Washington – The agreement on draft Security Council resolution sanctions against Iran has grabbed the headlines on the Barack Obama administration’s response to Iran’s nuclear swap proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil. But the more consequential response is the acknowledgement by the U.S. State Department Monday that the administration is not willing to hold talks with Iran unless it agrees to a complete halt in uranium enrichment.
That announcement was accompanied by the revelation that the objective of the original swap proposal last autumn was to get Iran to agree to eventually to suspend its enrichment programme.
The Obama administration had not previously declared publicly that it was demanding an end to all enrichment by Iran, and had suggested directly and indirectly that it wanted a broader diplomatic engagement with Iran covering issues of concern to both states.
The new hard line ruling out broader diplomatic engagement with Iran and the new light on the strategy behind last year’s swap proposal confirms what has long been suspected – that the debate within the Obama administration last year over whether to abandon the demand for an end to Iranian uranium enrichment as unrealistic had been won by proponents of the zero enrichment demand by late summer 2009.
U.S. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Monday the United States would not negotiate with Iran on its proposal to send 1,200 kilogrammes of low enriched uranium to Turkey to be replaced with 120 kilogrammes of fuel rods for its Tehran Research Reactor, unless the Iranians agree to take up the broader subject of their nuclear programme – and specifically an end to their uranium enrichment programme.
Responding to a question about the U.S. willingness to meet with Iran on the new proposal, Crowley said, "[I]f it’s willing to engage the P5+1, "then it has to commit that it’s willing to engage the P5+1 on its nuclear programme."
The P5+1 groups the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.
Crowley noted that Iran had offered to have discussions with "the international community" but not about its nuclear programme. "[I]n our view, the only reason to have that discussion," Crowley said, "first and foremost, would be to address our core concerns in the – with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme."
Crowley revealed for the first time that the original proposal for Iran to swap 1,200 kilogrammes of low enriched uranium for 120 kilogrammes of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent roughly a year later "was meant as a means to a larger end, which was to get Iran to fundamentally address its – concerns the international community has".
He went on to explain that "the fact that Iran…continues to enrich uranium and has failed to suspend its uranium enrichment programme, as has been called for in the U.N. Security Council resolutions: that’s our core concern."
Crowley was clearly suggesting that the talks which were supposed to follow Iran’s acceptance of the deal would be focused on ending its nuclear enrichment programme rather than on addressing the sources of conflict between the United States and Iran.
Last October, the swap proposal was presented as a "confidence building measure" that would gain enough time for a broader diplomatic dialogue between Iran and the United States to take place. It would allow the Obama administration to argue with Israel that Iran had temporarily given up its "breakout capability" by transferring most of its low enriched uranium abroad.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the lame duck director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), declared on Oct. 21 that the swap agreement "could pave the way for a complete normalisation of relations between Iran and the international community".
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly argued, moreover, that the swap proposal implicitly accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium, although nothing in the proposal addressed that issue.
The history of the swap proposal shows, however, that its origins were intertwined with the objective of halting Iranian uranium enrichment.
Gary Samore, Obama’s chief adviser on nuclear proliferation, devised the swap deal. He had published a paper in December 2008 with co-author Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution proposing that the new administration demand that Iran’s LEU be exported to Russia to be converted into fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor in order take away Iran’s nuclear "break-out capability".
Ironically, it was Ahmadinejad’s public suggestion of interest in a straight commercial deal under which Iran would send LEU to any country that would enrich it to 20 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor that led to the formulation of the swap proposal.
Samore simply shifted the focus of that proposal from Bushehr to the Tehran Research Reactor, and it quickly became a P5+1 initiative to temporarily strip Iran of nearly 80 percent of its low enriched uranium.
Samore was known to be a strong proponent of demanding that Iran end its uranium enrichment programme, who privately expressed certainty that Iran intends to manufacture nuclear weapons. He had publicly expressed pessimism that Iran would accept any proposal demanding an end to enrichment without a credible military threat, whether by the United States or Israel.
Before entering the administration Samore had advocated offering a lifting of economic sanctions, assurances against regime change and even normalisation of relations as inducements to accept that demand.
No Iranian regime could have accepted a complete end to enrichment as part of a deal with the United States, however, because of popular support for the nuclear programme as a symbol of Iran’s technological advancement.
Proponents of the zero enrichment option were confident enough to leak to the press the fact that the aim of broader talks with Iran would be to end enrichment entirely. The Washington Post reported Oct. 22, 2009 that U.S. officials commenting on the proposed uranium swap "stressed that the deal would be only the first step in a difficult process to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and that suspension remains the primary goal".
Now the administration has given up whatever flexibility it had previously retained to adjust its position in the face of a firm Iranian rejection of the zero enrichment demand. That position portends a continuation of high and possibly rising tensions between the United States and Iran for the remainder of Obama’s administration.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.