Shadow Government

Obama’s intriguing Iran gambit

By Jamie M. Fly The Obama administration’s Iran policy should rightly be criticized for a variety of reasons. The administration wasted their first five months in office, doing little more than sending a backchannel message to Ayatollah Khamenei while failing to make a serious effort to build leverage by turning the President’s popularity in Europe ...

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By Jamie M. Fly

The Obama administration’s Iran policy should rightly be criticized for a variety of reasons. The administration wasted their first five months in office, doing little more than sending a backchannel message to Ayatollah Khamenei while failing to make a serious effort to build leverage by turning the President’s popularity in Europe into support for sanctions.  
 
During the post-election tumult in June, President Obama dithered, first refusing to criticize the very regime with which he hoped to negotiate and expressing concern about the situation only after worldwide horror as regime-backed militias slaughtered protesters in the street.  
 
Then, in September, when Iran offered its standard non-response to a renewed offer by the P5+1, the administration jumped at the offer to negotiate, culminating in an Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran, including Under Secretary of State William Burns.
 
The Obama administration has thus pursued engagement at all costs and not built up the leverage that will be required if Tehran is to be persuaded to reconsider its march toward a nuclear weapon.  
 
This is a record worthy of criticism, but in the wake of the Geneva talks, some critics have taken their skepticism about the Obama administration’s approach too far.
 
At the talks, Iran reportedly agreed to let international inspectors into its newly revealed uranium enrichment facility at Qom and to transfer a significant amount of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) at Natanz to Russia and France for further processing in order to turn it into fuel for its medical research reactor in Tehran. In the days following the talks, the Iranians have cast doubts on what was actually agreed, making the upcoming Oct. 19 meeting in Vienna to discuss implementation of the arrangement an important sign of how serious the Iranians are.
 
Some conservative critics have criticized the Geneva talks and these supposed agreements, arguing that they are just Iranian ploys to buy more time and that talking to Tehran at all legitimizes a repressive regime. It is valid to question whether in the post-June 12th political environment, the United States should be negotiating with discredited leaders rather than trying to undermine them, but given the Obama administration’s insistence on engaging Tehran, the proposed LEU transfer deal concocted by the administration is an intriguing confidence building measure that, if implemented, will reduce the short-term threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
 
Despite the ongoing debate in the press about the status of Iran’s work on weaponization of a nuclear device, the key wild card right now is the production of the fissile material required for a nuclear weapon. Although most analysts believe that Iran would attempt to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) required for a weapon at a covert site like the recently revealed facility at Qom, the growing stockpile at Natanz is currently the greatest known threat posed by Iran’s program. Although any Iranian attempts to reconfigure Natanz to produce HEU or to transfer the LEU to another site would likely be discovered by the international community, Iran could use the stockpile as a bargaining chip in negotiations, much as North Korea has used its Yongbyon reactor to extract concessions during the Six Party process.

If Iran is not provided the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, it will strengthen the regime’s argument that Iran is being denied the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. It could also result in Iran reconfiguring its centrifuges at Natanz or Qom to enrich uranium to higher levels.

Instead of hastening such a scenario, if implemented, the Geneva plan would get the bulk of Iran’s declared stockpile out of the country for up to a year. Critics point out that given Iran’s mastery of centrifuge technology and expanding number of centrifuges, Iran could recoup the transferred fuel in a matter of months. That may be true, but if Iran follows up such an agreement with no additional concessions, it is difficult to imagine that the Obama administration will be able to ignore domestic and Israeli pressure to pursue sanctions.

In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius speculates that Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium may not be as dangerous as once thought.  He describes the view of one expert that because of certain impurities in the LEU, Iran may be unable to further process the LEU into fuel for their research reactor or HEU for a weapon without advanced technology which they do not have. Ignatius speculates that perhaps this is why Iran is willing to look to Russia and France for assistance. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to back up this argument and regardless, the goal of the United States should be to keep Iran from even trying to produce HEU, not assuming that if they try they will be unsuccessful.

Others argue that, by assisting Iran with the conversion of its LEU produced in contravention of multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions, the administration and its partners have accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium. However, the Security Council resolutions remain in force, the P5+1 continues to demand that Iran freeze enrichment, and the administration has repeatedly stated that it will not accept a nuclear Iran.

There are plenty of questions that should be raised about the administration’s Iran strategy. But given that the administration has decided to engage, the LEU transfer is a worthwhile first step. The question is whether Iran has actually agreed or whether Geneva was a feint to buy time. We’ll know more after next week’s meeting in Vienna.  
 
Criticism of this administration is often warranted, but Republicans should give them credit for out of the box thinking when warranted as well.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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