Is the Obama administration engaged in a major shift in orientation and strategy toward Iran? Is it possible that after 34 years of unremitting hostility there could be “a comprehensive resolution” in U.S-Iran relations?
This is what the world is wondering after President Barack Obama went before the national media and gave an upbeat but measured talk about the prospects of a new day in U.S.-Iran relations. Diplomatic relations have been severed since the Iranian people rose up in 1979 and toppled the brutal dictatorship that had been imposed on the nation by a CIA coup in 1953.
It is necessary to put the recent round of diplomacy into perspective. On Sept. 27, there was a 15-minute phone conversation between Obama and newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This was the highest level of meeting between the leaders of the two countries in more than three decades. The last direct contact between the leaders of Iran and the United States came in 1979. At the time President Carter spoke to the Shah, the U.S.-installed dictator, who at the time was attempting to survive the revolution that eventually ended his reign and that of his U.S. masters in Iran.
Rouhani’s ‘charm offensive’
The Rouhani-Obama dialogue came at the conclusion of a week in which Rouhani launched a full-scale diplomatic offensive, attempting to force the United States and its allies to engage in earnest negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. A day earlier, on Sept. 26, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry interacted directly with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a meeting of the foreign ministers of the P5+1, the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council—Britain, France, Russia, China, the United States—and Germany.
The sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union have effectively frozen Iran out of international trade, cut Iran’s oil sales to less than half and made life difficult for working-class Iranians. Not only has the loss of oil sales revenue brought about high inflation, it has also caused shortages of many supplies, including medicine. So there is no question that the Iranian leadership is enthusiastic about reaching an agreement that would end the sanctions.
Rouhani’s first round victory in the June elections was due in large part to his promise of reaching a compromise with the West through “prudent diplomacy” and “skillful negotiations.” Rouhani has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has characterized Rouhani’s recent diplomatic interactions as displaying “heroic flexibility.”
Western media have characterized Rouhani’s initiative as a “charm offensive,” displaying a change of tone from Iran and possible willingness to negotiate in good will. The failure of many rounds of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 has been attributed to former president Ahmadinejad’s intransigence, fiery rhetoric and hard-line stance. During his election campaign and since, Rouhani has attributed the continuation of the sanctions to Ahmadinejad’s lack of will and skills to negotiate with the West.
History of negotiations reveals US not really interested in agreement
However, a brief review of the history of the nuclear issue reveals that previous rounds of negotiations have failed because of U.S. disinterest in reaching an agreement. At each stage, the U.S. and its allies have set conditions that the Iranian side could not have possibly met, no matter how willing to make concessions.
To understand the context of the standoff, it should be emphasized that Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. Rouhani has called for Israel to join the NPT, something that Israel refuses to do because it is in possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons. Previous calls by Arab countries and others for a nuclear-free Middle East have been blocked by the United States, because non-proliferation, as the U.S. utilizes it, applies only to independent states, not U.S. allies and clients.
As a signatory of the NPT, Iran is entitled to the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. And throughout the years, even while the crippling sanctions have been in force, Iran has made itself open to inspections of its nuclear sites by representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In fact, the NPT even entitles Iran to receive assistance from nuclear-powered countries in the development of its program. Further, the NPT requires its nuclear-armed signatories to dismantle their nuclear weapons, something that none of them have done since 1968, when NPT was ratified.
The hypocrisy of the sanctions on Iran could not be more obvious. While Israel, India and Pakistan are in possession of nuclear weapons, have not even signed the NPT, and are facing no penalties or sanctions, Iran is being sanctioned for suspected violations of the NPT by countries armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Years of IAEA inspections have not uncovered a single case of conversion of uranium to weapons-grade material. But the way the sanctions system has been set up, it is not up to the inspectors to provide evidence of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. It is up to Iran to prove the negative, that it has no nuclear weapons program.
Over the years, Iranian officials at all levels, including most recently President Rouhani, have declared categorically that Iran has no weaponization program and that they view such a program as counter to the Islamic principles that they observe. But the sanctions are a repeat of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that eventually led to the 2003 invasion. There has been a steady stream of intelligence leaks from “member countries” that raise new suspicions. Each new accusation raises the demand for Iran to make more and more conventional military sites open to the inspectors. Iran is required again and again to disprove any accusation that comes its way—to prove a negative, which is an impossible task.
In the early 2000s, the demand of the EU3—Britain, France and Germany—who were driving a hard line on behalf of their senior partner, the U.S., was that Iran suspend its entire uranium enrichment program altogether before further negotiations could be pursued. This is a common imperialist negotiating tactic, demanding the other side’s capitulation as a prerequisite for further negotiations.
Showing the extent to which it sought to reach a negotiated solution, in October 2003 Iran announced a voluntary temporary suspension of uranium enrichment. Iran also agreed to the “Additional Protocol,” which allowed IAEA inspectors surprise, unannounced access to Iran’s nuclear sites. At the time, Iran’s president was Mohammad Khatami, a moderate who sought to mend fences with the West. Rouhani, the current president, was the chief nuclear negotiator at the time. After such a huge concession, negotiations would have made rapid progress if reaching an agreement were the real objective of the West.
EU3 offered ‘an empty box of chocolates’
Instead, the West took the given concession and demanded more. Explaining why the negotiations went nowhere even after Iran’s voluntary freeze, some European diplomats, off the record, admitted that the package offered by the EU3 was “an empty box of chocolates.” But “there is nothing else we can offer,” the diplomats went on to say. “The Americans simply wouldn’t let us.”
In July 2005, following the election of Ahmadinejad and after nearly two years of fruitless negotiations, Iran declared the resumption of uranium enrichment.
Negotiations have continued to the present, with the United States and its allies making impossible demands and delivering ultimatums to Iran. Over the last two years, the latest phase of nuclear negotiations have taken part in Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow and in February in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The latest offer presented to Iran was a demand for Iran “to stop producing higher-grade uranium, ship any stockpile out of the country and close down an underground enrichment facility, Fordow.” The higher-grade uranium refers to uranium enriched to 20 percent, used in medical isotopes for cancer treatment and other medical purposes. Fordow is a facility deeply entrenched in a mountain near the central city of Qom. Essentially, it is Iran’s only facility that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be destroyed by a U.S./Israeli bombing.
In exchange, the offer gives Iran the possibility to buy airplane parts and eases the sanctions on the exchange of gold! The easing of the crippling sanctions that have locked Iran out of the international banking system was not even on the table.
The U.S. ruling class, which includes the corporate media, are emphasizing time and again that what is to be watched is whether Rouhani will back his words, his “charm offensive,” with action. In fact, it will be Washington’s actions, not Tehran’s, which will determine whether the negotiations go anywhere. The tone of its president notwithstanding, Iran has always been eager to reach a negotiated solution if for no other reason than to avert the continuation of the sanctions.
Washington, on the other hand, has had no appetite for a negotiated solution, given that its real policy towards Iran is regime change. The negotiations have only been a tool to either force a capitulation on Tehran, potentially destabilizing the state, or continue to ramp up military threats and economic sanctions, also aimed at destabilizing the state.
Obama’s change in tone
In the last few days, there has been a perceptible change in Obama’s tone towards Iran. He has expressed a strong desire to reach an agreement with Iran: “We will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve” and “…move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.” Obama has recognized Iran’s right to nuclear energy: “Any nation, including Iran, should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.” He has also mentioned the possibility of relieving sanctions: “So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.”
Perhaps the most significant statement by Obama referenced the possibility of a comprehensive solution: “While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”
Going back to the Bush years, some U.S. foreign policy analysts have promoted the idea of the U.S. reaching a grand bargain with Iran. In 2006, the Baker-Hamilton commission, also known as the Iraq Study Group, proposed a grand bargain, an agreement with Iran and other U.S. adversaries in the region. Of course, a key motivation for such a proposal at the time was the way the U.S. war on Iraq was going. In his first election campaign in 2008, Obama seemed to tilt in this direction. Obama’s June 2009 speech at the Al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo suggested a shift in U.S. policy, not of objectives but of methods. But a major shift never materialized. Even though such a shift had the support of factions of the ruling class, it would have required a fight with a deeply entrenched ruling class establishment, including powerful forces in the foreign policy and national security apparatus.
It is less than a month since Obama became the champion of a U.S. bombing of Syria, adopting the policy of the most hawkish factions of the U.S. ruling class. But the more Obama pushed, the stronger the opposition became to his war-mongering approach, both domestically and internationally. He hedged his bets by taking the matter to Congress, which was unlikely to approve his war plans. Then he was forced to accept Russia’s plan and abandon his plan for bombing Syria altogether.
With many serious domestic policy crises looming—possible government shutdown, Republican efforts to defund Obamacare, the debt ceiling crisis—it is possible that Obama, with his presidential legacy in the balance, is weighing the possibility of embarking on a period of intense diplomacy, with less reliance on invasions, wars and threats of military attack. Such an approach, if truly pursued, would involve reaching a “comprehensive agreement” with Iran in the Middle East.
Were Obama to take this approach, he would have to put up a fight against significant opposition, including many in Congress, much of the foreign policy establishment, the Israeli state and the Zionist lobby such as AIPAC and others. Obama has so far not shown an inclination to fight such forces, choosing instead a ruling class consensus more or less on the terms of the right.
If a foreign policy shift is, indeed, Obama’s intention, it is still possible that he will end up pulling back if he encounters a strong enough opposition. And it is also possible that Obama is simply changing his tone as a public relations ploy, being forced to respond to Rouhani’s diplomatic offensive with a show of genuine interest in diplomacy.
Developments in the next few weeks and months will determine whether there is a real shift in Washington’s policies. Iran’s leadership is willing to make significant concessions, making it possible for the United States to conclude the negotiations with tangible gains. But, it is also possible that the United States will revert to ultimatums dressed as negotiations and genuine offers, which will ensure a stalemate, no matter how eager Rouhani may be to reach an agreement. If that turns out to be the case, no amount of negotiating skills on the part of the Iranian leadership will alter the character of the negotiations—a means by the imperialist world to push for regime change.
It is important for the anti-war movement in the U.S. to clearly defend the right of Iran to self-determination and expose the aggressive nature of the U.S. campaign against Iran.