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Obama and Iran:
From Accommodation to Confrontation

By Mohamed El-Khawas
Guyana Journal, December 2009


The controversy around the Iranian nuclear program centers on the American and European rejection of Iran's claim that it only intends to produce electricity. They insist that Tehran plans to develop nuclear weapons. The crisis eased somewhat during the Geneva talks in October 2009, when American and Iranian officials met face-to-face for the first time and reached a tentative agreement, brokered by the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran agreed in principle to send most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing into fuel rods for the Tehran research reactor. This arrangement intended to remove the risk of Iran producing high level enriched uranium that could be used to develop nuclear arms.

Soon thereafter, the Iranian government began sending mixed signals about the uranium exchanges, which raised more questions than answers. Western diplomats accused Iran of stonewalling and rejected its proposed amendment to keep its enriched uranium stockpile intact at home. Germany's Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, pointed out, “Our patience is not going to last forever.” Although Obama was willing to give diplomacy a chance, he expected a solution to the problem by the end of 2009. With Iran not moving fast enough, he sought help from Russia and China - both of which have lucrative trade with Iran - and urged them to persuade Iran to go along. He managed to persuade Russia, which has become critical of Tehran's nuclear policy, to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran. Washington then turned to China, another permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, whose support is vital to get the IAEA Board of Governors to pass a tough resolution and the U.N. Security Council to approve new sanctions.

Before Obama visit's to China in November, White House aides Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader arrived in Beijing to warn Chinese officials of imminent danger if Iran does not cooperate. They pointed out that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and even Japan might start their own nuclear programs, if Iran continues to make progress toward developing nuclear weapons. This will throw the international nuclear non-proliferation efforts out of kilt. They also argued that Israel might take matters in its own hand and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, disrupting oil shipments and raising oil prices at a time when the world is struggling to get out of global recession. Such developments would negatively impact China's supply of oil to fuel its fast-growing economy, as well as its huge investment in the Iranian oil sector.

American officials warned Beijing that an Israeli air strike can engulf the whole Middle Eastern region in a major crisis and drag the big powers into the conflict. Tehran has made it clear that it will retaliate against Israel. Its recent military exercise demonstrated its prowess and capability to strike anywhere in the region. Iran also can call upon Lebanon's Hezbollah and Gaza's Hamas to strike against Israel. In addition, it can cause problems in neighboring Iraq by encouraging radical shi'ites to turn their guns on American troops. A spike in attacks on Iraqi officials and civilians could put the Iraqi government in an awkward position and complicate Obama's schedule for pulling the American military out of Iraq.

When Obama arrived in Beijing, China was already leaning toward endorsing the US stance. This was the result of a quiet campaign conducted by American officials to woo other countries to vote for the U.S. resolution at the IAEA governing board meet in Geneva. On November 27, 2009, China and Russia both joined the majority members in rebuking Iran for its continued defiance of U.N. resolutions to halt uranium enrichment and for its delay in notifying the IAEA that it was constructing an enrichment facility near Qom. This was a “breach of its obligations” under its Safeguard Agreement and under U.N. resolutions and called on Iran to halt immediately the construction there. Although this action was only symbolic in nature, it marked a shift in China's long-standing position of not criticizing Iran's nuclear policies. The IAEA resolution will be reported to the U.N. Security Council, paving the way to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. It is unclear, however, whether Beijing or Moscow will support U.S. efforts to isolate Iran. In the past, they both had watered down U.S.-led sanctions against Iran in the Security Council.

Iranian officials were quick to react to the IAEA censure, which they called “a historic mistake” and the uranium enrichment deal a “lost opportunity.” Ahmadinejad reported, “We told them give us the 20 percent [enriched uranium] . . . But then they started adding conditions. So, we said, if you want to give us the fuel we'll take it. If not, then fine and goodbye.” He defiantly announced that his country will produce high level enriched uranium and “anything it needs.” He announced a plan to begin building five new plants in two months and five more later to enrich uranium to meet the country's growing needs for energy over the next 15 years. He estimated that Iran “must produce between 250 to 300 tons of nuclear fuel” a year. He has also moved to reduce Iran's cooperation with the U.N. agency. His government will no longer notify IAEA of plans to build uranium enrichment facilities or give it technical information on the country's nuclear equipment. A member of the Iranian parliament's national security committee, Mohammad Karamirad, suggested that his country should pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Such action would free Iran from IAEA oversight and allow it to continue uranium enrichment. Over the years, the parliament has blocked an update to the NPT, which would have widened the IAEA inspection guidelines.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs commented that Iran's plan to construct new plants “would be yet another violation of Iran's clear obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.” However, it remains true that the U.S. has always had double standards: one for its foes and one for its friends. While it insists that Iran must comply with U.N. resolutions, it has looked the other way on Israel's refusal to implement U.N. resolutions on the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Iran does not have the resources to build additional ten plants. It is already having difficulties bringing the 8-year old Natanz plant to full-scale use or to equip the Qom site with centrifuges. The IAEA reported in November that only half of the 8,745 centrifuges in Iran are currently operational.

As yet, Obama's policy of engagement has not succeeded in turning Iran around. His drive to get the IAEA to rebuke Iran has undermined any chance of reaching a solution by the end of 2009 and pushed the two countries toward a head on-collision. As White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs put it, “If Iran refuses to meet its obligations, then it will be responsible for its own growing isolation and the consequences.” This will mark a return to Bush's policy of confrontation. The Obama administration now plans to build on his predecessor's U.N. sanctions against Iran. The new goal is “to make it difficult for Iranian companies to ship goods” and to target “insurance and reinsurance companies that underwrite the risk of such transactions, especially businesses that help support Iran's military elite.”

Ahmadinejad dismissed these American threats to isolate his country as well as the risk of Israel's attack. He made it clear that “we won't allow the smallest violation of the rights of the Iranian nation.” New sanctions against Iran are likely to be counterproductive, as the past record demonstrated their ineffectiveness. The Iranians have lived with U.S. sanctions for three decades and have not crumbled under U.S. pressure. Sanctions will cause hardship to the general population, even though Washington has tried to argue that “Nothing we contemplate or that we would consider is aimed at causing greater harm for the Iranian people, who have suffered enough.” In considering the next move, American officials should note that no Iranian leader will jeopardize the country's national interests by ending the nuclear program. The nuclear program is a source of pride for all Iranians regardless of their political ideology. They will rally around the flag if the Israelis attack. To them, it will be equivalent to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Washington, D.C.
December 8, 2009
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.


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