City of Brass

Daniel Larison argues that the Obama Administration is making a mistake of giving up on engagement with Iran:

First, Washington believes that the “international community” objects to Iran’s nuclear program and is prepared to punish Iran for it. The truth is, Iran is more economically and politically integrated around the world than it has ever been, and many of its trading partners are far more interested in Iranian business and energy than in lecturing Tehran about proliferation. In any case, the West’s anti-proliferation concerns are so obviously selective — encouraging India while shrugging at Pakistan’s flagrant proliferation activities and Israel’s not-very-secret nuclear arsenal– that they are not taken seriously, except by Westerners. Many rising powers in Asia and Latin America, including China and Brazil, not only do not view Iran’s program as a threat, they may even find it useful as a counterweight to U.S. power.

Second, the administration seems to have assumed that it need only make superficial gestures of goodwill in order for Tehran to reciprocate with genuine concessions on one of its most popular and important projects. The choices offered to Tehran have been few and unattractive: either they suspend enrichment or face additional sanctions. There is no reward for cooperation — merely an absence of penalties. Even though Iran is permitted by international treaty to pursue enrichment for civilian purposes, Washington does not trust Iran’s government to resist the temptation of nuclear weapons. So the U.S. refuses to permit Iran to do even those things that international law allows. Iran is left to demonstrate — somehow — that it has no intention of developing weapons, despite its lack of technical capability and the absence of conclusive evidence that it even pursues this goal.

Iran’s situation is analogous to Iraq before the 2003 invasion: the weaker state must prove something to the satisfaction of the vastly stronger party, yet the latter has no interest in believing anything it hears. The Iranian government sees that the game is rigged, so it has no incentive to make concessions.

The point about the international community not really being opposed to Iranian nukes is a good one. It’s only because we have accepted the Israeli argument that Iran is an irrational Amalek rather than a deterrable player that the official US stance is so firmly anti-Iranian nuke. But in accepting the Israeli narrative, we stand alone. I still see no reason to expect that Iran isn’t intending to go nuclear, and will succeed. And there really is very little that we or Israel can do about it – including full invasion, which was taken off the table during the Bush Administration so is even more negligible an option now.

However, it’s still not clear to me just what “incentives” we could have offered. The Obama Administration has been much more engaged than the previous one, and tried to give benefit of the doubt about Iran’s stated desire for nuclear power, not weapons. The deal offered to Iran was so reasonable that even Russia, Iran’s staunchest ally, was upset that they turned it down:

MOSCOW – Russia regrets that Iran has apparently rejected a UN-brokered nuclear fuel exchange deal to ease the standoff over its atomic programme, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday.

“We regret that Iran — as far as we can see — does not consider it possible to agree to the formula that it was offered,” Lavrov told a news conference.

Under the plan, Iran would hand over most of its stocks of low-enriched uranium in return for the supply by France and Russia of nuclear fuel enriched to the higher level required for a Tehran research reactor.

If Iran’s nuclear power program is really non-weapon, then why on earth would this be a concern? How on earth can this deal be represented as a “concession” ?

Yes there are double standards at work. But taken on the merits, the deal offered Iran was hardly unfair. Just as it’s utterly ludicrouus for Israel to pretend they don’t have nuclear weapons, it’s ludicrous for Iran to pretend they are just interested in nuclear energy alone. The rejection of the UN deal is about as clear evidence as you can ask for.

Related: Hillary Clinton’s comments about Iran at the US – Islamic World Summit in Doha:

In his inaugural address, President Obama endorsed a new era of diplomatic engagement, including with those nations who have at times been hostile to the United States. We have proven our willingness to engage. For example, we are resuming high-level contacts with the Syrian government. And we are preparing to send an Ambassador back to Damascus for the first time since 2005.

We have pursued extensive efforts to reengage with Iran, both through direct communication and through greater participation in multilateral efforts. Our goal has been, that after 30 years of hostile relations with Iran, we need to begin to build a more constructive relationship.

Our position regarding Iran’s nuclear program is simple. We believe that all states, including Iran, start with the same rights and the same responsibilities. And according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nations have the right to nuclear power so long as they accept the responsibility of demonstrating unequivocally that their programs are used solely for peaceful civilian purposes.

But Iran has consistently failed to live up to its responsibility. It has refused to demonstrate to the international community that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. And last year, the world learned of a secret nuclear facility near the city of Qom. The IAEA Board of Governors responded with a resolution criticizing Iran that received wide support.

In October, in our continuing efforts at engagement, the United States, for the first time, joined the so-called P-5+1 in meeting with Iran in Geneva. These were the highest level discussions between the United States and Iran in more than 30 years. We went to Geneva with the hope that Iran would seize the opportunity to begin to resolve our differences, and to pursue greater political and economic integration with the international community. We joined Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Germany to endorse an offer to provide Iran with fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which creates medical isotopes for medical treatment. This offer demonstrated a good-faith commitment to working with Iran toward a future civil nuclear program for peaceful purposes.

Iran agreed in principle, but then refused the IAEA’s terms. Now, Iran has announced that it will increase its enrichment activities to produce up to 20 percent enriched uranium, in violation of successive United Nations Security Council resolutions. And its explanation doesn’t add up. It could have the very enriched uranium it says it seeks by accepting the international IAEA offer. So this has only deepened the international community’s doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions, along with increasing isolation of Iranian government.

Furthermore, since the meeting in Geneva in October, Iranian officials have refused every offer to meet on its nuclear program. So these actions, understandably, have caused us to wonder: What does Iran have to hide? Why is Iran refusing to live up to its international obligations, which would lead to political and economic integration with the international community that would actually benefit the Iranian people?

Iran leaves the international community little choice but to impose greater costs for its provocative steps. Together, we are encouraging Iran to reconsider its dangerous policy decisions. We are now working actively with our regional and international partners, in the context of our dual track approach, to prepare and implement new measures to convince Iran to change its course.

And of course, our concerns about the Iranian government’s intentions are intensified by its behavior toward its own people. The world has watched the events of the past several months in Iran with alarm. We know of the large-scale detentions and mass trials, political executions, the intimidation of family members of the opposition, and the refusal to extend Iranian citizens the right to peaceful assembly and expression, as we have seen again in just the last few days.

The United States joins other nations in condemning these events. If the Iranian government wants the respect of the international community, it must respect the rights of its people.

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