Joshua PollackLEU-TRR: Dialogue of the Deaf

Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks from Morocco yesterday seemed to represent a harder line on the LEUTRR deal than the United States had taken previously:

“Acceptance fully of this proposal which we have put forth and which we are unified behind would be a good indication that Iran does not wish to be isolated and does wish to cooperate with the international community and fulfill its international responsibilities,” Clinton said. “So I urge Iran to accept the agreement as proposed because we are not altering it.”

Viewed in context, her remarks come across a little differently, but the news media — here and in Iran — naturally focused on the part that was new and newsworthy. Unfortunately, that was the words, “we are not altering it.”

Today’s response from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, was unequivocal:

“We do not want any negotiation, the result of which is pre-determined by the United States,” Supreme leader said in a speech to students on the eve of Wednesday’s 30th anniversary of the US embassy seizure by students in 1979.

“A dialogue like this is like a sheep and wolf relation, which the late imam (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) has said that we ‘do not want’,” he said.

This may not completely close the door on the LEUTRR deal, but it’s the first thing that Khamene’i has said on it, and he tends to get his way. The best one could say at this point is that the deal is now on life support.

As I may have remarked previously, opposition to the West and resistance to its diktat is basically the entire point of the Islamic Republic. So seeming to dictate to Tehran is a good way of shutting down a very delicate process.

It’s still possible that a small gesture could put matters back on track: one way would be to find a face-saving arrangement for LEU exports (e.g., two or three shipments, all before the end of the year, or shipment to yet another state that could hold it “in escrow”). Another way would be to make a public statement about the willingness of the United States to support IAEA Technical Cooperation activity at TRR. But maybe the most important single thing for both sides is actually to stop negotiating through public statements.

Update. President Obama’s Nov. 3 statement reads like a reply to Ayatollah Khamene’i:

Thirty years ago today, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized. The 444 days that began on November 4, 1979 deeply affected the lives of courageous Americans who were unjustly held hostage, and we owe these Americans and their families our gratitude for their extraordinary service and sacrifice.

This event helped set the United States and Iran on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation. I have made it clear that the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. We have condemned terrorist attacks against Iran. We have recognized Iran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power. We have demonstrated our willingness to take confidence-building steps along with others in the international community. We have accepted a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet Iran’s request for assistance in meeting the medical needs of its people. We have made clear that if Iran lives up to the obligations that every nation has, it will have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community.

Iran must choose. We have heard for thirty years what the Iranian government is against; the question, now, is what kind of future it is for. The American people have great respect for the people of Iran and their rich history. The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights. It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity, and justice for its people.

When President Obama says, “Iran must choose,” this probably should be seen in the light of the “two-track” strategy. The implication is that the time is soon coming when Iran either will step through the diplomatic door that its own leaders opened in early June, or the leaders of Western countries, and other countries besides, will move on to strategies other than negotiation.

In practice, I believe that the moment of decision is the opening of the next IAEA Board of Governors meeting, on November 26. Further elaboration on this point appears in the comments.

Comments

  1. nick (History)

    You are absolutely right that a small gesture will go a long way, but Clinton’s recurring use of threatening language during her current trip, perhaps to appease Israel and the hawks back in Washington, is not helpful. It is all about respect, from IRI’s leadership point of view when it comes to dealing with USG. Amazingly, today Khamenei even said that if you had apologized to our country for all the wrongdoings that USG had done to us, the problem with Iran would have been solved! Even if IRI would have remained opposed to some of your policies, our relationship would have not stayed the same.

  2. Josh (History)

    Nick:

    The U.S. has given Iran the apologies it demanded in the past. I don’t think the Iranian side can afford to hear them. The two countries seemingly aren’t destined to be too friendly while an unpopular regime prevails in Tehran; the need for an external enemy is just too strong. The best I’m prepared to hope for is a modest detente. And right now, the chances for that are slipping away.

    Let’s be clear. We really don’t know exactly what the stance of the U.S. government is at this time; taking as definitive and authoritative one clause from one sentence of the Secretary’s remarks during a press conference on multiple subjects is basically a formula for misunderstandings.

    Iranian diplomats like to talk about what is “logical” or “illogical.” Well, the logical thing, if one really wants an agreement, is to seek clarification of unfavorable remarks, not to pull down the pillars of the temple. But that’s not how it’s played out, has it?

    PS. The Secretary has been overseas for a couple of days now. That suggests that she didn’t just emerge from a Principals’ Committee meeting with a new decision on Iran. For that reason, anything that sounds at first like a big departure ought to be discounted somewhat.

  3. anon

    words are just words. Actions can make a difference.

  4. nick (History)

    Josh,

    Although Clinton comes across as very personable, she has put her foot in her month more than once, and attempted to retract her position, confusing her counterparts in other countries, here is a short list:

    * With Bibi just the other day watered down their original demand for settlement freeze, then she had to retract her position in Morocco the next day, reading from a well prepared text, probably by one of her associates.

    * Talked about crippling sanctions against Iran that did not go well in Iran and was criticized by IRI diplomats.

    * Talked about an umbrella of protection for the Persian Gulf States, while talking about giving diplomacy with IRI a try.

    I think the criticism goes both ways, but lack of trust is really at the core of all of this; and I don’t see it changing.

  5. JJ (History)

    Tehranbureau has a good piece as to how Ahmadinejad has been marginalized. Relegating Ahmadinejad to “playing to the crowd.”

    The lack of trust extends to both Russia and France as well. And the sticks approach lacks a certain refinement as Hillary has during this recent trip.

    I’m looking to see what happens tomorrow on the ground in Iran tomorrow. I want to see how the people respond to the Supreme Leader.I firmly believe the people may have the last word here. In time.

  6. Arnold Evans (History)

    The Iranian regime, according to every poll I’ve seen, including this from September 2009, is not unpopular.

    However 1) The Baloch rebels who killed many Iranians in October were at one time supported by the US, and quite possibly still are.

    2) There really is a problem that there’s no guarantee that Iran will ever get fuel if it ships out its uranium. We’re likely to see the same “delays” we see in completing Bushehr. I don’t think Iran ever agreed to ship almost all of its uranium out under those terms. But certainly not now.

    3) What’s with this requirement that the uranium be shipped out this year? It really makes no sense to me. Iran will end 2010 with the same amount of uranium no matter when and how it’s shipped. This feels like pressure salesmanship to me, as if the aim is to rush Iran into making a mistake.

    Yes the deal is dead. It’s been dead since Balochistan.

    Oh, and France did many things that were unhelpful such as allowing its negotiating notes to become public and taking a public hard-line stance before Iran had responded.

    I think the best deal the US could get is to rush some fuel together and do a real swap early spring 2010. Maybe as a gesture of good will, Iran will agree to ship out more than it receives as long as it receives something.

    An important question: How long does it take to produce a shipment of suitable fuel from material now in Russia or France? If it is a matter of weeks, maybe we can see some shipment this year.

  7. Amir

    Josh,

    You mentioned: “The U.S. has given Iran the apologies it demanded in the past.”

    Can you remind me with those apologies? As I am still waiting to see some.

    Unequivocal cases being:

    – Iran Air 655 flight shoot out

    – 1953 coup

    – US backup of Iraq in Iran-Iraq war

    – etc

    In another note, a deal is a deal if both sides are benefiting from it just like in trading. If one side is so eager to make a deal and the other is not, no trading happens as both sides are not gaining (at least not enough).

  8. Josh (History)

    Arnold:

    It does you no good to be more hard-line for Iran’s sake than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Give it a rest.

    Amir:

    Not only did the U.S. apologize for the Iran Air shootdown, it negotiated and paid out a settlement to the families of the victims. As for the rest of the record, President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright spoke to it during their time in office, when they made a failed attempt to engage Iran.

    It helps no one to have such a long memory for injuries done to oneself, and so little memory either of the positive gestures, or of the injuries done to others in one’s own name.

    I wouldn’t write off the present attempt at engagement just yet. But it seems to me that the Iranian side, so accustomed to enmity and the flinging of insults back and forth, seems surprised by the favorable reception of its own initiative, and no longer entirely knows what to do.

    It would be a shame if this fell through; the old stuff just gets tiresome after awhile.

  9. Scott Monje (History)

    At the time, I thought the most promising event of recent days was when Ahmadinejad said Israel doesn’t want to see this deal succeed. Given the speaker, who could expect a stronger endorsement than that? It’s interesting to see the reformists now attacking Ahmadinejad as being a patsy of the West. Maybe a rise in their standing will be the unexpected by-product of all this. The problem is that no faction really seems to control the place. I’m not even all that sure about Khamene’i. After all, he’s had to put up with a rival (Rafsanjani) running the committee that picks the supreme leader.

    As for Hillary Clinton, I think she’s always been a little more hardline than people realize—especially in foreign policy. The Republicans have done such a thorough job of painting her as a liberal over the years that it’s colored both sides’ thinking.

  10. kerbihan

    Amir: remind me – when did Iran apologize for the US embassy hostage-taking?

    Arnold: “France did many things that were unhelpful such as allowing its negotiating notes to become public”. First, on what do you base your assumption that leak was deliberate? Second, you fail to see that those notes included a clear description of the proposed deal – there was no trick or caveat or secret reservation. So how “unhelpful” was that publication?

  11. Josh (History)

    I fear this conversation has drifted off into recriminations and no longer serves the purposes of the blog. So I won’t be taking additional comments along these lines.

  12. Andy (History)

    Josh,

    Great post. History should inform us that diplomacy through public statements does not work very well.

    I think Arnold’s proposal to create a fuel load first and then do a swap is something worth looking at. The US could facilitate by guaranteeing payment for the producer should the deal fall through after the fuel is manufactured. A direct swap would seem to mitigate Iran’s stated fear that their uranium would be “held hostage” while reducing the western fear of a breakout. Any ideas on how long it would take to make a fuel load for the TRR?

  13. Josh (History)

    A helpful hint for commenters: When you avoid making personal remarks or other gratuitous characterizations of your humble blogger, your comment is bound to get a better reception. Seriously, this is just common sense.

  14. Anthony (History)

    When a regime spends billions on trying to counter “soft” threats within Iran you know that they are not ready to mend ties with the US.

    The current nightmare for Iranian leadership is the youth which spans 70% of the population. Imagine if we grow our ties with the populace as a result of detente with Islamist Republic. They’re going to topple the regime in no time.

  15. Josh (History)

    Anthony:

    But this is precisely the theory that the regime uses to justify its suppression of dissent, so far pretty effectively.

  16. Josh (History)

    Anthony,

    On second thought, let me point to President Obama’s statement of the day before yesterday. It’s short, so here’s the whole thing:

    Thirty years ago today, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized. The 444 days that began on November 4, 1979 deeply affected the lives of courageous Americans who were unjustly held hostage, and we owe these Americans and their families our gratitude for their extraordinary service and sacrifice.
    This event helped set the United States and Iran on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation. I have made it clear that the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. We have condemned terrorist attacks against Iran. We have recognized Iran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power. We have demonstrated our willingness to take confidence-building steps along with others in the international community. We have accepted a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency to meet Iran’s request for assistance in meeting the medical needs of its people. We have made clear that if Iran lives up to the obligations that every nation has, it will have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community.
    Iran must choose. We have heard for thirty years what the Iranian government is against; the question, now, is what kind of future it is for. The American people have great respect for the people of Iran and their rich history. The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights. It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity, and justice for its people.

    The second paragraph is the positive and inviting one. It includes the statement, “We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs.”

    The third and final paragraph (“Iran must choose”) hints at things to come, shifting momentarily from a discussion of the Iranian government to the Iranian people:

    The American people have great respect for the people of Iran and their rich history. The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights.

    We’re in no position to put words in the President’s mouth here, so we should interpret this statement cautiously. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it hints at a potential future shift away from diplomatic engagement and towards the reinforcement of the containment approach, with a new focus on human rights.

    When President Obama says, “Iran must choose,” this probably should be seen in the light of the “two-track” strategy. The implication is that the time is soon coming when Iran either will step through the diplomatic door that its own leaders opened in early June, or the leaders of Western countries, and other countries besides, will move on to strategies other than negotiation.

    This, I believe, is President Obama’s response to Ayatollah Khamene’i‘s speech of earlier in the same day.

    In passing, it is noteworthy that Ayatollah Khamene’i‘s speech contained references to letters sent to him by President Obama; did Obama’s statement echo any of the contents? Also, Khamene’i complained that the two-track strategy is a “dagger held behind the back,” an intimation of bad faith. But in fact, it is all quite out in the open. It would be terribly self-destructive to refuse cooperation on the grounds that the other side has not committed to it ahead of time. This implied demand sits very awkwardly next to Khamene’i insistence that Iran cannot accept an outcome determined for it by others. Diplomacy is a two-way street.

    To put it another way: while the U.S. would do well to avoid making statements of an expressly coercive nature, the U.S. is not the party ultimately responsible for the decisions of the Iranian government. I think Obama’s statement gets the balance about right.

    On a related note, you may have seen Ray Takeyh’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Here is how Takeyh interprets current events:

    Amid their merciless efforts to consolidate power, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies see discussion of the nuclear program as a means to silence the criticism that their domestic behavior merits. In the coming months, Iran will no doubt seek to prolong negotiations by accepting and then rejecting agreed-upon compacts and offering countless counterproposals.

    The “countless counterproposals” part certainly is an apt description of Iranian nuclear diplomacy since 2006 or so. But I believe this era is coming to a close.

    The P5+1 have hewed to an end-of-year deadline. But in practice, the deadline is November 26, when the IAEA Board of Governors next gathers. The BoG must pass a resolution to approve any agreement struck on the LEU-TRR deal. At the same time, the BoG must address the Qom question; Director-General ElBaradei has telegraphed his intention to convey to the BoG that Iran has been “on the wrong side of the law” in this matter. This will leave the BoG with little choice.

    In a recent article at YaleGlobal, Carnegie’s Deepti Choubey laid out the likely scenario at the BoG: Iran will be found in violation of safeguards. Although it is technically unrelated, if a deal is not concluded on LEU-TRR by then, the Security Council will presumably have very little choice but to take up sanctions again — with Iran having rejected a deal that Russia and China accepted, and urged Iran to accept.

    This is not a pretty picture. I might add that the expansion of operations at Gchine — where is all that uranium, anyway? — only darkens the cloud hovering over the Qom question.

    So there is no potential for confusion, let me underscore that this is merely my personal reading of the score. But it would be a terrible shame for all concerned if the present opportunity were missed.

  17. Arnold Evans (History)

    We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. We have condemned terrorist attacks against Iran. … We have made clear that if Iran lives up to the obligations that every nation has, it will have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community.

    “Obligations every nation has” is a very lawyerly formulation that is misleading even if true. Iran has an obligation to submit to the rules of the Security Council, but the UNSC action was not applied in a non-discriminatory fashion. Other nations, including nations that are known to have have nuclear weapons programs have not been required to cease enrichment or to subject their enrichment programs to US discretion.

    The relationship between the US demands on Iran and Israel’s unusual security situation, surrounded by more populous states that most of whose people fundamentally believe that Israel’s creation and Israel’s continual denial of the rights of Palestinians is an injustice, is openly acknowledged even by Americans.

    Very few people in Iran will agree with Obama that Iran’s nuclear issue is being treated as “every other nation”‘s. I expect that some here will claim Iran is being treated fairly and I don’t hope to convince anyone, just to point out that the statement certainly reads as a false one in Iran.

    Which is more problematic because while it is widely reported, even in the West that there was a well funded campaign of supporting separatist elements under Bush, all we have is Obama’s word that this campaign has stopped “we do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs”.

    If two sentences later he makes a statement that is stretching the truth, the first statement, the more important one which is harder to evaluate, loses credibility.

    I have not seen evidence of a decrease in separatist activity since Obama took office, while there was a substantial increase after the US invasion of Iraq that is reasonably attributed to US policy.

    The issue of US support for Iranian separatist organizations is one Obama will have to deal with in a more serious way than a single statement in the middle of this speech. Especially in light of the attack in Balochistan.

    If not, an atmosphere of trust or even of non-confrontation will be difficult, nearly impossible to build.

  18. Josh (History)

    Arnold:

    Let me return to the theme of the “two-way street.” Both Iran and the U.S. have profound reasons for mistrusting each other, even without the benefit of Seymour Hersh’s sometimes questionable reporting. For this very reason, it would be terrible not to take advantage of the opportunity represented by the Obama Administration. To do anything else is to invite a perpetuation of that mutual mistrust. This is not a tendency that ought to be encouraged.

    After all, it’s not as if there’s any great loss involved in making the attempt. If the two sides cannot move towards a detente now, there will be plenty of time to fear and loathe each other later on! No reason to hurry.

    As for Israel, I can only observe that Iran is not a party to the Arab-Israeli conflict except by the choosing of Iran’s leadership, and Iran has its own long and painful history with its Arab neighbors and its own Arab citizens. Indeed, when it comes to concerns about Iranian nuclear weapons potential, the Israeli government is merely the most vocal party in the region.

    Lastly, an administrative note. Although Arnold touched on it only glancingly, I would like to take this opportunity to point out to all commenters that this blog is not the appropriate place to debate whether Israel — or any other UN member state, for that matter — ought to exist. Whether and under what circumstances Israel should change its declaratory policy, seek an India-style deal, or join the NPT are among the questions that this blog takes up from time to time. Which peoples are deserving of nation-states to call their own is not. If someone decides to bring up this topic in the comments, others will quite reasonably insist on replying, heat will overtake light, and soon the actual subject matter of ACW — arms control and nonproliferation — will be obscured. So let me encourage all commenters to steer clear of this one.

  19. Arnold Evans (History)

    I think you missed my point in bringing up Israel, which is that it motivates the US to perceive the idea of Iran having a nuclear capability differently than it perceives Brazil’s, which makes Obama’s “every nation” formulation deceptive. If you don’t agree, I don’t want to argue. It strikes me as basic.

    That was all in support of my bigger point that there really is a question of what support the US gives, right now, separatist groups in Iran. If Obama is telling the truth, then he should at least take credit for it, not in one sentence in the middle of an unrelated topic, but in a statement of policy. This is an important topic. Maybe Obama doesn’t understand its importance. Or maybe he’s lying.

    Iran giving away almost all of its uranium is not a small step, unless the US accepts that Iran will continue enriching at its current level indefinitely.

    The real key to this puzzle is the goal of the US. If the US wants to acquiesce to the reality that it cannot force Iran to stop or slow its enrichment, then Iran is willing to make a gesture to help the US do so.

    If the US has dreams that once the uranium is out, it can apply more pressure and get Iran to stop enriching then, with its stockpile gone, then there is no basis for agreement. In that case, it is an insult to the intelligence of the Iranians that a deal like this would be presented to them.

    Early indications were that the US had the first goal, now it seems like the second. This is not any kind of opportunity for Iran. This is a deal Iran could have taken under Bush but did not at great cost.

    When Obama says “we accept that Iran will have an enrichment program and in theory will be able to produce a weapon even as it does not” then the confrontation is over.

    The US does not have tools to end the confrontation short of that. No matter what the pretext, more sanctions will just mean faster uranium enrichment by Iran. Getting Iran to stop enrichment is just not in the cards.

    On October 2, I thought Obama understood that. Now it seems like he does not.

  20. Andy (History)

    Arnold,

    I’m all for ending any US support to Iranian militant dissidents, but let’s not forget Iranian support for groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – groups that have spilled American blood. So while I agree that support to Iranian separatist organizations is a legitimate Iranian concern, it’s fair to say the same concern exists on the US side. The US is willing to negotiate with Iran despite that support – why shouldn’t Iran?

    Israel is relevant to larger security issues in the region, but it is much less relevant to the current negotiations between Iran and the US and other western nations. What is your purpose in bringing the Palestinian issue and Israeli nukes into the discussion? Are we to believe that those issues must be resolved or addressed to Iran’s satisfaction before Iran is required to do anything? If so, that is a useless and absurd political precondition akin to requiring Iran to recognize Israel or end support for Hizbollah as preconditions to any deal from the US side. Such unrealistic and unattainable preconditions are simply a convenient excuse to derail any improvement in US-Iranian ties through direct diplomacy.

    The point is that excuses to reject deals and claim the other side is acting in bad faith are easy to make for both sides. The US has dropped all such preconditions which is an obvious signal that it is serious in it’s diplomatic efforts with Iran. Iran should do the same as there is a limit to how much and now long the US can keep its door to negotiation and diplomacy open. Despite what some would like, the US is not going to prostrate itself to get Iran to agree to something, particularly a compromise confidence-building agreement like the TRR deal.

  21. Josh (History)

    President Obama’s statement included the words, “We have recognized Iran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power,” and indeed, the U.S. side keeps making that point, pairing rights with responsibilities. That ought to suffice for now; according to the Iranian side (was it Salehi or Jalili?), the Geneva agreement makes no mention of Iran’s enrichment activities. This certainly satisfied the Iranian side at the time.

    I think we have now exhausted the subject, and frankly, I do not believe that the discussion of rights and wrongs unrelated to the nuclear issue is going to advance the discussion much. So, enough.

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