Options on Iran

May 15, 2012

This week in Vienna, Iran is discussing its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The talks come ahead of the G8 Summit at Camp David this weekend and international negotiations with the P5+1 in Baghdad next week. There are also reports of quiet diplomatic efforts ahead of these important meetings. The various events surrounding the run-up to the meetings – including the leaking of a drawing alleged to reveal an experimental detonation center in Iran – demonstrate the complexity and multifaceted nature of the Iran issue and the need for long-term and strategic thinking.

Quiet diplomacy and maneuvering ahead of negotiations. Laura Rozen writes in World Politics Review, “There has been a flurry of decidedly unpublicized diplomatic activity ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks in Baghdad on May 23, much of it taking place in the shadows.” Rozen adds, “notable as well is the fact that no scuttlebutt from the first known face-to-face talks between [The European Union’s Helga] Schmid and [Iran’s Ali]  Bagheri since Istanbul has leaked from the Iranian side, as has occurred in many similar past cases. That may be a sign of Tehran’s efforts to maintain the positive atmosphere and a modicum of trust and goodwill that was established at the last round of talks in Istanbul last month… Sources briefed on recent U.S. deliberations say that the Obama administration’s current thinking is to present Iran with what they describe as a ‘Chinese menu’ of options. In other words, if Iran would agree to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent levels, send out its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and stop operations at Fordo, for instance, then it would get, hypothetically, fuel for the Tehran research reactor, suspension of EU oil sanctions and perhaps spare parts for its U.S.-made civilian aircraft. If Iran agrees to just one or two of the concessions, it might get just fuel for the reactor, medical isotopes or both. [Under Secretary of State Wendy] Sherman has been given discretion to negotiate based on such a menu of options, whose exact nature is being closely held.”

Meanwhile, Time’s Tony Karon reports, “In a well-timed effort to turn up the pressure on Iran, an unnamed government leaked to the AP what it said was a computer-generated image claiming to depict the experimental detonation chamber at Parchin, although Iranian officials pooh-poohed the report. Iran’s position has been that Parchin is a military facility rather than a declared nuclear site and there that Iran is not obliged to allow inspections there under general IAEA safeguard rules, but is offering the prospect of access as part of a comprehensive deal to settle the standoff. But the IAEA appears to be insisting that access to Parchin is a precondition for making a more comprehensive deal.” [Laura Rozen, 5/14/12. Tony Karon, 5/15/12]

A number of options available, choosing right path a balance. While there is no clear or easy solution to settlement with Iran over its nuclear program, there are a number of diplomatic strategies available to pursue. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nonproliferation experts George Perkovich and Mark Hibbs and former deputy director of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission Ariel Levite outline one such strategy in a recent essay. David Ignatius discusses the strategy saying, “This question of ‘next steps’ in the Iran nuclear talks is important, because neither side is likely to commit to the first set of ‘confidence-building measures’ unless it knows where the process is heading. Iran believes that it has been tricked in the past by Western peace feelers that didn’t lead anywhere; the United States has the same wary suspicion. Both sides need more clarity… The basic idea of the Carnegie proposal is to create a ‘firewall’ between Iran’s civilian nuclear program, which it could pursue, and a military bomb-making program, which it couldn’t. Along with separating permissible from impermissible, the Carnegie authors propose special procedures for dual-use technologies that are near the dividing line… A big selling point for the Iranians is that this approach is based on the pledge by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran won’t build nuclear weapons.”

Specifically, “The Carnegie experts propose a red-yellow-green system, like a nuclear traffic light. In the ‘green’ approved category would be nuclear power plants, medical research reactors and basic academic and scientific research. Forbidden ‘red’ activities would be those directly related to weaponization, such as warhead design and procurement of items used in making and testing bombs. The ‘yellow’ dual-use activities would be the trickiest problem, and the firewall would have to be carefully constructed. Some enrichment of uranium might be permitted, for example, if it were verifiably limited below 5 percent — so it could be used for only peaceful purposes. So-called ‘neutron triggers’ would be banned, since they could be used to initiate a bomb’s explosion, except for those configured for oil exploration, which would be supplied to Iran.” [Marc Hibbs, George Perkovich and Ariel Levite , 4/12/12. David Ignatius, 5/11/12]

As Iran continues to feel the pinch from Obama strategy, opponents at home offer no new ideas or plans, just criticism. The Obama administration has pursued a multifaceted strategy towards Iran, that includes coupling a diplomatic strategy with arming regional allies and rallying international support for economic pressure. In a recent report from the Center for American Progress, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy deLeon, Senior Fellow Brian Katulis and Peter Juul explain, “Today the United States is leading a successful three-year global effort to isolate Iran diplomatically and implement a broad range of strict economic sanctions targeted at undermining its nuclear program. The Obama administration’s initial outreach to the Iranian regime in 2009 did not achieve immediate constructive results, but the demonstration of American good faith forged greater international unity around the problem and served as an important force multiplier for subsequent successful efforts to pressure the regime.” The Washington Post reports this week on desperate moves that Iran is making to try and sell oil on the global market, writing, “Hobbled by sanctions against its banks and a growing international boycott of its petroleum, Iran is seeing its revenue sag while its oil sits in storage depots and floats in tankers with nowhere to go, U.S. security officials and diplomats say.”

Meanwhile, conservatives criticize these results, while offering no alternative solution. Over the weekend, David Sanger of the New York Times explained Mitt Romney’s positions on Iran, writing, “when pressed on how, exactly, his strategy would differ from Mr. Obama’s, Mr. Romney had a hard time responding. The economic sanctions Mr. Obama has imposed have been far more crippling to the Iranian economy than anything President Bush did between the public revelation of Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities in 2003 and the end of Mr. Bush’s term in early 2009. Covert action has been stepped up, too. Mr. Bolton has called efforts to negotiate with Iran ‘delusional,’ but other advisers — mostly those who dealt with the issue during the Bush administration — say they are a critical step in holding together the European allies and, if conflict looms, proving to Russia and China that every effort was made to come to a peaceful resolution.” [CAP, 4/13/12. Washington Post, 4/14/12. David Sanger, 5/12/12]

What We’re Reading

François Hollande was sworn in as president of France, vowing to pursue a new strategy to resolve the financial problems devastating Europe.

The European Union (EU) and Iraq signed the EU-Iraq partnership and cooperation agreement, making it the first between the EU and Iraq on a broad platform for strengthening ties.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak plans to visit Myanmar for a milestone visit to the country, becoming the first Korean leader to travel there since the 1983 bombing of Rangoon.

A severe downgrade by rating agency Moody’s dealt a blow to Italian banks.

Pakistan’s political and military leaders will meet to talk about reopening NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, a plan that could mend fractured relations with the United States and facilitate leaving the country.

Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have agreed to end a large-scale hunger strike, which had continued for over two months.

Saudi Arabia seeks a federation of monarchies in the region in the face of reform efforts gathering momentum across the Middle East.

Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou faces a probe over alleged illegal enrichment.

European forces struck a pirate base in Somalia.

The South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the Philippines has hurt the Philippine economy, which relies on Chinese consumption of its products.

Commentary of the Day

Demetris Kamaras maintains that Greek politicians need to acknowledge their shortcomings, take responsibility, put aside political motives and govern the country.

Peter Godwin argues in favor of a historic ruling in South Africa that seeks to prosecute war criminals.

James Zogby explains how Netanyahu’s new coalition is just another political maneuver.

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