• 22 July 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Diplomacy, Nuclear file

The Uranium Core of Obama’s Iran Strategy

This post originally appeared at Talking Warheads:

In dismissing the Tehran Declaration in May, US officials said the fuel swap proposal doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The core issue, according to four UN Security Council resolutions and two successive US administrations, is Iran’s enrichment program.

That’s why Uranium Intelligence Weekly thought it noteworthy to point out some recent changes in the US National Security Strategy that seem to indicate the Obama Administration might drop its zero enrichment redline on Iran.

Despite UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend enrichment, it’s probable that at some point the P5+1 negotiators (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) will have to consider the unthinkable — allowing Iranian enrichment activities to continue. Intriguingly, a shift in the most recent May 2010 NSS, while open to a variety of interpretations, is seen by some as tacitly recognizing that fact, suggesting scope for an eventual shift on the issue — assuming Iran meets international demands to come clean about its nuclear program and adheres to the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol.

Jeffrey Lewis is intrigued, though mistakenly called the US demand a precondition for talks.  It’s not.  Dropping that precondition and going ahead with direct talks (albeit few and far between) was Obama’s first policy major shift.  The next step will be to make some move toward accepting Iran’s right to civilian applications of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Most Iran experts see this as a no-brainer.  But arms control people are less willing to blow open the loophole in the NPT that allows countries like Iran to produce fissile material under cover of a civilian program.  So it’s a squabble that keeps the progressive community divided, clearing the way for the hawks and ideologues to sell their simple and concise narrative of “bombs away.”

It’s important that those groups not looking to go to war develop a clear idea of what needs to happen next.  Fortunately, there have been some good discussions in recent weeks among NGOs about exactly that sort of thing.  There’s a consensus emerging that could serve as something of a road map for American negotiators.

Solving the Nuclear Issue in 3 Easy Steps

Now that newly-imposed sanctions have taken some of the pressure off, the Administration needs a renewed commitment to diplomacy.  That means face time with Iranian negotiators — no more negotiating through the press.  It also requires effective partners, building on the progress that Turkey and Brazil gained in May to break down or at least circumvent some of the mistrust that poses such an obstacle.  A plan is already underway for yet another revival of the zombie fuel swap in August, using Turkey as an effective mediator.  Assuming a deal is finally reached to send some uranium out of Iran, both sides can finally declare victory on a confidence-building measure that wraps up outstanding concerns regarding 20% enrichment and the size of Iran’s stockpile of LEU.

Then comes the hard part: the enrichment program itself.

The US has to compromise on its demand of zero centrifuges in Iran.  But it likely won’t lay down its trump card at the beginning of negotiations.  So the goal will be to get Iran to agree to a suspension in line with UNSC resolutions and similar to the suspension it began in November of 2004.  [A suspension; not a halt — demonstrating that a suspension is by definition temporary will be key.]  That will be the objective: trading an acceptance of Iran’s right to maintain an enrichment program for a temporary suspension and reasonable limitations once the program is restarted.

Getting Iran to agree to a suspension, I believe, will be the biggest challenge of all.  They’ve gone down that road before, agreeing to a full suspension in 2004 only to resume it two years later.  The task for the P5+1 will be to convince the Iranians that it will be different this time.  The US will be at the table — a key difference from before — but will still depend on credible partners like Turkey to convey its good intentions. In short, we’re going to have to trust one another.

After that, all that’s left is gaining Iran’s accession to the Additional Protocol and/or other mechanisms for verifying the absence of a weapons program.  Iran’s ratification of the CTBT would be a nice bonus, as it’s a prerequisite for the treaty’s entering into force, and such a gesture would be a sign of Iran’s commitment not to develop bombs.  In exchange for all of this, the international community would have to welcome Iran back into the fold, removing sanctions and reintegrating Tehran into the economic, political and security establishment of the region.

So that’s it.  Not too hard, right?

Posted By Patrick Disney

    7 Responses to “The Uranium Core of Obama’s Iran Strategy”

  1. hass says:

    So Iran tried suspension once and it didn’t work. Conclusion: the US isn’t interested in a peaceful resolution of this standoff and seeks to artificially keep it alive because it is a convenient pretext. Everytime the Iranians make a concession — like the recent uranium swap agreement — the US simply moves the goalposts.

  2. Trita says:

    NIAC’s fuzzy logic is beyond me and is beyond any rational thinking. I guess 30 years of failed diplomacy is not enough and mullahs need additional time to rape more Iranians and build their nuclear bomb.

  3. Jason says:

    I think it’s a little more basic than that. A consequence of the US government’s design seems to be the ability for one part to shoot another in the foot on a regular basis. Witness Congress (Legislative) vs the White House (Executive). Pull your fingers out, guys.

  4. Barry Rubin says:

    How do you know someone has no idea what they’re talking about? Answer: They predict that Israel is about to attack Iran.

    From the perspective of people in Israel who are closely following these issues, this idea is ridiculous. Understanding why this is so tells us a great deal about the situation.

    First, it is too early to consider such an option in strategic terms. As long as Iran has not completed its effort to obtain nuclear weapons, the less there is to be gained by destroying uncompleted facilities or processes that are not yet at their full capacity. The earlier one attacks, the easier it is for the Iranian regime to rebuild.

    Second, the whole Israeli strategy has been based on winning the maximum amount of Western support against the Iranian nuclear program. Israel worked hard to encourage the United States and the Europeans to put tough sanctions on Iran. Now we are in the sanctions’ era and these governments want to see whether the sanctions are going to have any effect.

    Clearly, they are hurting the Iranian regime. People often don’t understand the purposes for imposing international sanctions. Ideally, the goal is to change the behavior of the targeted regime. But that’s not all. Sanctions are supposed to reduce the ability of an enemy regime to do what it wants to do. The fewer assets Iran has, the less it can put into military efforts.

    In addition, the pressure of sanctions is to open up splits within the regime’s leadership and between the regime and the population. The people ask: Why are we suffering? Because of bad leadership and policies. Other members of the elite ask: Why are the top rulers and their policies leading us toward the regime’s downfall and the loss of our wealth and power?

    This is happening to some extent in Iran today.

    Moreover, sanctions are intended to isolate the regime, so that it loses allies and trading partners. This is happening to a lesser extent, because the U.S. government is in effect making a deal with Russia, China, Turkey, and Brazil to break the sanctions in exchange for giving them formal support.

    Will sanctions stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? Almost certainly, the answer is “no.” Yet, from Israel’s standpoint, this effort must be given every chance. Only if the Western countries are satisfied that every diplomatic and sanctions’-related effort has been fully tried—and very probably not even then!—would they support military action.

    A third factor is a fundamental reality of international affairs: there is no compelling reason for Israel to act now and it has other problems to deal with. Iran’s obtaining a deliverable nuclear weapon is at least two, probably three, and perhaps four years off. Why do something now? There’s no motive to do so. The idea that something must or will be done immediately is a fiction among those who really don’t know much about the situation but perhaps have a thirst for action, a hunger for some decisive event that will easily and neatly solve the whole problem with one blow.

    Leaders want to postpone tough decisions where the possibility of a catastrophic mistake as long as possible and one can hardly blame them.

    Fourth, even if Israel wanted to attack now—which it doesn’t—such an action would not enjoy U.S. support and cooperation. During the current period, U.S.-Israel relations are very shaky, despite the fact that they are all right at this particular moment, though for how long is an open question. The Obama Administration tends to oppose the use of force, deplore unilateralism, dislike taking a strong lead, and seeks to distance itself from Israel more than was true for its predecessors.

    If the decision of a lowly local zoning board in Jerusalem to build a few apartment buildings set off a huge storm in bilateral relations, what would an Israeli attack on Iran do?

    Don’t forget, too, that U.S. troops are in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with periodic hints from the U.S. side that precipitate Israeli action could endanger them. Yet two or three years from now, those soldiers, or almost all of them, will be gone from the region. If that is going to coincide with Iran getting nuclear weapons, all the more reason to wait.

    Finally, there are an increasing number of voices in the Israeli political, military, and intelligence establishment arguing that Israel should not wage a preemptive attack on Iran at all for a variety of reasons. When one adds up all these factors, it is rather clear that no such attack is imminent.

    Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.

  5. Pirouz says:

    Are you saying that nuclear fuel production (enrichment) is a “loophole” of the NPT?

    Patrick, this non-legal and highly politicized position runs completely contrary to popular sentiment in the Islamic Republic of Iran. NIAC keeps saying it is behind “the people” of Iran, and then we come across statements such as these.

    • Patrick Disney says:

      Pirouz, you know exactly what I mean. The NPT guarantees the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy to all signatories, but it does not specify how to deal with a country that has been found to be in noncompliance with its NPT obligations by the UN Security Council. What you call “highly politicized” is, in fact, international law. Iran knew this was a possibility when it signed and ratified the Treaty, and it did so voluntarily.

      As for the popular sentiment in Iran: I believe the Iranian people long for a resolution to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. I believe the Iranian people — whether they support the current government, the reform movement, or any other political faction in Iran — want their country to take back its rightful place as a respected and productive member of the international community. I believe they would like to come out from under the shadow of sanctions and the threat of war.

      And because I believe all that, I wrote this post laying out what I believe to be a reasonable path forward in negotiating an end to this crisis. You, on the other hand, took one word out of that post, twisted it around, and misconstrued it so as to criticize NIAC. I’d be perfectly happy to hear your thoughts about my proposal, but don’t waste time with manufactured arguments.

  6. Iranian-American says:


    With all due respect, you are the last person to talk about popular sentiment in Iran. You are stubbornly and foolishly putting all your faith on some very flawed polling data, and make far-fetched excuses to deny a the following very obvious points:

    Iranians, as a whole, are unhappy with their government. Many of the most educated Iranians continue leaving Iran to go to Europe and America. Poor Iranians want jobs which do not exist. Many Iranian long for freedoms that people enjoy in Western countries. As Patrick put it, most Iranians “want their country to take back its rightful place as a respected and productive member of the international community.”

    Long story short, the Iranian government is failing its people in so many ways and the people know it. That is not to say they all support the Green movement, that is not to say they all want a revolution. But on the whole, to say the country is in bad shape is an understatement, and the Iranian people of all walks of life are aware of that because they are the ones that suffer.

    In the parallel universe you have created in your mind, where all Iranians are employed and enjoy free health care and university, where every account of torture, rape and illegal arrest are false, overblown or not important, where Iran’s military does not have to photoshop pictures of missiles to boast about a military that is very likely much weaker and pathetic than it claims, you can believe anything. But in the reality we live, NIAC has been careful to do a good job being with “the people” of Iran.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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