Analysis: Is the US backing down on Iran’s Uranium Enrichment?

Jerusalem Post- 09/04/2009

US President Barack Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament on Monday was greeted with enthusiasm throughout the Arab world. The speech represented an attempt to mend fences, and was testimony to the administration’s belief in the healing power of words. Obama ticked all the required boxes. He stressed his intention to “actively pursue” the goal of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He declared that the US “is not and will never be at war with Islam.” He even spoke of the important role played by Islam in the development of the United States. (No doubt some junior member of staff is currently engaged in the unenviable task of finding some examples of this formerly little-remarked-upon phenomenon.) The rhetoric was designed largely to change the atmospherics of the relationship between the US and the Arab states. The content of the administration’s regional policy – beyond a general desire for dialogue and “engagement” – has yet to be properly clarified. However, as the empirical evidence accumulates, a picture is beginning to emerge on key issues.

The administration is serious regarding its project of engagement with Iran. The Iranians, meanwhile, are equally serious about their project to develop a nuclear capability. It therefore appears likely that both of these projects will be seriously and energetically pursued, with the former having little effect on the latter. In his speeches in Turkey, Obama failed to reiterate the previous administration’s call for a complete cessation of uranium enrichment by Iran. Rather, the president said his message to Iran was “don’t develop a nuclear weapon.” This could be interpreted as meaning that the administration may be prepared to tolerate Iran’s uranium enrichment program, on condition that it takes place under IAEA supervision, and does not seek to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. US officials have been wary of committing themselves as to whether this is indeed the administration’s intention. When queried on the matter, State Department spokesman Robert Wood recommended waiting until the policy review process is completed. But should this prove to be the administration’s position, it would be seen in Iran as a major victory for the regime.

Iran has been at loggerheads for the last half-decade with the major western powers over its uranium enrichment program. A series of UN Security Council resolutions since 2006 have reiterated the international demand for an absolute and open-ended cessation of uranium enrichment by Teheran. This goal has been shared, at least declaratively, by the US, EU, Russia and China. In the intervening period, Iran has defied international will. Teheran has installed more than 5,500 centrifuges to enrich uranium in its plant at Natanz. Iran now possesses a stockpile of more than 1,000 kg. of low-enriched uranium. A US acceptance of this situation as a fait accompli would send a strong signal to the regime in Iran and to its allies that this is an administration that accepts the establishment of facts on the ground – at least by its enemies. It appears that the administration realizes this, which is why it will prefer to wait until after the Iranian presidential elections in June, in the hope that it can offer any concessions to someone other than President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. But whether it is Ahmedinejad or Mirhossein Moussavi who holds the Iranian presidency after June, if the intention of the Obama administration is to accept ongoing Iranian uranium enrichment as a starting point from which to request Iranian cooperation, this would represent the rewarding of defiance. The result of this will be to invite more defiance.

The administration has now announced that it will take part in direct talks with the Iranians, alongside the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia. This latest development represents a further abandonment of the previous administration’s policy regarding uranium enrichment. Bush had made the cessation of enrichment a condition for talks between Iran and the US. A new round of talks is currently being prepared, and is expected to take place within four to six weeks. Ahmedinejad has gracefully accepted Obama’s offer of friendship, on condition that it is based on “honesty, justice and respect.” In the coming days, meanwhile, Iran is expected to announce the latest advance in its nuclear program – the perfection of techniques for the manufacture of uranium fuel. Of course, the possibility of increased sanctions will be held out, should Iran refuse to cooperate with the latest diplomatic charm offensive. Nevertheless, the overall picture is not encouraging.

Behind the smiles and the bowing and the rhetoric, the various regional players are currently assessing their room for maneuver in the climate being created by the Obama administration. The Iranians will note the softening of the US stance on uranium enrichment, the offer of direct talks, and the declarations of friendship and respect for Iran’s ancient culture. They are likely to conclude that all this adds up to increased space and increased time in which to pursue their ambitions.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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