US Policy Toward Iran in Obama’s Second Term: In the Jet Wash?


2012-11-20 by Richard Weitz

In his first post-election press conference on November 14, President Obama reaffirmed interest in achieving  a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute since he believed the “window of opportunity” for a negotiated settlement, though closing, was still open.

Obama explained that, “there should be a way in which [the Iranians] can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

Despite periodic saber-rattling, Israeli leaders have indicated they are willing to give the Obama administration and the other countries negotiating with Iran more time to reach a settlement regarding its suspicious nuclear activities. These talks are expected to resume soon now that the 2012 U.S. national elections are over.

In his foreign policy debate the previous month with Governor Mitt Romney, President Obama insisted that, “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” The president noted how Iran could use such a device to threaten Israel, “provide nuclear technology” to terrorists, or catalyze “a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world.” Tehran must choose, Obama insisted, between a diplomatic settlement that would “end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.” The president indicated that the United States might employ force “when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program.” Still, Iranian leaders have an “opportunity to re-enter the community of nations” but only if they” abide by the rules that have already been established; they convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” through “inspections that are very intrusive,” and “over time, what they can do is regain credibility.”

The mentioning of the inspections issue is interesting since it implies that Iran could be allowed to continue enriching uranium as long as the IAEA could confirm that Iran was not diverting the enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons. But to work any such deal would have to see Iran also adopt at least the IAEA Additional Protocol so that the agency could inspect sites where suspicious nuclear activities may be occurring as well as just the sites that the Iranian government declares to the IAEA as part of its standard safeguards program.

Both men placed a lot of faith in the sanctions.

Obama said that his administration had “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy.” Romney agreed that, “It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I’d have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.” He added that now we should “tighten those sanctions” by denying access to ships, companies, and people conveying Iranian oil. We should also pursue “diplomatic isolation efforts” such as by shunning their diplomats and indicting Iranian President Ahmadinejad for trying to incite genocide.

Despite genuine efforts at engaging Tehran in its first term, the Obama administration has proven unable to resolve U.S. differences with the Iranian government over its nuclear program, regional security issues, or other disputes.

Efforts at negotiation have encountered the problem that many influential Iranians are deeply committed to making progress in developing nuclear technologies. In addition, the Iranian elite have been so divided that any person that proposes major Iranian concessions is denounced as a traitor. The Iranian government continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapons capability and remains securely in power despite internal discontent. Iran’s nuclear program has progressed sufficiently far that a limited military strike—such as the earlier Israeli air strikes against Iraq and Syria—would probably prove insufficient. Nonetheless, these engagement efforts did help the U.S. secure the enactment of many sanctions, both through the UN and supplementary measures adopted by individual or groups of governments.

During his first year in office, Obama’s Iran policy focused on limiting Tehran’s expanding nuclear energy program, which is giving Iran the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials tried to negotiate an agreement with Tehran while simultaneously making the case with other governments for further sanctions should Tehran continue to enrich uranium and undertake other acts that violated UN Security Council resolutions. Obama sent personal letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hoping to initiate a dialogue at the highest level. In addition to its declaratory statements, the administration also arranged for senior American diplomats to meet with their Iranian counterparts and made a generous offer of nuclear collaboration

An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012. (Credit: Getty) 

The high point of these diplomatic engagement efforts occurred in October 2009, when representatives from the United States and Iran, along with other countries, met in Geneva and Vienna to negotiate a deal that would exchange some of Iran’s current stocks of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for higher-enriched fuel cells required by Tehran’s medical research reactor. The Obama administration described the proposal as a confidence-building measure that would delay Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon from its LEU stocks by at least several months as well as jumpstart negotiations that would ideally lead to a negotiated settlement and would determine limits on Iran’s nuclear activities. Unfortunately, the parties have proven unable to agree where, when, and how the transaction should occur.

Despite these setbacks, the sincerity of the engagement efforts made it easier for the Obama administration to induce other foreign governments, particularly those in Europe, to adopt a harder stance towards Tehran.

In addition, the tarnished July 2009 Iranian presidential elections, in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection was perceived as fraudulent by many voters, accompanied by the regime’s massive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, sharply diminished the legitimacy and popularity of the Iranian government.

The United Nations and its individual members have adopted a series of increasingly severe the sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activities. One advantage of having the UN Security Council adopt sanctions against Iran is that member states can cite them to legitimize applying even harsher sanctions against Tehran. Various governments, especially the United States and European Union, have supplemented these UN-mandated sanctions with their own national or multinational sanctions. These measures aim to achieve the goals of existing UNSCRs but impose enforcement measures well beyond their formal obligations under the resolutions. In crafting their supplementary sanctions, these governments worked closely with Washington to develop measures that most strongly leverage their unique commercial strengths vis-à-vis Iran.

Evidence exists that the sanctions have harmed the Iranian economy, which will weaken Iran’s military capacity in the long-run.

 But do sanctions harden resolve, rather than providing an incentive for agreement?

In particular, thanks to the hard work of the U.S. Treasury and its partners, the sanctions have impeded Iranian access to the foreign banks and other financial institutions.  More and more foreign businesses are ceasing to engage in commerce with Iran for fear of running afoul of international sanctions that would impede their access to more lucrative Western markets. Foreign governments such as India are having trouble paying for their purchases due to Iran’s exclusion from most international banking networks. Furthermore, others countries such as China are demanding hefty discounts for any future purchases.

After having ignored the sanctions for years, Iranian leaders have been denouncing them more vehemently and even threating self-defeating military actions, such as closing the Persian Gulf to oil shippers. At the same time, Iranian representatives have appeared more eager to resume nuclear negotiations to avert additional sanctions. Most importantly, Iran’s nuclear program is proceeding more slowly than that of previous nuclear weapons states. The sanctions have likely made it more difficult for Iran to acquire the kinds of materials, technologies, and equipment they need to develop more advanced uranium centrifuges and other nuclear facilities, which has impeded, though not halted, their improving nuclear weapons potential.  Raising the costs Tehran pays for its nuclear program also has discouraged other governments from pursuing similar activities..

The effects of the sanctions are being amplified by the clandestine campaign of sabotage and disruption that may enjoy some U.S. or other foreign government’s support.

These indirect actions aim to disrupt Iran’s nuclear activities as a means to delay its progress and raise its costs. These clandestine means include assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, infecting the computers supporting Iran’s nuclear activities with malicious software, and other covert attacks. Some analysts believe the Stuxnet worm alone delayed Iran’s nuclear progress by up to two years without entailing the risks of a military attack that might have yielded the same results but with much greater collateral damage and other risks.

But indirect actions are just that and limited in their effectiveness.  They delay but do not defeat.

It may be necessary as well to pursue military actions designed to mitigate the adverse consequences of a radical Iranian regime possessing growing nuclear weapons potential.

This requires ensuring that Iran does not become excessively emboldened by its nuclear advances and that other aspiring nuclear weapons states are not inspired by Iran’s achievements to pursue their own ambitions.

The latter policy implies deterring Iran from using or transferring nuclear weapons, material, or technology. It also involves preventing Iranian leaders from feeling “immunized” from punishment for any regional provocations and aggression. To achieve these ends, the Obama administration has been reinforcing the U.S. military presence in the region and bolstering the missile defense and military capabilities of key regional allies.

Of course, as President Obama correctly pointed out earlier, despite U.S. and other international efforts to negotiate a compromise: “It may be that their ideological commitment to nuclear weapons is such that they’re not making a simple cost-benefit analysis on this issue.”

The main problem is the nature of the Iranian political system compounded with a new political dynamic entirely unexpected when Obama launched his engagement in early 2009: the emergence of a powerful mass movement in Iran seeking to change the regime’s policies and, increasingly, its form of government.

In addition to the widening gulf between the Iranian government and its people, the regime’s hardliner response has produced unprecedented divisions within the ruling elite and complicated reconciliation efforts between Washington and Tehran. An unfortunate dynamic has arisen in which, when Iranian negotiators accept a compromise regarding their nuclear policies or other activities, reformers as well as nationalists attack the government for selling out Iran’s interests.

The recent renewal of negotiations might achieve a limited compromise settlement in which Iran would cease enriching uranium to twenty-percept and make its past and current nuclear activities more transparent in return for lifting some sanctions.

But an enduring U.S.-Iran reconciliation remains improbable until Iran has new political leaders unafraid of losing power to a popular revolution and capable of envisaging a genuine improvement in bilateral relations.

Editor’s Note: It is important to place Iran in context.  Military means are means within a context.  That context is Syria, Iran, Israel and Lebanon.  Iran has clearly proliferated weapons and support to the forces which are seeking to attack Israel.  Nuclear weapons would only fit into that context.  The failure in Benghazi is reverberating across the region.  The Russians are in Syria; the Iraqis are supporting Assad; the Iranians are supporting Hamas and its efforts to attack Israel. 

The Israelis are responding to the proximate threats on their borders but the broader picture of Syria and Iran is inextricably intertwined.  The Iranian nuclear negotiations are being overtaken by history.

It is the question of a Middle East policy of the West which is in play. 

After an incomplete or failed engagement in Libya, the current crisis has a different meaning. 

The entire region is in play, not a single focused negotiation on Iranian nuclear intentions.