America Moves the Goalposts
By ROGER COHEN
May 25, 2010 " New York Times" -- NEW YORK — John Limbert, once a U.S. hostage in Tehran, now charged with Iranian affairs at the State Department, has given a good description of the caricatures that bedevil American-Iranian non-relations.
Americans see Iranians as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and incomprehensible.” Iranians, in turn, see Americans as “belligerent, sanctimonious, Godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating,” not to mention bullying and exploitive.
That’s Ground Zero in the most traumatized relationship on earth and the most tantalizing. Tantalizing because Iran and the United States are unnatural enemies with plenty they might agree on if they ever broke the ice. Limbert, a bridge-builder, has spent half a lifetime trying to deliver that message. It never flies. Poisonous history gets in the way. So do those that profit from poison.
If all the mistrust needed further illustration, it has just been provided by the Brazilian-Turkish deal on Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU), the peevish U.S. reaction to it, and the apparent determination of the Great Powers, led by the Obama administration, to burrow deeper into failure.
I believed Obama was ready to think anew on Iran. It seems not. Presidents must lead on major foreign policy initiatives, not be bullied by domestic political considerations, in this case incandescent Iran ire on the Hill in an election year.
More on that later, but first let’s take a cold look at the Brazilian and Turkish leaders’ achievement in Tehran, how it relates to an earlier American near-deal, and what all this says about a world undergoing significant power shifts.
I’ll take the last point first. Brazil and Turkey represent the emergent post-Western world. It will continue to emerge; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should therefore be less trigger-happy in killing with faint praise the “sincere efforts” of Brasilia and Ankara.
The West’s ability to impose solutions to global issues like Iran’s nuclear program has unraveled. America, engaged in two inconclusive wars in Muslim countries, cannot afford a third. The first decade of the 21st century has delineated the limits of U.S. power: It is great but no longer determinative.
Lots of Americans, including the Tea Party diehards busy baying at wolves, are angry about this. They will learn that facts are facts.
Speaking of facts, I must get a little technical here. Iran has been producing, under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, LEU (enriched to about 5 percent). It is this LEU that would have to be turned into bomb-grade uranium (over 90 percent) if Iran were to produce a nuclear weapon. The idea behind the American deal in Geneva last October was to get a big chunk of LEU out of Iran to build confidence, create some negotiating space, and remove material that could get subverted. In exchange, Iran would later get fuel rods for a medical research reactor in Tehran.
Iran, doing the bazaar routine, said yes, maybe and no, infuriating Obama. Iran now wanted the LEU stored on Iranian soil under I.A.E.A. control, phased movement of the LEU to this location, and a simultaneous fuel rod exchange. Forget it, Obama said.
Well, Turkey and Brazil have now restored the core elements of the October deal: a single shipment of the 1,200 kilograms of LEU to a location (Turkey) outside Iran and a one-year gap — essential for broader negotiations to begin — between this Iranian deposit in escrow and the import of the fuel rods.
And what’s the U.S. response? To pursue “strong sanctions” (if no longer “crippling”) against Iran at the United Nations; and insist now on a prior suspension of enrichment that was not in the October deal (indeed this was a core Obama departure from Bush doctrine).
Obama could instead have said: “Pressure works! Iran blinked on the eve of new U.N. sanctions. It’s come back to our offer. We need to be prudent, given past Iranian duplicity, but this is progress. Isolation serves Iranian hard-liners.”
No wonder Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, is angry. I believe him when he says Obama and U.S. officials encouraged Turkey earlier this year to revive the deal: “What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty.”
Yes, Turkey has. I know, the 1,200 kilograms now represents a smaller proportion of Iran’s LEU than in October and it’s no longer clear that the fuel rods will come from the conversion of the LEU in escrow. But that’s small potatoes when you’re trying to build a tenuous bridge between “mendacious” Iranians and “bullying” Americans in the interests of global security.
The French and Chinese reactions — cautious support — made sense. The American made none, or did only in the light of the strong Congressional push for “crushing” sanctions. Further sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear behavior; negotiations might. I can only hope the U.S. bristling was an opening gambit.
Last year, at the United Nations, Obama called for a new era of shared responsibilities. “Together we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides,” he declared. Turkey and Brazil responded — and got snubbed. Obama has just made his own enlightened words look empty.
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company