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Iran: Can Sanctions and Diplomacy Be Combined?

6 minute read
Tony Karon

“The purpose of sanctions is to bring the Iranian side to the negotiating table,” said Li Baodong, China’s U.N. ambassador, this week, explaining how Beijing could simultaneously support a new uranium-swap deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey and endorse new U.N. sanctions. The Obama Administration appears to have convinced China of its view that sanctions pressure is integral to achieving a diplomatic compromise. That two-track concept of combining punitive pressures with diplomatic engagement may also partly explain the U.S. slap-down of the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil — even though that agreement may have been pursued at the encouragement of the Obama Administration.

Having likely been caught off guard by Iran’s yes to a deal substantially similar to the one it turned down last October, Washington rushed to reclaim the initiative by putting on the table a new package of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, which Washington said had the backing of erstwhile holdouts Russia and China. And perhaps reflective of the Administration’s desire to head off criticism from Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday, May 17, that the new sanctions resolution was “as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide.”

(See how Obama has doubled down in the Iran nuclear showdown.)

Yet Turkish officials were piqued by Clinton’s language, claiming that the “efforts undertaken in Tehran” rebuked by Clinton were, in fact, coordinated with her Administration. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday that Clinton herself and National Security Adviser James Jones had been in “constant contact with us” and that Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan was encouraged by President Obama in April to persuade Iran to accept the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) fuel-swap deal offered last October. Iran appears to have accepted the key requirements of the TRR deal — that it transfer 1,200 kg of its low-enriched uranium abroad, in a single shipment, in exchange for a package of reactor fuel necessary to power its medical-research reactor.

(See the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s elections.)

“What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty,” Davutoglu said earlier this week. “We were told that if Iran gives 1,200 kg without conditions, then the required atmosphere of trust would be created.” That trust will be eroded if the U.S. and its partners impose new sanctions, he said. And if the U.S. is seen to be shifting the goalposts, it could face a backlash among developing countries on the Iran standoff.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, however, criticized the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal for failing to address the “core concern of the international community”: the U.N. Security Council’s demand, backed by existing sanctions, for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. Crowley’s complaint is somewhat disingenuous, because the same was true for the TRR deal offered by the Obama Administration last October; indeed, it was that deal’s silence on the question of continued enrichment that prompted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to initially hail it as a great victory before domestic opposition forced him to back out of the deal. This time, a similar deal appears to have the backing of a broad spectrum of Iranian politicians, from Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei to a majority of parliamentarians and some key figures in the reformist movement.

Iran could still choose further brinkmanship, of course, by backing away from the Turkey-Brazil deal if new sanctions remain on the table — as Ahmadinejad threatened to do on Thursday. Brazil and Turkey, both currently on the Security Council, are annoyed by the U.S. response and have declined to discuss new sanctions. But Russia and China appear to want it both ways, promoting the fuel-swap deal and encouraging Iran to send it in written form to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) while continuing to support sanctions for now.

One issue that could keep Beijing and Moscow firmly on Washington’s side may be Iran’s vow to continue enriching uranium to 20% — the grade necessary to power the TRR, which is four times higher than regular reactor fuel and a lot closer to weapons-grade — even if the fuel swap goes through. Unless Iran walks back from that position, Russia and China will likely remain firm on sanctions, seeing no innocent reason for Iran to keep enriching uranium to that grade once the TRR has fuel.

Pursuing sanctions and engagement on parallel tracks may be Washington’s answer to Iran’s strategy of negotiating while steadily adding to its stockpile of nuclear material. Iran had, in fact, suspended enrichment late in 2003, a precondition for negotiations demanded by the European Union. But Ahmadinejad argued that the suspension had simply allowed the Europeans to stall on offering Tehran various political and economic incentives. So when he assumed office in August 2005, Iran resumed its enrichment activities, under scrutiny from the IAEA, which continues to monitor those activities despite the fact that they now violate Security Council resolutions. Just as U.S. officials argue that Iran’s latest offer shows that sanctions pressure can be effective, so do Iranian officials argue that Iran’s tactic of negotiating with its centrifuge-spinning has forced more concessions from the West.

So both sides are operating on two tracks, mustering pressure in order to prevail in the diplomatic game. The Administration is hoping to present a united front of Security Council powers in order to hold off pressure from Capitol Hill to take tougher action. But if Iran takes serious steps toward implementing the Brazil-Turkey deal, pressure could grow on the U.S. from the likes of China and Russia to respond positively.

Lurking beneath the latest moves is what may be a fundamental difference on goals. The outcome sought by the U.S. requires Iran to relinquish its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes; the Iranians have no intention of doing so in the foreseeable future. China and Russia want Iran to satisfy all transparency concerns raised by the IAEA over Iran’s program but don’t in principle oppose Iran’s right to enrich uranium as part of a nuclear energy program. And Iran will likely work in the gap in between.

Read “Iran’s New Nuke Proposal: Progress, or Delaying Tactic?”

See photos of the nuclear gamesmanship between the U.S. and Iran.

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