Narrowing the Options on the Table

by Farideh Farhi | published December 8, 2011

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister and former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is not usually a sarcastic man. But he became one in early November following several days of leaks about the negative content of a pending IAEA report on Iran. “Marg yek bar, shivan yek bar,” he said, using an age-old Persian expression. Literally, the phrase means “You die once, you are mourned once,” but here it might be translated, “Get it over with.”

The point for Salehi’s Iranian audience: Time and time again, and despite repeated denials from Tehran, the West has insisted that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear research program is aimed at acquiring an atomic bomb. Western chanceries pick through the IAEA’s reports for incriminating passages, howl about them for a while and then the matter is forgotten. The specific allegations, meanwhile, prove nothing of import, even if correct. In the latest instance, leakers said the IAEA would present evidence that Iran had looked into military applications of nuclear materials from the 1990s through 2003, but not since then. So publish the report, Salehi said. Iran has no problem being charged with an interest in building a nuclear weapon. “We just think that the supporting documents are without basis or foundation.” [1]

On November 10, two days after the UN nuclear watchdog released its report, the hardline newspaper Keyhan ran an editorial by Hossein Shariatmadari that displayed a similar attitude. The intractable columnist smugly hailed IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano with the Persian greeting, “May your shadow never lessen!” Thanks were due to Amano, he wrote, for letting the world see the “credibility gap” in the case for the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. As advertised, the report indeed indicated that the Islamic Republic had “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” “Prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program,” it went on to say, and some “might still be ongoing.” But that, Shariatmadari noted with evident satisfaction, was it. There was no new basis for the West’s accusations; in fact, there was no new information at all.

Spin Doctors East and West

Among the hardliners in Iran, there is a palpable sense of not relief but redemption. For decades, the arch-conservatives have maintained that Western hostility to the Islamic Republic is implacable and that Iran’s only choice is to respond in kind. Today, when they control all branches of government in Tehran, they point to the IAEA report as vindication of their dire prophecies. The Agency has showed its hand, they say, and it is thoroughly politicized. Iran should not waste any more time engaging with the IAEA beyond routine fulfillment of its treaty obligations. And the nuclear file is only one front of a coordinated onslaught.

It would have been harder for Tehran to shrug so contemptuously at the IAEA report had it not come out immediately after a month of extraordinary, even manic agitation against the Islamic Republic by the Obama administration. First, there was the Justice Department’s decision to call a press conference to accuse Iran of plotting to kill Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, at a Washington restaurant. The world was skeptical, and more so after the Saudis floated charges of similar connivance against its diplomats in Pakistan and South America. In Iran, these maneuvers permitted hardliners to frame the IAEA report as part of an all-out effort by Iran’s enemies to blacken the country’s image.

Then there was the recent history of the nuclear file. Over the summer, Salehi had tried and failed to convince the IAEA to accept an offer of intensified cooperation provided that the Agency agree not to mention a “possible military dimension” to Iran’s program in its report. Under Amano’s predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA had preferred the phrase “alleged studies” to refer to charges of warhead design research and the like by Iran, because these charges are based on documents shared with the Agency by unidentified countries and the Agency was unsure of their ultimate provenance or credibility. ElBaradei was unwilling to ignore the allegations entirely, but he was hesitant to make them the cornerstone of an indictment of Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview toward the end of his term in November 2009, he maintained, “We have not seen any use of nuclear material; we have not received any information that Iran has manufactured any part of a nuclear weapon or component.” [2]

Russia had also proposed a compromise to lower tensions: a “step-by-step” process of limitations on uranium enrichment and enhanced inspections in exchange for loosening of international sanctions. Iran agreed to consider the proposal, but the Russians got the cold shoulder from the West. According to Mark Hibbs, a close observer of negotiations over the nuclear file, the private reactions of US officials to Moscow’s idea “range from lukewarm interest to outright dismissal,” because such a deal would leave the task of verification in IAEA hands and allow Iran to proceed with enrichment, in effect safeguarding Iran’s capacity to pursue the bomb. Meanwhile, the IAEA itself dislikes the Russian plan because it would effectively declare the “outstanding issues” about Iran’s nuclear program to be “closed.” [3]

But the kicker was the IAEA report itself. Hawks in the US seized upon the section on a “possible military dimension” as proof of Iranian perfidy, and on December 2 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Brookings Institution audience the report showed that “the regime in Tehran remains a very grave threat to all of us.” There is nothing in the report that was previously unknown to Western powers, however, since they are the countries supplying the IAEA with documents regarding Iran’s past weapons-related studies.

So the noise must be about something else. As Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies points out, the core issue at stake remains not studies conducted in the past but Iran’s steady, though legal and IAEA-supervised, accumulation of low-enriched uranium, which, if further enriched, can be the fuel for a nuclear arsenal. [4] But on that front the IAEA can do nothing but report on Iran’s progress and the Agency’s monitoring thereof. It is this fact that makes it easy for someone like Shariatmadari to argue that it was not the IAEA’s “technical expertise” that led Amano to “put it all out there,” but his enlistment in a US and Western project to exert pressure on Iran, come what may.

And this view is gaining traction across the spectrum of the Islamic Republic’s factious political class. Even Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president during the reformist era of 1997-2005, pointed to “ominous thinking” behind the words “possible military dimension.” “They want to further increase pressure on Iran,” Khatami was quoted as saying in the Iranian press. Nodding to the presence of “warmongers” on both sides, he proceeded to hint at the salience of one side. “Of course, our behavior, positions and words may also have an impact, but it is evident that there is another plan for pressure. What they speak is nonsense, but they speak it nonetheless.” [5]

The Iranian reception of the IAEA report is the backdrop to the November 29 storming of the British Embassy in Tehran by members of the hardline Basij -- a move that was doubtless orchestrated from the top of the Islamic Republic even if a crowd mentality may have caused more destruction than planned as things got out of control. To be sure, the Basij likes to flex its muscles periodically to secure its ascendancy in domestic politics. But there is another interactive logic at work: Britain had levied new sanctions, barring transactions with the Iranian financial sector including the Central Bank, and Tehran is signaling that it will answer more forcible arm-twisting with escalation of its own. The Iranian leadership wants the West to understand that, like its US counterpart, it has not “taken any options off the table,” including war.

The Obama Squeeze

As always since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran watches no foreign power more carefully than the United States, whose policy it views as determinant of the broader Western posture. Since a tentative opening in mid-2009, when the Obama administration hinted it would approach Iran with a mixture of the proverbial carrots and sticks, US policy has shifted seamlessly to one of pure coercion. The conversation within the Islamic Republic has naturally moved to how to counteract Washington’s apparent new fervor for putting the squeeze on Iran.

On November 22, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon laid out the Obama administration’s justifications for its policy shift in a speech at the Brookings Institution. Ironically, but not surprisingly, he placed the blame upon Iran, which he claimed rebuffed the Obama administration’s “sincere effort” at engagement. [6] Donilon explained, however, that the purpose of the US overture in the autumn of 2009 had been twofold: “First, [we launched it] as a sincere offer of dialogue -- with the prospect of tangible benefits for Iran…. Second, we knew that if our offer was rejected, Iran’s failure to meet its international obligations would be exposed to the entire world…. That, in turn, would increase our ability to mobilize international support for holding Tehran accountable for its reckless behavior. And over the past three years, that is exactly what has happened.”

One might question whether the US effort was in fact sincere, given its built-in mechanism for halting negotiations at the first encounter with resistance, but such was not the national security adviser’s remit in his speech. Donilon went on to celebrate the administration’s successes in arraying a solid international coalition against Iran and in delaying the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. Clearly, with an election year imminent, and Republican primary candidates sounding the usual sharply anti-Iranian notes, the Obama administration must not look soft on the Islamic Republic -- particularly not its alleged atomic ambitions. It was a message underscored by Panetta two weeks later: “No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran.”

The “we tried” mantra voiced by Donilon is ironic because it is an argument used regularly by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, as well. Khamenei has rested his defense of both the suspension of uranium enrichment (2003) and the resumption of it (2005) on Iran’s good faith as a negotiator. In the interim, he contends, Iran worked hard to reach an agreement, but remained cognizant that failure had the advantage of revealing Western intransigence. Iran suspended enrichment, but the other side did not respond favorably, instead asking Iran to sacrifice more of its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This line of argument has proven to be a powerful deterrent to compromise and a stinging critique of what the hardliners call the “passive foreign policy” of the reformists.

In any event, there is no backing away from the path taken by the White House, at least not until after the 2012 election. According to Donilon, the US will continue to be “vigilant” toward the Islamic Republic, working to impose further sanctions on Tehran and isolate it. The US will seek to build a regional security architecture that excludes Iran, weaken the Iranian economy, undermine the legitimacy of Iran’s government and further divide its fissiparous leadership. “The onus is on Iran” to alter the trajectory of relations by suspending all enrichment, reprocessing and heavy water-related activities, in effect, renouncing its right under the NPT to develop an independent nuclear capacity, even a peaceful one. And, in the meantime, Washington will continue to lay the blame at Iran’s doorstep: In the words of Panetta at Brookings, Iran has “to stop isolating itself” and “become part of the international community.”

No more beating around the bush, it seems. No more dilly-dallying before a middle path heading toward limits on enrichment combined with a more robust inspection regime. The “diplomatic opportunities” offered to Iran will henceforth essentially mean that Iran must accept terms it has disdained since negotiations over its nuclear program began in 2003. Iran explicitly rejected these terms in 2005, when Britain, France and Germany, prodded by the Bush administration, pushed for the ultimate demand of full suspension of uranium enrichment and initiated the process of sanctioning Iran at the Security Council.

In 2005, the threat of coordinated sanctions was deemed the only way to convince Iran to change its ways and to forestall the Israeli airstrikes on Iranian facilities that were constantly touted in the press (and, sometimes, by Israeli or US officials). European diplomats were wont to say that wielding the stick of sanctions over negotiations was a form of diplomacy rather than a surefire way to generate talk of war, given the Iraqi precedent on everyone’s minds at the time. Others, oblivious to the real chance that no Iranian government, elected or not, could accede to the maximalist demand of full suspension, made the case that Iran’s contentious political sphere could be molded by external pressure.

Six years later, coordinated sanctions are no mere threat. “Vigilance” on the part of the Obama administration has paid off in the form of draconian sanctions on financial dealings and investment in Iran. There is not much left to do in the way of sanctions, short of an outright embargo on Iranian crude oil, which is an act of war since it can be policed only by military means. The axiom that Iranians respond only to pressure has been modified to stipulate that there must be a lot of pressure, but the underlying logic remains the same: At minimum, the nuclear program will sputter; better, Iran will cave in; or, better still, the cracks in the edifice of the Islamic Republic will widen under the weight of international opprobrium. All of these possible outcomes are positive.

But the one-track policy of pressure is not free of obstacles. First and foremost, there are few remaining ways to tighten the vise. Western allies have effectively given carte blanche to the Obama administration, with Britain and France going further than the US in sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank and proposing an oil export embargo. But the US is constrained by its ties with China and Russia, which oppose anything like comprehensive sanctions, not to mention realities of the global economy like the reliance of allies Greece and Turkey on Iranian exports. The US may be able to make Iran bleed, but not enough to induce its surrender. This dynamic has made the Obama administration easily tempted by bombast, a way for it to project “vigilance” for audiences foreign and domestic while concealing the lack of a clear endgame.

The more vexing problem for US policy lies in Washington’s assumption that Tehran will simply be a passive taker of sanctions until the moment its competing elites decide to change course. The sanctions regime, in short, is offered as a relatively inexpensive instrument for the containment of Iran’s regional ambitions. Yet it is equally possible that a single-minded focus on coercion will egg on the Islamic Republic in escalation of its own, the latter being anxious to prove to Iranians that pressure is fruitless and to show its adversaries that coercion has costs. Iran is susceptible to this dynamic precisely because its elites are divided and eager, at what could be a historic juncture, to juxtapose their nationalist credentials to their rivals’ fecklessness.

Of Postures and Predicaments

On October 11, Ayatollah Khamenei succinctly articulated the Islamic Republic’s posture toward escalating sanctions in a speech at the Imam Ali Military Academy. “We are not a nation that stands by and watches fragile powers made of straw…threaten the steadfast and steel-like Iranian nation,” the Leader said. “We will answer threats with threats.” As they rushed the British Embassy on November 29, students held aloft posters of Khamenei emblazoned with the second declaration.

According to conservative strategist Amir Mohebian, writing on Khamenei’s official website, the Leader’s statement (and, presumably, the attack on the British Embassy, as well) was intended to dispel the “groundless notion that concessions can be gained from Iran through pressure and harsh rhetoric.” The Leader also meant to send the messages that, whatever rifts may exist in the Islamic Republic, his office is the center of decision-making, and that, contra Donilon, Iran believes the onus of reducing tensions is on the United States.

Given the awesome military might of the US and the recurrent threats from Israel, the Leader’s might seem a foolhardy position to take. But Iran’s brinksmanship is based on the belief that this stance is no crazier than the idea of US or Israeli attack, particularly given the state of the world economy. On Khamenei’s website, Mohebian details three war scenarios, ranging from combined aerial assault and ground invasion, which he judges least likely, to airstrikes aimed at stirring up internal unrest to attacks on military targets, the most likely. At the end, however, and like most decision-makers in Iran, Mohebian finds all of these scenarios implausible in view of the cost. He posits that US-Israeli talk of military options is a bluff to test Iran’s will and psychological warfare intended to frighten Iranian civilians, fracture the leadership and debilitate the government.

The implications for Iranian domestic politics are clear. The leadership of the Islamic Republic will confront outside hostility with hostility, and, in the meantime, it is prone to label any insider who questions its strategic direction as a foreign stooge. Indeed, the hardliners have developed a vested interest in continuation of the war talk. In addition to marginalizing their opponents, it allows them to justify the post-2005 securitization of the public sphere that intensified after the disputed presidential election of 2009.

Meanwhile, reformers and centrists who are unhappy with their political exclusion and worried about what they consider an “adventurist” foreign policy have discovered their own reason to highlight the external peril. Their brief, laid out by Khatami and another former president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, insists that because a divided Iran is more easily attacked, the best guarantee of national security is inter-elite reconciliation underwritten by release of political prisoners and free elections.

Some elements of the Iranian opposition in the diaspora find the Khatami-Rafsanjani tack inadequate. They call for suspension of uranium enrichment and posit that, if Iran is eventually attacked, the Iranian government will be the responsible party. “The main mission of the opposition is stopping the nuclear adventurism of the state,” says Ali Afshari, a former student leader who is now in exile. [7] Such a position is not an option for most political actors inside Iran. Aside from the fact that no politician in any country can openly advocate giving in to foreign coercion, the reformist leadership in Iran has also been adamant about Iran’s nuclear rights. Iran’s nuclear program, in fact, saw its most significant expansion during Khatami’s presidency. In the face of aggressive sanctions and rumors of war, the most the reformists can do is cast aspersions on the hardline government’s diplomatic savvy. [8] They share its strident defense of the program itself.

The talk of war, in short, has indeed recalibrated the discourse of Iranian politics, but so far not in the direction of challenges to the international posture of the Islamic Republic. Speaking to reformist youth in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, Khatami went so far as to say, “If foreigners one day decide to intervene, reformists and non-reformists will confront them.” The remarks were promptly posted on his official website and also by the hardline Fars News Agency.

The reformist predicament was highlighted by a bit of careless commentary from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview with BBC’s Persian-language service. In defense of the Obama administration’s non-committal response to the mass dissent from the 2009 election result, Clinton pointed out that the Iranian protesters had not asked for US help, unlike the Libyan opposition to Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in the spring of 2011. She continued, “I think if something were to happen again, it would be smart for the Green Movement or some other movement inside Iran to say, ‘We want the voices of the world. We want the support of the world behind us.’ …And I think that maybe in retrospect it was an unfortunate mutual decision on the part of the leaders of the Green Movement and the supporters inside Iran and those of us on the outside, who very much hoped that that would spark reform.” Clinton did not spell out what the US might offer “if something were to happen again,” but the mere evocation of Libya sparked shouting matches among Iranian exiles about the potential for an attack on Iran, facilitated by the opposition in the name of humanitarian intervention. [9]

Inside Iran, for obvious reasons, there is no such acrimonious debate. Mohammad Nourizad, a former hardliner turned political dissident after the 2009 election, has written a twelfth open letter to Khamenei, asking him to “drink from the poisoned chalice,” a reference to the famous statement by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he finally agreed to accept UN Security Council Resolution 528 ending the Iran-Iraq war. [10] “If they attack and destroy us, our half-baked knowledge of nuclear energy will not come to our aid,” Nourizad says. But his entreaty does not stand alone; he amends it with the condition that Khamenei find a “respectable” exit from the nuclear drama.

After eight years of confrontation over Iran’s nuclear file, the injunction to save face rings hollow. The two sides in the showdown are unequal in power but equally painted into a corner by policies of “vigilance,” on the one hand, and “answering threats with threats,” on the other. It is far from certain that cooler heads will prevail in de-escalating this increasingly worrisome crisis.

Endnotes

[1] Mehr News, November 5, 2011.
[2] Siddharth Varadarajan, “Language of Force Is Not Helpful with Iran: Interview with Mohamed ElBaradei,” The Hindu, October 3, 2009.
[3] Mark Hibbs, “Who Wants Diplomacy on Iran?” Arms Control Wonk, December 1, 2011.
[4] See the full interview with Fitzpatrick at: http://www.iiss.org/whats-new/iiss-experts-commentary/qa-iaea-report-ind....
[5] Fars News, November 14, 2011.
[6] For background, see Farideh Farhi, “Anatomy of a Nuclear Breakthrough Gone Backwards,” Middle East Report Online, December 8, 2009.
[7] Ali Afshari, “War with Israel Paid For from the Pockets of the Iranian People,” Gooya.com, November 26, 2011. [Persian]
[8] Sadeq Kharrazi, “Creative Diplomacy, Today’s Necessity,” Sharq, November 6, 2011. [Persian]
[9] See, for instance, Hamid Dabashi, “Fifth Column of the Post-Modern Kind,” Al Jazeera English, November 21, 2011, to which Afshari’s article is a response.
[10] Mohammad Nourizad, “Come and Drink from the Poisoned Chalice I Have Prepared for You,” Iran Emrooz, November 25, 2011. [Persian]

Filed under: