Monday, December 07, 2009

My idea that the US has offered Iran limited enrichment in private talks may be wrong

I had a pet theory that the US has already made an offer to Iran that includes domestic enrichment - with outside country involvement and Iran initially viewed it favorably and turned against it after Balochistan.

One element in my theory was that I've seen signs of US/Iranian coordination since the 2007 NIE, which, by redefining Natanz as a civilian facility, allowed the US to publicly disclaim that Iran has a military nuclear program.

This was a political decision and at the time Debkafile, a private organization connected with Israeli intelligence sources and Stratfor, the same with US connections, believed the decision was the expression of a broader agreement between the US and Iran. I think the Iranian side of the deal was restraining Sadr in Iraq in favor of the Maliki government. But I'm fairly sure that even late Bush US was in non-public communication with Iran, and see nothing that would suggest the communication stopped under Obama.

A second element is that it is clear the US takes a more harsh public line against Iran than it does in public. An expression of this is that in September 2009 the US was insistent that Iran would have to commit to a suspension or sanctions would be unavoidable.

In early October, that insistence vanished. The US was willing to end talk of sanctions without any suspension of enrichment, but Iran would just trade its own uranium for fuel for a medical reactor that Ahmadinejad had earlier publicly asked for. But at that time, even before the Balochistan attack happened, an interesting disconnect opened up, between US-sympathetic analysts and Iran-sympathetic analysts.

I think everyone agreed that the medical reactor was just a pretext and the important element was the export of fuel. I saw the export of fuel as a magnanimous gesture on the part of Iran that would buy time for the US to officially announce an arrangement that would allow US-approved Iranian domestic enrichment. In other words, the US had buckled.

The US foreign policy community saw it the opposite way, in US press interviews and at armscontrolwonk and other blogs I was getting the story that Iran is so vulnerable after the June elections that it is willing to trade nearly its entire stock of LEU for just at most a year of negotiating time before would sanctions restart. In this view Iran would have used its uranium as a bargaining chip.

Needless to say, I found the US position as I was seeing it absolutely absurd. So absurd that I found it impossible that view could have currency among the real actors in US policy. As far as I could see, Iran had no reason to fear sanctions. Meanwhile the idea that anti-US, if you want to say "hardline" Iranian factions in Iran were weaker, not stronger after June didn't strike me as believable by anyone serious. I assumed that real US policy makers must know better than that.

I have to say now I could very well have been wrong. It may be that US policy makers expected that, weakened by the election controversy, Iran was so desperate to avoid further sanctions that it was willing to accept a transparently poor deal, willing to ship its uranium out of the country so that it could give the US more leverage to make further demands.

I guess this is the simpler explanation. That the US drastically misread Iran's position in September and felt like Iran was ready to surrender exactly when I thought, and I'm sure Iran thought, the US was ready to surrender. All this time I was wondering, how can Iran get some sanctions so that it can innocently end this stupid freeze for freeze and accelerate its enrichment so that it could be finished with the enrichment project and as nuclear-weapons-capable as possible before the US loses its vulnerability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile the US thought the threat of sanctions somehow had become enough to cause Iran to panic and surrender.

It is really difficult for me to read the United States right now. If the US actually does want sanctions, of course it will get some. Iran will ignore the sanctions and over-react by expanding its nuclear program disproportionately to the expansion of the sanctions. I had not seen this as a possibility but I have to admit it is.

Nick Burns' statement of US strategy regarding Iran, that it will try to wear Iran down over the long term is what I now take as US strategy towards Iran. This can possibly mean breaking the understandings that the US apparently reached with Iran regarding Iraq in 2007, and going into a state of nearly full confrontation with Iran until, I guess supposedly, Iran may eventually buckle. Or it can mean keeping the confrontation at a low boil with about the level of sanctions we see now.

Iran's revolutionary regime is so much more secure now than it was in 1988, that it is very difficult for me to imagine that it survived 20 years from that time but will not survive 20 years from now. As far as US Middle East policy is concerned, it would be a good outcome for both the US and Iran to refrain from active confrontation and each adopt a strategy of waiting to see which side wears itself down over the long term.

My bet would be that the US' conception of itself as the defender of Israel-as-a-Jewish state will wear down long before Iran's regime wears down. Outside of the US' role as defender of Israel, there really are no longer substantive structural differences, if there ever were, between Iran and the US in the region.

I guess we'll see. My gut is still telling me the US is not stupid enough to actually press for sanctions and that at the last minute sanctions will be avoided. But there are two possible problems. One is that every piece of public evidence says that the US really wants sanctions. I discount this possibility because the US has reasons to claim it wants sanctions publicly even if it actually does not. The second is that Iran does seem to have hardened its position recently. Maybe because of Balochistan, maybe because it learned that the US was trying to get it to actually surrender its nuclear program instead of make a face-saving gesture and continue it.

The US is claiming now that a drive for sanctions will begin immediately after the new year. That still leaves plenty of time for a face-saving deal if that's what the US wants and if an offer is made that takes into account Iran's current position - which is likely that it wants more a more thorough weapons capability than it would have accepted in September.

But if the US wants sanctions, it will get them and the next question is have we moved into a state of controlled hostility or spiralling hostility with Iran.

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