As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Serious Moves On Iran Diplomacy

In a major potential shift that bodes extremely well for an amicable resolution to strained US-Iranian relations, David Sanger reports that the Obama Administration, unlike its predecessor, will not demand the full result of negotiation BEFORE negotiating.

The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing proposals that would shift strategy toward Iran by dropping a longstanding American insistence that Tehran rapidly shut down nuclear facilities during the early phases of negotiations over its atomic program, according to officials involved in the discussions.

The proposals, exchanged in confidential strategy sessions with European allies, would press Tehran to open up its nuclear program gradually to wide-ranging inspection. But the proposals would also allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for some period during the talks. That would be a sharp break from the approach taken by the Bush administration, which had demanded that Iran halt its enrichment activities, at least briefly to initiate negotiations.

The proposals under consideration would go somewhat beyond President Obama’s promise, during the presidential campaign, to open negotiations with Iran “without preconditions.” Officials involved in the discussion said they were being fashioned to draw Iran into nuclear talks that it had so far shunned.

Sanger is actually hedging a bit too much here. The Bush Administration did not call for a halt to Iranian enrichment "briefly." They consistently called for a verifiable end to enrichment as a condition of talks, which were supposed to be about enrichment. In other words, this was like a contract negotiation where you ask for a million dollars up-front, before sitting down to talk about whether or not you get a million dollars. It was a negotiation fated never to begin, as nobody would be so stupid as to give away their entire bargaining power prior to bargaining. This gesture by Obama shows the Iranians that he's actually serious about diplomacy and engagement. As Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA puts it:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors would be a critical part of the strategy, said in an interview in his office in Vienna last week that the Obama administration had not consulted him on the details of a new strategy. But he was blistering about the approach that the Bush administration had taken.

“It was a ridiculous approach,” he insisted. “They thought that if you threatened enough and pounded the table and sent Cheney off to act like Darth Vader the Iranians would just stop,” Dr. ElBaradei said, shaking his head. “If the goal was to make sure that Iran would not have the knowledge and the capability to manufacture nuclear fuel, we had a policy that was a total failure.”

Now, he contended, Mr. Obama has little choice but to accept the reality that Iran has “built 5,500 centrifuges,” nearly enough to make two weapons’ worth of uranium each year. “You have to design an approach that is sensitive to Iran’s pride,” said Dr. ElBaradei, who has long argued in favor of allowing Iran to continue with a small, face-saving capacity to enrich nuclear fuel, under strict inspection.

Obama has a larger goal than "looking tough" to Iran or making belligerent statements in the media. He wants to eradicate nuclear weapons from this planet. And pursuing strategies that have no hope of working frustrates that goal. And reaching an accommodation with Iran, by contrast, would be a major step.

For the time being, even cynical realists might recognize that Obama’s endorsement of the goal of abolition enhances America’s negotiating position within the nonproliferation system without imposing any practical constraints on American power. In fact, the Prague speech was not especially notable for its idealism; its significance lies in Obama’s comprehensive, pragmatic accounting of the nuclear-diplomacy mess that he was handed by his predecessor [...]

It may be impossible to prevent nuclear gridlock in the Middle East. Under an umbrella of Russian protection, Iran does not fear speeches. Still, it is inarguably in the United States’ interests to employ aggressive and creative diplomacy to attempt to revise Tehran’s perception of the costs and benefits of its nuclear program. Obama understands what is at stake: Iranian recalcitrance, he said, could produce “a potential nuclear-arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all.” Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined a European-led initiative to re-start nuclear negotiations with Tehran. In a reversal of Bush Administration policy, she said that the United States would be a “full participant” in the talks.

Today's revelation is exactly the kind of creative diplomacy required in this difficult situation. Faced with yet another bad hand from the Bush Administration, President Obama is operating with the urgency needed to move forward on the ambitious goal of ending the menace of nuclear weapons.

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