged with tougher preconditions, such as
Iran's implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions - that demand a
full suspension of Iran's enrichment program.
If so, that would be a non-starter, as Tehran's politicians have made it
crystal clear that stopping enrichment is their "red line" and off discussion,
while indicating that Iran is willing to stop the 20% enrichment if there is an
agreement for the fuel swap. In fact, in his recent US visit, President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad repeatedly hinted at such a bargain.
In turn, this represents a "blind knot" for Washington and its allies: how to
give the green light on the fuel swap, which can act as a confidence builder in
the nuclear standoff, without extracting any major concession from Iran on the
enrichment question? There is, after all, a sort of "Faustian bargain" here:
that is, the swap deal puts a seal of approval on Iran's enrichment activity,
thus strengthening Iran's argument that it serves its national interests and
lessens the country's outside dependency.
This knot may prove to be the biggest show-stopper come the next round of
talks, reflecting a US that talks diplomacy but in practice self-freezes it by
virtue of contradictory initiatives and positions that tend to cancel with one
hand what is offered with the other.
As a result, there is a slim chance for a diplomatic breakthrough at the coming
talks, unless the US and its partners somehow find a method to disentangle
themselves from the threads of this blind knot, which for all practical
purposes renders Obama's pretension of a diplomatic door nothing but a
As it stands, in light of the present official position of "zero centrifuges"
by the US Department of State, the diplomatic offer is for Iran to step into a
minefield imperiling the nation's nuclear rights, so jealously guarded by its
leadership. An alternative approach is desperately needed, or we can safely
predict a fruitless negotiation.
Arguably, the elements of a workable alternative approach can be found in the
details of the fuel swap, as aptly analyzed by the Turkish political scientist
Mostafa Kibaroglu, in a recent article published by the Bulletin of Atomic
Scientists.  Professor Kibaroglu emphasizes the various pluses of the April
2010 "Tehran Declaration" signed by Iran, Turkey and Brazil, which calls for a
key role for Turkey as safekeeper of Iran's low-enriched uranium.
Iran continues to insist on the relevance and pertinence of that declaration.
Not so Washington - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a "ploy"
and dismissed it within hours of its signing.
That was several months ago, and today Clinton appears to be less of a
decision-maker on Iran than she was then, chiefly because she is simply better
at Iran-bashing that Iran-engaging. Who then is calling the shots on Iran
policy in the Obama administration? This is unclear in light of the cacophony
of disparate voices that reflect a policy traffic jam, susceptible to
incoherence, inaction and, worse, outright wrong action, such as iron fist
approach favored by Israel and its policy friends in Washington.
As a litmus test of Obama's policy leadership, his next move on Iran, sure to
be reflected at the upcoming negotiations in December, will be highly important
and also revealing of any impact by the jolts of the devastating election
A step back from the current strategy of "compellence" - hoping to compel Iran
to comply with the optimum demands on enrichment activities - is definitely
necessary. It may come in the form of a comprehensive package approach that
revitalizes the fuel-swap deal in tandem with certain demands on nuclear
transparency, a slow-down on centrifuge installments, etc.
In the days leading up to the December talks, it is also important to steer
clear of the military threats, which as rightly pointed out by a large group of
US experts recently, have proved to be ineffective and counterproductive.
But most, if not all of these experts, tend to forget that an emphasis on the
lack of usefulness of military options serves to bypass the importance of
adequate scrutiny of the diplomatic option. That option is mired in incoherence
and a lack of creativity, above all due to the various gatekeepers that keep
closing it whenever there is a feeble attempt by the US president and his
foreign policy team to re-open it.
A brave move by Obama would be to completely separate his Iran policy from his
Israel-Palestine policy, disallowing the destructive influence of Israeli hawks
pushing for the grand bargain mentioned above. The question is: does Obama have
the political stamina for such an audacious move?