Obama Sidesteps Detractors to Engage Iran

by | Oct 18, 2013

Obama Iran

Below the radar, the tortuous process leading to an Iran nuclear deal may have got under way in Geneva where the two-day talks between the protagonists – P5+1 and Iran – ended on a positive note on Wednesday. The joint statement issued after the talks was a “first” of its kind, symbolizing that there is reason to believe in the strong likelihood of a critical mass forming. 

The other good signs are that the next round of talks has been slated for an early date within the coming three weeks and, secondly, in the interim the “nuclear, scientific and sanctions experts” of the two sides – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany and Iran – will hold technical level discussions. 

Speaking to reporters after the talks ended in Geneva, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the talks were “extensive and fruitful and that the world powers exhibited the necessary will to move the process forward”. Zarif sounded upbeat. 

He said the talks “will hopefully be the beginning of a new phase in our relations [with the international community] towards closing an unnecessary crisis and opening new horizons”. 

Zarif gave enough hints that Iran’s proposal at the talks essentially devolved upon the stance that its right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purpose “including enrichment, can, in fact, be exercised with the necessary political will without any proliferation concerns” and Tehran will be willing to remove those concerns to the satisfaction of the international community. But, he underscored, there are “mutual objectives” that need to be met with “reciprocal steps” and Tehran regards the readiness to move in tandem a litmus test. As he put it, “the detailed part is the most difficult part”. 

Clearly, the expert-level negotiations in the coming interim period aim at fleshing out a matrix of confidence-building measures which are to be undertaken by both sides – Iran on one side and the US and the European Union on the other. Catherine Ashton, EU’s foreign policy advisor who presided over the talks in Geneva, separately described the discussions as “substantive”, the “most detailed we have ever had by… a long way” and that the two parties have set out their positions on a “number of issues already”. 

Piecing together the various media accounts and statements coming out of Geneva this week, the impression remains that the Iranians discussed the possibility of limiting their uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure. Besides, Iran seems to have expressed willingness to discuss the eventual signing of an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency to provide for snap inspections of its nuclear facilities so as to ensure that there is total access at short notice for the IAEA experts to all parts of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle. The Iranian Majlis is due to take up the question of Additional Protocol on Sunday, since parliamentary approval is needed for Tehran to proceed further on this track. 

Most certainly, the signing of an Additional Protocol will form part of the endgame and Tehran will link the signing to an explicit recognition by the international community that Iran has inalienable right to use nuclear energy and uranium enrichment. Curiously, this is a replay. Iran, in fact, had begun implementing an Additional Protocol already in 2003 but the US didn’t want to follow through in the spirit of the George W. Bush administration’s “Axis of Evil” thesis, and Tehran stopped adhering to the Protocol in 2006. 

That’s of course looking further ahead. For the immediate term, what matters is the extent to which the US will be willing to ease the sanctions as a goodwill gesture – or as a reciprocal step forward – which would help the leadership in Tehran claim that the new thinking to engage the international community is showing results and stands vindicated. On the whole, though, a consensus opinion is already available in Tehran regarding the raison d’etre of the new foreign policy thinking by President Hassan Rouhani and the public support extended by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the policy reorientation makes all the difference in Iran’s political calculus. 

At any rate, the comments by the US officials so far show a high level of satisfaction over the discussions that took place in Geneva. Equally, the fact that for the first time the US delegation included top sanctions officials is also an interesting pointer to the mood of anticipation within the Obama administration. 

However, the problem for the Obama administration is going to be the Congress, because on Capitol Hill the combined clout of the Israeli and Saudi Arabian lobbies becomes a formidable resistance factor to the idea of conceding anything at all to Iran unless it altogether capped and rolled back its nuclear program… Ironically, on the eve of the Geneva talks, a “bipartisan” letter from the lawmakers landed on Obama’s desk suggesting that the Congress is “prepared to move forward with new sanctions to increase pressure on the government in Tehran”. 

Suffice to say, an uphill task awaits the Obama administration in the coming weeks to sway the lawmakers to the point that they realize that across the board, the US foreign and security policy interests in the long term stand to gain across the board if only a cooperative relationship evolves between Washington and Tehran – not only with regard to conflict situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and so on but also in other areas like energy security, struggle against terrorism, the transformation of the Middle East, viability of the rebalancing strategy in Asia. Coming on top of the bruising battle that is already under way between the White House and the Congress on the government shutdown, where an uneasy temporary truce has been just declared, Obama will be hard-pressed to lead another charge on the Capitol Hill. Besides, when it comes to Iran, there is a “bipartisan” roadblock erected by the Israeli Lobby. 

Can the Obama administration persuade the lawmakers to dismantle the sanctions regime against Iran, which, incidentally, by far predates the past decade’s US-Iranian standoff over the nuclear issue?

Arguably, within the US system the president has a lot of reserve powers and leeway to take foreign-policy initiatives. The White House seems hopeful, as signified by the decision to move on to technical level discussions involving the sanctions experts in the coming interim period before the next round of talks in Geneva. The Obama administration could argue that the US’ overall credibility is also involved since Iran is showing flexibility and the world is watching and expecting that the US ought to reciprocate. 

On the other hand, once the talks show traction and develop a dynamics of their own and as a critical mass begins to form – not only on the nuclear issue but also in terms of a broader engagement on other issues – the detractors on the home turf in the Washington political establishment and among the US’ regional allies in the Middle East will become isolated gradually and may have to come around, even if grudgingly, to appreciate the greater logic of the US-Iranian normalization for regional security and stability.

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

    View all posts