Jeffrey LewisNat’l Security Strategy & Iran

Does the Obama Administration’s National Security Strategy signal a policy shift that in effect drops the condition that Iran suspend its enrichment related activities as a precondition for negotiations? Stephanie Cooke, Uranium Intelligence Weekly’s editor, thinks so:

Speaking of Iran, few seem to have clocked the possible significance of an Iranian offer to suspend their 20% enrichment program if the proposed Turkey-Brazil fuel swap goes through. Or – perhaps even more importantly – a little noticed shift in the May 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy document that allows negotiators far more flexibility over Iranian enrichment than its predecessor document in 2006. For one thing, unlike the Bush 2006 NSS, the current NSS no longer sets up as a specific objective “to keep states from acquiring the capability to produce fissile material suitable for making nuclear weapons.” It only says the Administration will “work to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” That leaves open the possibility that the US and its partners in the P5+1 group could at some point begin thinking the unthinkable – namely allowing some enrichment in Iran to continue. These are indications of movement on both sides that could ultimately lead to a defusion of the crisis. For anyone interested in reading more on this, we have made available an article in our current issue of Uranium Intelligence Weekly.

I am not sure about this particular reading of the tea leaves — or whether the condition was ever really meaningful even at the end of the Bush Administration, partisan wrangling to the contrary — but I’d be interested in what others have to say.


  1. Tomas Rosa Bueno (History)

    Why “unthinkable”? Isn’t Iran an NPT signatory and therefore has a perfectly legal right to enrich uranium?

  2. blowback (History)

    One word sums up the problem with this new approach and that word is Congress.
    The Senate will not ratify any treaty with Iran and without that ratification any treaty is worthless. If Iran has any sense (and they have demonstrated quite a lot up until now), they will insist that any agreement between Iran and the US is in the form of a treaty rather than Agreement, Accord or Understanding that only requires their ratification once Congress has ratified it and with the Republicans in the Senate playing silly buggers, it will never be ratified. This will be the cost of the US violating the 1981 Algiers Accord in the past.

  3. Mario Quinteros (History)

    In fact, the policy shift was noted in the first speeches of President Obama about Iran after he entered office. He never spoke of ‘stopping enrichement’ but rather of ‘stopping the weapons programme’. That was an interesting shift that seems that went unnoticed in the rhetoric blizzard surrounding Iran’s nuclear case. Now, it seems, is black over white in a policy paper.

  4. Mark (History)

    No it’s just that having an independent nuclear power program has been conflated for so long with making nuclear weapons that there’s no longer any need to pay attention to such nuances.

  5. stephanie cooke (History)

    For the record I was only reporting a change in wording which, on the face of it, leaves room for more negotiating flexibility. I was not saying that the wording change suggests, per se, a policy shift.

  6. shaheen

    1) The stated goal of candidate Obama (as written on his campaign website) was to stop enrichment “on Iranian soil” (a careful choice of words, leaving open the option of an Iranian participation in a multinational facility out of the country). That made the announced US position, at the time, more hawkish than the European one. (The EU never excluded to leave Iran enrich uranium – that has never been the point.)

    2) Just like Bush, Obama has stated that a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptable” and that “no options have been taken off the table”.

    3) To avoid or limit the number of countries able to make fissile material continues to be an open goal of the US administration. As witnessed, for instancen by the current debate on reprocessing in South Korea.

    Cool-headed analysis, leaving partisanship aside, makes one believes that there is much more continuity in US policy than meets the eye.

  7. Norman (History)

    There are several powerful constituencies which will fight any US negotiation which allows enrichment of uranium within Iran.
    First, Netanyahu in a Washington Post Oct 24 interview said, “The crucial thing is that the international community pressure Iran to stop the enrichment of uranium… The purpose of enrichment is the development of nuclear weapons capability, so any solution has to be accompanied by the cessation of enrichment “. In other words, he considers enrichment a crucial part of “capability”. The same view was echoed in the 2008 Bipartisan Policy Center report, endorsed by Dennis Ross, current middle east advisor to the National Security Council (This group has strong associations with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, essentially AIPAC’s think tank). Lastly, as part of Congress most recent sanctions act, it “finds” (i.e.approves) a statement that “The United States and its major European allies, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, have advocated that sanctions be strengthened should international diplomatic efforts fail to achieve verifiable suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and an end to its nuclear weapons program and other illicit nuclear activities”.

    However, if the American expert arms control community were to strongly explain and advocate for the international supervision of/participation in Iran’s uranium enrichment coupled with enhanced verification, it just might generate some new thinking. To my knowledge (correction welcomed), there has been no strong statement on this from arms control experts in the last 1-2 years. Won’t some of you join together and speak out, given that the current framing of the issue is likely to lead to war?

  8. Nick (History)

    It will be a political suicide for Obama or whoever comes to power after him to accept Iran’s uranium enrichment. It is a no-brainer that the Lobby will have a field day with the White House if this ever happened, so don’t kid yourself. And that is precisely why Iran’s lawful right to enrich uranium is heading towards a military show down with the US, regardless of how a few closely tied to the establishment deny such a possibility at this time.

    There is really no good solution, because the West demands intrusive AP visits before considering Iran’s uranium enrichment. Of course, under NPT these countries are obligated to recognize Iran’s enrichment, and demanding AP as a prerequisite for acceptance is illegal.

    I have noticed folks are going through gory details evaluating every nuance of Salehi’s comments about how much 20% per day has been enriched, or other silly related issues, but the crux of the matter is: Does USG have the courage to accept Iran’s enrichment without any buts of ifs? (Buts or ifs are basically, lengthy AP visits forced on Iran without having agreed to it officially for months and years, in order to build confidence which could never happen as described earlier because of internal political pressure in US.)

  9. pkr (History)

    Speculation that the US might accept some form of enrichment in Iran has first emerged as the Bush Administration sent Bill Burns to Geneva to sit down with the other members of the P5+1 and the Iranians in July 2008. The idea was incorporated in a one-page Non-Paper titled “The way forward to negotiations” that layed out the so called freeze-for-freeze proposal, a three-phased approach to reach formal negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran.

    It calls on Iran to refrain from any new nuclear activity in pre-negotiations that would be limited to 6 weeks. Meanwhile the P5+1 would refrain from any new action in the UNSC. Formal negotiations would only take place once Iran has suspended all enrichment-related activities. One of the two objectives spelled out in the paper is “conclusion of comprehensive agreement on mechanisms and commitments for establishing confidence in exclusively peaceful nature of Irans’s nuclear programme, including future arrangements, modalities, timing” (emphasize added).

    At that time, European diplomats were trying to fight back publicly the impression that the US was suggesting a formula that would allow enrichment to continue if Iran again implemented and ratified the additional protocol. Nonetheless, in private they agreed that this ideas was probably the most promising approach to get the Iranians on board and avoid further escalation. Their concern rather was not to weaken the negotiation position of the P5+1 for future talks.

    Since then, the acceptance of enrichment in Iran has been implicitly included in the TRR-proposal, as dicussed in this blog. Having the AP in place and conducting inspections beyond the declared facilities in Iran while safeguarding the declared ones is probably the best one can get in a negotiated agreement with the Iranians. But this would presumeablby force them to close down all suspected undeclared activities, it would strip Iran of all gains they may have made from their fight with the IAEA about the modified code 3.1. and – last but not least – it would force them to come clean on at least some of the activities that point towards possible military dimensions of their programme, as inspectors would go digging around at places that the Iranians consider not to be subject to their SG obligations.

    I leave it to you, to discuss whether, and if so, under which conditions the Iranians would be willing to buy into such an arrangement.

  10. hass (History)

    pkr – the Iranians already implemented the AP for 2.5 years and even exceeded it, and has long ago offered to ratify and permanently implement it — the US response has however been “zero enrichment” and Hillarly Clinton openly stated that Iran does not have the right to enrichment. This is all because the nuclear issue is pretextual, and so the bar is raised so as to make its peaceful resolution impossible.

  11. george william herbert (History)

    Mark @4 indicates the usual conflation claim.

    It is worthy to note that no secret fissile material program to date turned out to be other than a weapons program.

    The distinction is not moot, but is minor and theoretical…

  12. Hass (History)

    george william herbert — Iran’s enrichmetn program was not “secret” — it was the subject of repeated Iranian national radio broadcasts in the early 1980s and in the 1990s the Iranians invited IAEA officials to visit Iran’s uranium mines, and in 2000 they built and declared their uranium conversion facility to the IAEA. In 1984 they had planned on entering into a technical assistance program with the IAEA to build the program — which started under the Shah, incidentally — but the US stepped in and prevented that from happening. Not much of a “secret”, sorry.

  13. Andrea (History)

    The only way we can move forward is if both sides are willing to compromise. That’s what negotiation is all about. At first glance, this news would seem promising.

  14. Hass (History)

    Andrea — Iran tried compromise. They suspended enrichment for over 2 years and have offered repeatedly to enforce strict voluntary limits on their enrichment that go well beyond the legal requirements of the NPT. At each step, the US simply moved the goalposts (recent example: Iran’s acceptance of the US demand to swap uranium.) Conclusion: the US is not interested in a compromise resolution, and sees the nuclear issue as a convenient pretext.

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