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After the Stakeout

In the News

November 15, 2010

Author: Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar (Fall 2013), Middle East Initiative

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative

 

By: Smyth Gareth of the Tehran Bureau

Prospects for talks between the P5+1 and Iran are so poor that at least one European diplomat has briefed the press that the Americans are too optimistic. Such is the desire of Obama officials to show sanctions are working, said the diplomat, that they are exaggerating their effects.

Two years after Barack Obama won a presidential election promising dialogue with Iran, a swing to the right in Congressional mid-term elections has, say many U.S. commentators, all but doomed his "conciliatory" approach. It is open season for advocates of violence led by Washington Post columnist David Broder and Senator Lindsay Graham, egged on by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, editorialized that Mr. Obama had lost support because "polls have consistently shown that Americans want their president to be pro-Israel" while the president had mistakenly "returned to publicly pressuring [Mr.] Netanyahu for concessions." As well as dropping such pressure the Post advised "another constructive suggestion" of "accompany[ing] the international sanctions on Iran with a credible military threat."

In Tehran, Iran Daily noted "Israelis Jubilating" at mid-term results that would help Israel "advance its plans for undertaking the complete Judaization of Beit-ul-Moqaddas [part of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem]." The paper reflected a widespread view in the Tehran media that there have been no differences over Iran between Mr. Obama and the previous administration.

Mr. Obama's problem, as Jamal Abdi of the U.S.-based National Iranian American Council recently pointed out, is that no matter how far he moves to placate the U.S. right, he will be outflanked. Even before taking office in January 2009, Mr. Obama was making telling concessions to those opposed to talks with Tehran.

"[Mr.] Obama was like a blank page, and there has been a scramble to write on it," one seasoned U.S. analyst close to the Democrats told me early last year in Lebanon.

The president's appointments, carefully watched in Iran, did not signal conciliation to Tehran. When Mr. Obama made Hillary Clinton secretary of state, the Iranian newspapers buzzed with surprise that the most important international U.S. official should be a presidential candidate who had blasted Mr. Obama's call for engagement and indeed had said the U.S. could "totally obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel. Iran's leaders were no more likely to dismiss such a remark as populism than Israel's to ignore Mr. Ahmadinejad similar call for the Israeli regime to be "erased from the page of history."

Keeping Stuart Levey as treasury under-secretary for "terrorism and financial intelligence" presaged tighter sanctions, and retaining Robert Gates as defense secretary, when he had just dismissed outreach to Iran as "useless," emphasized the threat of military force. Again, all carefully followed in Tehran.

Appointing Dennis Ross -- a "pioneer of the American-Zionist lobby," said the Iranian conservative newspaper, Kayhan -- as an advisor to Sec. Clinton led Sadegh Kharrazi, a former diplomat who drafted the 2003 letter to the U.S. proposing better relations, to speak of the U.S. "flying to Tehran by the connecting flight via Tel Aviv."

And even before Mr. Obama took office, he gave hesitant support for the Israeli bombing of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, when at least 1100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. The conflict enflamed opinion across the Arab and Muslim world, and strengthened voices in Tehran opposed to talks with the United States.

'Sanctions that bite'

As he had done in March 2006 over security talks with Washington in Baghdad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, insisted Iran would engage if its "rights" were respected. But the "engagement" was short-lived, and barely lasted the first feelers put out by U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Geneva in October 2009.

The crushing of post-election unrest in Tehran encouraged the critics of engagement on both sides, undermining anyone who spoke of compromise. Geneva also followed a media frenzy over news that Iran was constructing a second -- and fortified -- enrichment plant, near Qom, and a dispute over at what stage it was obliged to inform the IAEA.

And so after three decades without diplomatic relations, the great diplomatic breakthrough apparently amounted to a brief one-to-one between William Burns, U.S. under-secretary of state, and Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

Rather than the sketchy exploration of possible common ground that had characterized earlier talks between Ali Larijani, Mr. Jalili's predecessor, and Javier Solana, then the EU foreign policy chief, the United States hurriedly proposed in full media glare that Iran export 1200kg of low-enriched uranium, around 75 percent of its stock, for processing. This was ostensibly to meet Iran's request through the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency for 20 percent-enriched uranium for use in cancer treatment (Iran's stock, supplied by Argentina, had run out).

And that was that. Five months later, when Brazil and Turkey brokered a deal in March to remove most of Iran's enriched uranium in return for fuel for cancer treatment, the United States torpedoed the proposal.

There was even concern at the Arab League, whose mainly Sunni leaders are thoroughly skeptical of Iranian intentions. Amr Moussa, the league's head, at the end of March urged the body's summit in Libya to engage Iran directly over its nuclear program and regional role. Instead, Mrs. Clinton said in a speech to AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobbyists, that "elements in Iran's government have become a menace, both to their own people and in the region" and that the "aim" of U.S. policy was "not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite."

The link between internal Iranian politics and sanctions was noted in Tehran.

In a Nowruz message in March, Ayatollah Khamenei said it was impossible to know who were the real decision-makers in Washington -- "the President, Congress, others behind the scenes." And in a Nuclear Posture Review published in early April, the Obama administration made clear it might use nuclear weapons against Iran, a country without a nuclear deterrent.

The lens of regime change

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, economics professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, highlights a central characteristic of the U.S. approach. "All policy making over Iran is evaluated through the lens of regime change," he says.

The dominant assumption for U.S. policy-makers, the media, and the "Iran experts" competing for influence and funding, is that the "problem" with Iran is its "regime." Every aspect of Iran is seen though this lens, from the arts to the economy, creating a sense that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse.

This can vary from comparisons with Soviet Communism to the commentator who insisted for years that Ayatollah Khamenei was dead. Currently, Iran's plan to phase out subsidies of everyday items from bread to gasoline -- at $100bn an expensive way to encourage waste -- is seen almost entirely through the potential for unrest.

Few in the media have reported the thumbs-up for the Ahmadinejad government from the IMF, with mission chief Dominique Guillaume and senior economist Roman Zytek applauding "a dual purpose" of generating more revenue and curbing the waste of energy. "In fact," says Mr. Salehi-Isfahani, "there is something to be said for a populist president doing price reforms."

In a recent paper published jointly by the Dubai School of Government and the Kennedy School at Harvard, Mr. Salehi-Isfahani argues that the main losers from tighter economic sanctions are young Iranians, who are paying the cost -- and will pay an even higher cost -- through unemployment.

In a public letter in August, opposition leaders Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi wrote that "sanctions have targeted the most vulnerable social classes ... including workers and farmers." In an interview with the London Guardian newspaper the same month, Mr. Karrubi said the political effect of sanctions was to give "an excuse to the Iranian government to suppress the opposition by blaming them for the unstable situation of the country."

This has long been the position of Iran's reformers. In 2005, Saeed Hajjarian told me: "To threaten Iran, nearly every day, America is looking for any excuse -- the nuclear issue, terrorism, human rights, the Middle East peace process. There are different U.S. pressures but some make the situation here more militarized, and in such an atmosphere democracy is killed."

Mr. Hajjarian was shot in the face in 2000 after editing Sobh-e Emruz, a newspaper that exposed the role of Intelligence Ministry operatives in the "serial murders" of reformist intellectuals in the late 1990s. His limited mobility -- after a struggle from coma and partial paralysis through physiotherapy to speech therapy -- did not prevent his re-arrest in June 2009.

The contrast with the U.S. right and Mr. Netanyahu is bleak. For them, sanctions are one means to weaken or remove an Iranian "regime" and so not only end Iran's desire for nuclear technology but end its support for militant Palestinian groups and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For majority opinion in the Middle East, this is another double standard. "Regime change" in Iran is part of mainstream discourse in the United States, but to talk of regime change in Israel is to be accused of anti-Semitism if not genocidal intent.

The U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf includes, if media reports are right, arms deals over the next four years worth $122.8bn. While good business for U.S. arms companies, these sales are turning the Persian Gulf into one of the world's most militarized regions. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are outspending Iran on weapons by ten to one -- and of course this figure does not include the large U.S. military presence.

Also ranged against Iran is the vast Israeli arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons. Israel was reported in September to have approved plans to spend $2.75bn on 35 F-35 stealth fighters, which are more sophisticated than the F-15s reportedly heading to Saudi Arabia and therefore likely to offset any Israeli concerns about the Saudi deal.

The Zionists are 'doomed to vanish'

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is far from alone in the region in resenting the double standard. But he has proved adept at articulating it and exploiting it for political gain, tipping Iranian politics rightwards since 2005.

Last month, the Iranian president received a hero's welcome in south Lebanon where people will recall the Israeli occupation ending in 2000 and where scars are still fresh from the 2006 Israeli invasion that killed around 1,100 people, mainly civilians. They compare Hezbollah's fierce resistance in 2006 to the PLO's collapse in 1982.

The United States and Israel said the visit, at the invitation of a Lebanese sovereign state, was "provocative," and the bulk of the western media followed suit. But Iran's president knew well how to tap the popular pulse, as he showed in a speech in Bint Jbeil.

"The Zionists are doomed to vanish," he said. "Lebanon is the school of resistance and perseverance against the bullying forces of the world ... like a university for jihad, for adventure in the way of noble, human causes."

Naturally, Mr. Ahmadinejad also visited Qana, the village where 105 Lebanese civilians sheltering in a UN base were killed by Israeli bombardment in 1996, and where another 28 civilians were killed by the Israelis in 2006.

In Tehran if not Washington, Mr. Ahmadinejad's critics have long understood how well he plays his audience.

"Ahmadinejad is a radical, but he is clever in public relations and identifies his target supporters," Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a vice-president under Mohammad Khatami later jailed after the 2009 post-election unrest, told me not long after Mr. Ahmadinejad's 2005 election win. "Anyone who talks about Israel like this is welcomed across the Islamic world."

Mohsen Kadivar, a leading Iranian cleric jailed many times and whose books are generally banned in Iran, explained the Ahmadinejad phenomenon to me thus: "The Muslim world has been radicalized by U.S. foreign policy, and because modernity has brought dependence not independence for Muslim countries."

There is no wonder that prospects are so bleak for engagement between the United States and Iran. The inauspicious context includes the rightward swing in the United States, the Israeli government returning to ethnic cleansing in east Jerusalem and a growing security agenda in Iran in response both to sanctions and post-election unrest.

Staking out positions

The P5+1 talks will stake out positions. The United States is apparently to propose that Iran export far more of its enriched uranium than is equivalent to the fuel needed for cancer treatment. Iran, meanwhile, has made clear it will not go beyond the Tehran declaration -- the March agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil -- to export only the amount of uranium needed for conversion into fuel rods for cancer treatment.

Analyst Behruz Farahmand wrote in the Iranian newspaper Qods on November 1 that "from the very beginning, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not intended to tie the issue of fuel for the Tehran research reactor, which is a technical issue, with humanitarian objectives, to political negotiations ... In fact, Iran considers the IAEA to be the principal party in the Vienna Group because according to the terms of the NPT, it is the IAEA that is responsible for coordinating and facilitating the procurement of nuclear fuel for member countries."

For the Obama administration, the challenge is to show domestic critics and the Israelis that sanctions are hurting Iran and that it may still give up its nuclear program short of violence.

For Iran, the challenge is to maintain its regional standing, ameliorate the effects of sanctions and prepare for a possible U.S. or Israeli attack.

Tehran's argument will center on its "right" to nuclear technology. Whatever signs of willingness to compromise Iran has shown over the years, there has never been any hint the basic "right" would be abandoned. The rhetoric is all of national self-determination, echoing the struggles against the British tobacco monopoly, for oil nationalization, and against the Shah.

"The world's nuclear powers, especially the U.S., do not want independent countries to enter the circle of producing and achieving the strategic product of nuclear fuel for peaceful scientific and technological activities," said Ali Larijani last week (November 10) after meeting Turkish parliamentarians.

There is little prospect of Tehran caving in, even to Mrs Clinton's "sanctions that bite." All the evidence suggest Iran is steadying for a prolonged tussle it cannot avoid but which it believes the U.S. and Israel cannot win.

Gareth Smyth has reported from the Middle East since 1992. Between 2003 and 2007 he was the Financial Times bureau chief in Tehran, and was nominated by the newspaper in 2005-06 as foreign correspondent of the year in the British press awards.

 

For more information about this publication please contact the The Dubai Initiative at 617-496-3694.

For Academic Citation:

Smyth, Gareth, "After the Stakeout," Tehran Bureau, November 15, 2010.

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