Tip Your Hat and Take the Uranium
May 27, 2010
We could have – should have – seen it coming from a mile away. On the eve of new P5+1 sanctions, those wily Iranians – masters of manipulative bazaar negotiations – struck a deal with a third party to transfer 1,200 kilograms of uranium out of the country. The timing of the agreement was almost certainly intended to defuse progress toward sanctions and deflect international political pressure toward the US and its partners – if not divide and conquer the rather superficial P5+1 coalition. American officials quickly dismissed the deal as a ploy and moved ahead with a draft sanctions resolution that is likely to be voted on at the UN Security Council in June. Iran insists that its gesture is in good faith and that this is the West’s last chance to make a deal. So what should the US do?
The US should begin by accepting the uranium swap deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey (assuming it is technically feasible). First, approving the deal would help save face for these two states which the US surely wants in its corner going forward. Any concerns about these countries’ leaders overstepping their bounds or being duped by Iran are best addressed behind closed doors. Second, the deal removes from Iranian soil enough uranium for one nuclear weapon. Surely this is worth something. Detractors have instead chosen to focus on the fact that the arrangement would leave Iran with just enough uranium for one bomb. This is the main reason why a deal that was attractive in October seems unattractive in May. Iran has continued enriching uranium since rejecting a similar deal with the P5+1 last autumn. A 1,200 kg transfer then would have created about six months of negotiating space during which Iran would be assured of NOT being able to construct a nuclear bomb. This is no longer the case. Yet to reject the deal on this basis would be to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. No reasonable person would have expected last autumn that all or even most concerns would be assuaged during a six-month period, and no reasonable estimate exists to suggest that Iran could field a functional nuclear weapon in such a short time. Moreover, the chief short-term concern is Iran’s acquisition of knowledge which could lead to a breakout capability, such as the technical ability to enrich uranium to higher and higher levels. While uranium quantities surely matter in the long run, the immediate focus should be on qualitative factors.
A third and final reason to accept the deal is that, rather than playing into Iran’s hands, it allows the US to exploit Tehran’s possible bluff. Proponents of the deal frame it as a confidence-building measure (CBM), but measured skepticism regarding the sincerity of the Iranian gesture is in order. (It has obviously failed to win American confidence, but a balanced viewpoint must also ponder to what extent this is a function of bureaucratic inertia and a thirty year-old political culture of Iranophobia.) Iran’s statesmen are hardly saints. The deal may in fact be largely intended as a ruse, but that’s no reason for the US to take its ball and go home in a huff about how the other kid won’t play fairly. International politics is tough business. Instead of harping about how Iran is so evil and dishonest, why not tip one’s hat to an opponent’s shrewd move and respond with a better countermove? Take the uranium and keep pressuring Tehran for more substantive CBMs, such as ratification of the Additional Protocol and responses to outstanding IAEA questions about the military applications of its nuclear program while offering incentives. Despite what the alarmists say, we still have a few years to play give-and-take and, if necessary, chip away at Tehran’s already-limited international political capital.
The default countermove of new UN sanctions is dubious at best. The new draft resolution does some good things, including placing additional pressure on Iranian financial transactions and restricting the flow of military wares to Iran. It may even delay Iran’s acquisition of the knowledge and materiel it needs to reach the nuclear breakout point. Yet sanctions must be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. The P5+1 coalition is surely more fragile than its leaders would probably like you, me, or Iran to believe. China has extensive economic interests in Iran. Meir Javedanfar reports that Brazil’s President Lula was accompanied on his trip to Tehran by 300 businesspeople and intends to boost trade with Iran to $10 billion. Meanwhile, Turkey has increased exports to Iran by 800 percent since 2002.
Even Russia – which seems to have slowly but surely moved into the American camp – has divergent interests. These interests are arguably more strategic than economic. The keyword in Russian foreign policy since the fall of the USSR has been “stability.” Russia has been especially concerned with stability and influence in its “Near Abroad,” which generally refers to the former Soviet republics but which could also extend to Iran, a country that bordered the old Soviet Union. Russia is also concerned about American encroachment and hegemony. While Moscow surely has an interest in preventing destabilizing nuclear proliferation, it also has an interest in hedging against American dominance in the Middle East and preserving the current Iranian regime, which has been quite cooperative with and deferential to Moscow for the better part of twenty years. An Iran with a nuclear breakout capability that is able to defend itself against preventive military action may be the best scenario for Moscow. Hence the significance of the possible loophole in the new draft sanctions resolution which would allow Russia to sell the S-300 air defense system to Iran. Though Moscow has been hesitant to pull the trigger on the deal, its completion would make it harder for Israel and the US to attack Iran, thus arguably contributing to stability from the Russian perspective. According to one Kremlin aide, “our position can be neither pro-American nor pro-Iranian.” American officials should take this seriously.
Another glaring problem with sanctions is that, short of a truly crippling chokehold on Iran’s economy and arms trade, Tehran is unlikely to capitulate on problematic issues both nuclear and non-nuclear. Additional CBMs are unlikely to be forthcoming. The US would remain in the limbo that it has been in with Iran for several years, and may dangerously delude itself into thinking that sanctions and coercion sans incentives will actually achieve the objective of a non-nuclear, non-threatening Iran.
Sanctions policy in general and the uranium swap deliberations in particular demonstrate a persistent American tendency to focus on the symptoms rather than the source of the malady. US policy toward Iran is too often characterized by a myopic focus on short-term fixes that are not truly fixes at all. Imagine that Iran had agreed to the uranium swap proposal last autumn. What would have happened during the six-month negotiating window? Would the US have offered Iran any substantive rewards for its cooperation or incentives for further cooperation? Would it be on the fast-track to rapprochement? What exactly is US strategy toward Iran? (Stephen Walt has some good things to say about this.)
If a lasting deal is to be struck, whether they like it or not, policymakers will have to ask themselves: ‘What’s in it for Iran?’ The nuclear conundrum will only be resolved by moving beyond technical minutiae and addressing Iran’s strategic interests and concerns. The alternatives are a foolish military escapade or, as noted on this website months ago, waiting out Iran’s domestic political storm until a friendlier government emerges. Unfortunately, the price of waiting for a more palatable government with which to hold substantive strategic negotiations may be a nuclear-armed Iran. Pick your poison, President Obama.