WASHINGTON - The agreement
on draft Security Council resolution sanctions against Iran has grabbed
the headlines on the Barack Obama administration's response to Iran's
nuclear swap proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil. But the more
consequential response is the acknowledgement by the U.S. State
Department Monday that the administration is not willing to hold talks
with Iran unless it agrees to a complete halt in uranium enrichment.
announcement was accompanied by the revelation that the objective of
the original swap proposal last autumn was to get Iran to agree to
eventually to suspend its enrichment programme.
The Obama administration had not previously declared publicly that it
was demanding an end to all enrichment by Iran, and had suggested
directly and indirectly that it wanted a broader diplomatic engagement
with Iran covering issues of concern to both states.
The new hard line ruling out broader diplomatic engagement with Iran and
the new light on the strategy behind last year's swap proposal confirms
what has long been suspected - that the debate within the Obama
administration last year over whether to abandon the demand for an end
to Iranian uranium enrichment as unrealistic had been won by proponents
of the zero enrichment demand by late summer 2009.
U.S. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Monday the United
States would not negotiate with Iran on its proposal to send 1,200
kilogrammes of low enriched uranium to Turkey to be replaced with 120
kilogrammes of fuel rods for its Tehran Research Reactor, unless the
Iranians agree to take up the broader subject of their nuclear programme
- and specifically an end to their uranium enrichment programme.
Responding to a question about the U.S. willingness to meet with Iran on
the new proposal, Crowley said, "[I]f it's willing to engage the P5+1,
"then it has to commit that it's willing to engage the P5+1 on its
The P5+1 groups the five permanent members of the Security Council plus
Crowley noted that Iran had offered to have discussions with "the
international community" but not about its nuclear programme. "[I]n our
view, the only reason to have that discussion," Crowley said, "first and
foremost, would be to address our core concerns in the - with regard to
Iran's nuclear programme."
Crowley revealed for the first time that the original proposal for Iran
to swap 1,200 kilogrammes of low enriched uranium for 120 kilogrammes of
uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent roughly a year later "was meant
as a means to a larger end, which was to get Iran to fundamentally
address its - concerns the international community has".
He went on to explain that "the fact that Iran...continues to enrich
uranium and has failed to suspend its uranium enrichment programme, as
has been called for in the U.N. Security Council resolutions: that's our
Crowley was clearly suggesting that the talks which were supposed to
follow Iran's acceptance of the deal would be focused on ending its
nuclear enrichment programme rather than on addressing the sources of
conflict between the United States and Iran.
Last October, the swap proposal was presented as a "confidence building
measure" that would gain enough time for a broader diplomatic dialogue
between Iran and the United States to take place. It would allow the
Obama administration to argue with Israel that Iran had temporarily
given up its "breakout capability" by transferring most of its low
enriched uranium abroad.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the lame duck director general of the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), declared on Oct. 21 that the swap agreement
"could pave the way for a complete normalisation of relations between
Iran and the international community".
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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly argued, moreover, that the swap
proposal implicitly accepted Iran's right to enrich uranium, although
nothing in the proposal addressed that issue.
The history of the swap proposal shows, however, that its origins were
intertwined with the objective of halting Iranian uranium enrichment.
Gary Samore, Obama's chief adviser on nuclear proliferation, devised the
swap deal. He had published a paper in December 2008 with co-author
Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution proposing that the new
administration demand that Iran's LEU be exported to Russia to be
converted into fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor in order take away
Iran's nuclear "break-out capability".
Ironically, it was Ahmadinejad's public suggestion of interest in a
straight commercial deal under which Iran would send LEU to any country
that would enrich it to 20 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor that
led to the formulation of the swap proposal.
Samore simply shifted the focus of that proposal from Bushehr to the
Tehran Research Reactor, and it quickly became a P5+1 initiative to
temporarily strip Iran of nearly 80 percent of its low enriched uranium.
Samore was known to be a strong proponent of demanding that Iran end its
uranium enrichment programme, who privately expressed certainty that
Iran intends to manufacture nuclear weapons. He had publicly expressed
pessimism that Iran would accept any proposal demanding an end to
enrichment without a credible military threat, whether by the United
States or Israel.
Before entering the administration Samore had advocated offering a
lifting of economic sanctions, assurances against regime change and even
normalisation of relations as inducements to accept that demand.
No Iranian regime could have accepted a complete end to enrichment as
part of a deal with the United States, however, because of popular
support for the nuclear programme as a symbol of Iran's technological
Proponents of the zero enrichment option were confident enough to leak
to the press the fact that the aim of broader talks with Iran would be
to end enrichment entirely. The Washington Post reported Oct. 22, 2009
that U.S. officials commenting on the proposed uranium swap "stressed
that the deal would be only the first step in a difficult process to
persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and that
suspension remains the primary goal".
Now the administration has given up whatever flexibility it had
previously retained to adjust its position in the face of a firm Iranian
rejection of the zero enrichment demand. That position portends a
continuation of high and possibly rising tensions between the United
States and Iran for the remainder of Obama's administration.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising
in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest
book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in
Vietnam", was published in 2006.