Disengaging the Iranians
A year after it was launched Barack Obama's policy of engaging Iran is at a crossroads, writes Graham Usher in New York
Has Barack Obama's policy of engagement with Iran over its nuclear programme run aground?
Diplomats from the five major nuclear powers plus Germany meeting in New York on 16 January agreed that Iran's response to the American president's "outstretched hand" had been "inadequate". But there was no agreement on moving towards another round of Security Council sanctions.
This is what America, Britain, France and Germany want. They believe a "credible threat of further pressure" would "create some leverage over the Iranian system", said a Western diplomat engaged in the talks.
China -- which relies on Iran for much of its energy needs -- is opposed: now is not "the right time for sanctions because the diplomatic efforts are still going on", said its United Nations ambassador, Zhang Yesui, earlier this month.
Russia dithers. Like China, it has invested billions in Iran's energy sector. In New York its representative, Sergei Ryabkov, said there is "still time for a meaningful political engagement [with Iran] and efforts to find a solution".
But Moscow is also frustrated by Iranian stonewalling on a United Nations crafted proposal it believes could have broken the impasse.
In October the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- in consultation with the US, France and Russia -- offered a deal: Iran would be allowed to ship most of its low- enriched uranium to Russia and France. It would then be converted into fuel plates for a Tehran reactor producing medical radio- isotopes for cancer treatment.
It seemed to satisfy all sides. Once converted, the uranium could not be enriched further to make nuclear weapons, allaying Western fears. But it would preserve Iran's internationally sanctioned right to peaceful nuclear energy, which Tehran says is the sole purpose behind its programme.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warmed to the trade, since it recognised Iran's right to enrich uranium. But he was knocked back not only by conservatives within the regime but also reformers like Mir Hussein Mousavi, whose supporters claim won Iran's disputed presidential poll last June and who has emerged as a figurehead for the protest movement since. He accused Ahmadinejad of pandering to the West and risking the jobs of thousands of Iranian scientists.
Muddying matters further, Iran's Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki in December said that Tehran had accepted the IAEA deal "in principle" providing it would receive incoming shipments of uranium to match those shipped out. That's a non-starter: for Western countries the sole point of the trade is to reduce Iran's stocks of low enriched uranium and so slow any capacity to build a bomb.
Iran's nuclear policy -- in other words -- has become hostage to the political crisis that has roiled the country for six months. Has the engagement policy, too?
Last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatened "crippling sanctions" if Iran continued to ignore Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend uranium enrichment. "Crippling" has now been dropped.
Ostensibly this is because the US does not want to contribute "to the suffering of ordinary [Iranians] who deserve better than what they are currently receiving", said Clinton. In fact Russia and China made it clear they would oppose draconian sanctions, particularly against Iran's energy sector.
Instead, the sanctions' target will be Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRG), overseers of the nuclear programme and the main force behind the repression of the protest movement. But does this mean Obama's engagement is inching away from a policy intended to alter Iran's nuclear policy to one trying to change the regime?
This is what Israel wants. Tel Aviv has made it clear it won't tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, not least because it would end its monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. It has boosted the defence budget, conducted joint missile exercises with America in October and will rehearse mass biological warfare simulations later this month. Iran also detects an Israeli hand behind recent sabotage of its nuclear industry and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, Masoud Ali Mohamedi, on 12 January.
Israel denies the charges. It says it supports engagement. "Obama has convinced us it's worth trying the sanctions, at least for a few months," an Israeli diplomat told The New York Times on 3 January. But Israel wants crushing sanctions that threaten the survival of the regime. Only then will it think twice about seeking nuclear weapons, say the Israelis.
Obama is at a crossroads with Iran. He could seek further engagement and keep the alliance with Russia and China, something diplomats say is very important in influencing Iran. Or he could break ranks and, with Europe, move directly to tougher sanctions against Iran's ruling elite.
The first could mean a long process and sanctions so mild that they would be unlikely to change Iran's behaviour. The second would enable the IRG and their allies to cast the issue as "imperialists", orchestrated by Israel, trying to deny Iran's rights to nuclear technology. Tougher sanctions would not bring policy change but a siege mentality and may bring a "preventive" Israeli strike closer, the very thing advocates of harsher sanctions say they want to deter.
One road remains not taken. Obama could propose a comprehensive framework for security and economic cooperation with Iran underwritten by a pledge that Washington has no policy of regime change. At the very least he could say his administration has abandoned the policy of covert action aimed at destabilising Iran's nuclear programme approved by the Bush presidency.
Given the political paralysis at the heart of the Iranian regime, even this may not draw a response. But it would strengthen those in the reform movement who argue Iran's legitimate national security concerns are best addressed through engagement rather than confrontation with the West.