Thursday, December 24, 2009

John Kerry may go to Tehran

The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon reports that John Kerry is considering various ways to meet Iran's leadership. Iran has a fairly simple position on the nuclear issue. It will not stop enriching, and it will develop the capability, or the technology necessary to build a weapon if it chooses to, as is its right. The United States can either choose to accept Iranian enrichment, or it can try to pressure the Iranian regime, which means that next year at this time, the US will face an Iran with substantially more enriched uranium and be faced with the same choice again.
"This sounds like the kind of travel a chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would -- and should -- undertake," said a White House official, adding it would be at Sen. Kerry's own behest.

It's unclear whether Iran would welcome the visit, and it would be controversial within both countries. The Iranian government has rebuffed other recent White House efforts to establish a direct dialogue.
So what can Kerry accomplish? It is the same question as what can talks accomplish at this point. One thing is that Kerry can tell the Iranians the conditions under which the US is willing to accept Iranian enrichment. What he cannot say is that the Dennis Ross faction of the US government would be unwilling or unable to scuttle any agreement reached that allows Iran to enrich uranium. I'm not sure Iran could take the word of John Kerry as a commitment from the US, and without a commitment, Iran will not make any irreversible gesture, such as exporting its stockpile of low enriched uranium.

Another thing John Kerry could do is coordinate sanctions. Meaning come to an understanding with Iran of what kind of sanctions would be met with what response. If there are sanctions, the US does not need them to cause the situation to spiral, which could happen if the Iranian response to new UNSC sanctions is similar to its response to the IAEA resolution.

Even symbolic sanctions that have no real impact at all on Iran could cause Iran to accelerate its enrichment program and refrain less from harming US interests and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. A provocative Iranian response to sanctions could cause the situation to spiral towards war. While Iran would rather not come to war with the US, my guess is that Iran fears war less than the US does, and less than the US thinks Iran does.

What Kerry could do, is "wink" at the Iranians, tell them the scope of sanctions that could come and ask for assurances that the Iranian response to sanctions within that scope will be reasonable. This is a form of tacit acceptance of Iranian enrichment as the administration does more work to prepare the pro-Israel lobby to accept the reality that Iran's nuclear capability cannot be plausibly rolled back. The Iranians possibly could accept this. Sanctions without a prior agreement on Iran's response are very likely to provoke an exaggerated response like the announcement that Iran is building, but will not reveal the locations of, ten more enrichment facilities each much larger than the Fordo facility.

I can't see what benefit communication with Kerry could have other than those two scenarios, of which I consider the second more likely.

If Kerry comes back saying what seems like the current consensus of the US civilian arms control community, which is that aiming for zero enrichment is less important at this point than getting Iran to accept oversight of its program including implementation of the Additional Protocols then this will be a significant step forward, as the US will in that case be forcing the argument that Iran must not be nuclear capable into the open where it can be addressed.

As the Wall Street Journal says, maybe it will happen, maybe it will not. If so, it could be a good thing. We'll see in 2010.

1 comment:

Lysander said...

This is simply a means to embarrass Iran. The us will now claim that it's negotiating "really hard" and if it fails, as it surely will, it will try to isolate and sanction Iran.