This Issue | Editorial | Feature | E-mail
Obama's Policy of Confrontation
Will U.N. Sanctions Bring Iran to Negotiations?

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, July 2010

During his first year in office, President Obama tried direct talks to lure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions. In spring 2009, he gave Tehran until September to come forward and negotiate. The revelation of Iran's secret nuclear plant near Qum did not stop the U.S. and its partners from meeting with Iran in Geneva in October. During the lunch break, American and Iranian chief negotiators met alone for the first time in years. The summit was a success as the parties accepted a proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran agreed to ship over 70% its low-enriched uranium to Russia and then to France for conversion to fuel rods for its medical reactor. Shortly thereafter, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to move ahead in the face of strong opposition from conservative politicians and domestic turmoil following the disputed June presidential elections. This situation led Obama to give Tehran until the end of the year to implement the Geneva agreement. The Iranian president dismissed this second deadline, however, and proposed to make the swap in his country. When his counterproposal was not accepted, Ahmadinejad defiantly announced a decision to build ten new nuclear plants in Iran and to start producing high-level enriched uranium for its medical reactor.

By the end of 2009, it was evident that Obama's engagement strategy failed to produce the desired results. He then switched tactics and tried to get the U.N. to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran. This was difficult because he had to gain the support of all five permanent members to avoid a veto that would stop Security Council's approval of new sanctions. Because Russia and China did not see eye-to-eye with the West on Iran, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Obama to forget about the U.N. and to impose sanctions unilaterally. Obama disagreed because, in his view, sanctions would not be effective without Moscow's and Beijing's participation.

President Obama then used personal diplomacy to woo Russia. He met eight times with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who consented to involve his country in talks on sanctions. It took Obama much longer to thaw the strained relations with China over the sale of weapons to Taiwan and the Dali Lama's visit to the White House. He called President Hu directly and stressed the necessity to work together to ensure Iran's compliance with its international obligations. The two leaders later met in Washington during the nuclear security summit in April 2010.

His diplomatic efforts at the summit succeeded in getting Beijing involved in drawing up a draft on sanctions. The U.S. proposed tough measures to force Iran to implement the Geneva agreement and to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). China favored more moderate sanctions because it relies on Iran for 12% of its imported oil and values its long-term relationship with Tehran. Obama was sensitive to China's energy needs and promised to help Beijing maintain a steady flow of oil, if Tehran cut off oil shipments in retaliation for China's sanctions vote in the Security Council. Because China was unwilling to budge, the U.S. had to compromise if it wanted China's vote.

As the six-power nations neared an agreement on a draft resolution, Brazil and Turkey, non-permanent members of the Security Council, took an unprecedented step. They intervened in a process that had been handled, until then, by the big powers. Their goal was to revive the Geneva agreement and spare Iran harsher sanctions. During the nuclear security conference in Washington in April 2010, Brazil's President de Silva and Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan met with Obama. They also exchanged letters to find out what was acceptable. In May, they went to Tehran and, within days, announced that Iran had agreed to ship to Turkey in a month the same amount of low-enriched uranium agreed upon in Geneva last October. The uranium would stay there until a swap for fuel rods takes place in a year.

The Obama administration was caught off guard because Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had not expected the Brazilian and Turkish leaders to succeed. The White House thought that the prospects were poor because it was no different from the one the U.S. had pushed in Geneva eight months before. American officials were in a hurry to get sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council. Their goal was to stop the U.S. Congress from approving much tougher sanctions, which would complicate Obama's relations with China and Russia and undercut his policy of engagement. They all had worked very hard to reach an agreement on U.N. sanctions and believed they were about to be rewarded for their painstaking efforts. The day after the Tehran announcement, Secretary Clinton announced that the six-power nations, including China and Russia, agreed on a “tough draft” that would be submitted to the U.N. Security Council. This announcement shocked Brazil and Turkey, who promptly condemned it and announced that they would not participate in discussions on the draft.

On June 9, the Security Council approved a sanctions resolution by a vote of 12-2, with Lebanon abstaining. The new sanctions would make it difficult for Iranian banks and insurance companies to conduct financial transactions overseas. It expanded an asset freeze and travel ban on officials and entities linked to the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It tightened the arms embargo and agreed on a framework for inspecting Iranian vessels suspected of carrying contraband items in high seas and in ports. As expected, Brazil and Turkey voted against the new sanctions and denied Obama the unanimous vote that had been a hallmark of Bush's sanctions resolutions. It also shattered the image of the entire world united against Iran and demonstrated that there was a big divide between the haves and have-nots for nuclear technology.

American critics claimed that the new sanctions were watered down and that the Obama administration made too many concessions to China and Russia. Obama had no choice but to compromise in order to get Iran's major trading partners to abandon their long-standing support for Tehran and to vote for the new sanctions. It was necessary to have the new U.N. sanctions in place in order to move to the next stage. The U.S., the European Union, Australia, Japan, South Korea and other countries are ready to impose additional sanctions of their own to squeeze Iran economically and to isolate it politically.

U.S. measures to tighten and expand sanctions will have little impact on Iran because they have hardly any business ties. The U.S. blacklisting of Iran's banks and insurance companies will make it hard from them to do business-as-usual in the world financial market. It will discourage foreign financial institutions from dealing with Iran out of fear of getting involved in illicit activities. However, Iran's loss of $30 billion in trade with Europe will have a significant impact on its economy. The European Union banned new investment and the transfer of technology to the Iranian oil and gas industry. It has not prohibited the sale of gasoline, which accounts for one third of Iran's imported gasoline. Consequently, it is likely that the combined sanctions by the U.N. and other individual nations will cause some pain in Iran. However, the loss in European trade can be offset by Iran's expanding trade with China and other countries, which are seeking more business during the global recession. In short, the overall success or failure of sanctions will depend on China.

The Obama administration has used sanctions as a means to force Iran to enter into serious negotiations on its nuclear program. It is doubtful that Iran will rush to the table now because Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated that Iran has the right to enrich uranium and will never agree to limitations on its nuclear program. The Iranians have lived with U.S. sanctions for three decades and U.N. sanctions since 2006. They have found ways to evade sanctions. Such punitive measures in the past did not persuade Iran to cease uranium enrichment or to cooperate with the AIEA. The core problem is that Iranian leaders don't trust Washington, and feel threatened by the presence of huge American along its border with Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't forget that former president Bush spent millions of dollars to overthrow the regime in Tehran. Recently, it was suggested in U.S. Congress that Obama should make regime change part of of his strategy. For these reasons, Iran's top leadership firmly believes that the nuclear and missile programs are their insurance policy against external aggression.

A pre-emptive U.S. attack or an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear installations would be counterproductive because it would not destroy all nuclear facilities, causing only inconvenience and pushing Iran to produce nuclear weapons in a few years. Military action would have disastrous consequences because Iran would retaliate and is capable of striking anywhere in the region. Such a tit-for-tat would engulf the Middle East in a major crisis, interrupting oil shipments and pushing oil prices higher at a time when the U.S. and Europe are struggling to get out of recession. For these reasons, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has publicly doubted the efficacy of such action, thus eliminating the possibility of using force to help turn Iran around.

The outlook does not look good because Iran is not ready to give up its nuclear program because Pakistan, India, and Israel already have nuclear weapons and delivery systems in place. Iran will continue to produce high-grade enriched uranium. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Iran is presently developing capabilities that could help it produce nuclear weapons. It increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile three-fold in 2009 and produced a small quantity of high-grade enriched uranium. It has been working hard to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles. Sooner or later, the U.S. might have to accept the fact that Iran has a nuclear program. Washington can still safeguard its interests and protect its allies by putting the entire region under its nuclear umbrella if Iran ever makes a bomb, an option that Secretary of State Clinton once suggested.

Washington, D.C.
June 24, 2010

Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.

Other related articles by
Mohamed El-Khawas

Obama and Iran:
From Accommodation to Confrontation

Will Obama Expand U.S. Military Involvement in Afghanistan?
Obama, Netanyahu and the Peace Process
Three Sovereign Nations, One Common Enemy
Obama's Policy toward Iran
The U.S. Financial Crisis and Latin America
The Ugly Side of Globalization