In his first campaign for president, Barack Obama promised to break with American policy for three decades and talk directly, “without precondition” to leaders of Iran, which George W. Bush had shunned as part of an international “axis of evil.”
In Obama’s first year in office, the new administration’s diplomats did talk to their Iranian counterparts with the high-stakes aim of containing and making more transparent the nuclear program of the Middle Eastern country, which in 1979 had rudely introduced Islamic fundamentalism to American popular culture by seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, capturing 66 Americans and holding most of them hostage for more than a year.
The unprecedented talks failed. Why they did is the focus of this detailed examination by Trita Parsi, who, as president of the National Iranian American Council, has knowledgeable sources in both countries as well as Europe. He spreads the blame around widely, from Iran and Israel to Europe and the United States, including the Obama administration, Congress and the American Israeli Political Action Committee, the influential Washington lobby. He is not hopeful a similar diplomatic initiative will occur anytime soon.
This book is primarily for foreign policy specialists. But, it deserves a broader audience, given the stream of news accounts of Iranian threats to close a vital oil-shipping lane and attack American and Israeli interests, and Israeli preparations to launch air strikes on the nuclear installations of an archenemy.
The American and United Nations sanctions that Obama’s bold policy has devolved into are squeezing Iran, which is proceeding along a path that could enable it to produce nuclear weapons. Tensions in the region are rising, and Americans are already feeling the impact at the gas pump and in their pockets.
Parsi, who was born in Iran but is a Zoroastrian, not a Muslim, makes clear Obama’s Iran policy was not as straightforward as is commonly understood. It had two simultaneous tracks that were at the very least contrary — talks and sanctions. The theory was that giving diplomacy a try would, if a failure, make it easier to build international support for tougher sanctions. On the other hand, the looming threat of tightening sanctions was expected to pressure Iran to come to the table and reach an agreement quickly.
Parsi is no fan of Obama’s dual-track strategy, declaring “sanctions neither complement diplomacy nor provide an alternative to engagement” with another country.
The administration took its “gamble on a single roll of the dice,” as a State Department official described it, in October 2009. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s monitoring agency, set the gaming table when it passed along to Washington and Moscow Iran’s request to purchase fuel to produce radioactive isotopes used in diagnostic scans of kidney, heart and cancer patients.
That fuel requires enriching uranium to a higher-level than the low-grade uranium that Iran was believed to possess at the time, but not high enough for a weapon.
The Obama administration hatched the idea of a swap. Iran would send its low-grade material to Russia and transfer it to France, which would convert it into fuel for medical purposes and then return it to Iran a year later. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium would be reduced and its advancement toward making nuclear weapons material slowed. The swap would build confidence on both sides and set up negotiations on a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear program, which Iran maintains is for peaceful purposes.
When Americans presented the idea at a meeting in Geneva, Iran’s national security adviser expressed general agreement, according to Parsi. A detailed discussion was scheduled in three weeks in Vienna. There Iranian negotiators raised objections.
They were suspicious the swap was a ploy to reduce its stockpile of low-grade uranium, which had been a precondition of the Bush administration. They suspected that the French just not return the uranium, just as they had not returned 50 tons of its uranium yellow cake. The talks collapsed under the weight of mutual suspicion and mistrust between two countries that do not know each other well after three decades of little contact.
The administration, convinced Iran was stalling, sped up its second track and worked to build support for U.N. sanctions while trying to slow down congressional legislation to cut off gasoline supplies to Iran, which has oil but limited refining capacity.
By the time Turkey and Brazil jumped in and persuaded Iran to agree to a swap, the administration had lined up support for more U.N. sanctions, Congress was about to pass its legislation and Iran had produced enough low-grade uranium to produce a nuclear weapon without the material to be reprocessed.
An administration official told Parsi the proposed swap had “missed the sell-by date.” Obama did as he promised and opened talks with Iran, but did not close the deal in time to prevent tensions from rising — again.