The always thorough Mark Hibbs has a smart piece regarding the meaning of the resolution passed last week by the International Atomic Energy Association’s (IAEA) Board of Governors regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The resolution was initiated by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and modified with South African input, with only Cuba dissenting and Egypt, Tunisia, and Ecuador abstaining.
Rather than interpreting it as a message of unity among the P5+1 , Hibbs sees the resolution as “a lowest-common-denominator product” whose main intention was to “emphasize that the diplomatic process should continue and that the war of words should not intensify.”
So the resolution was not merely intended for Iran. Its emphatic, twice-mentioned support for a “comprehensive negotiated, long term solution, on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach, which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program consistent with the NPT,” Hibbs points out, was also directed at Benjamin Netanyahu who despite being told in no uncertain terms to let go of the idea of resolving the nuclear issue militarily at least for now, seems unable to do so.
By avoiding inflammatory language, the board in effect delayed serious conversation about the intricacies of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program until after the United States November 6 presidential election. In Hibbs’ words:
[T]he IAEA resolution was informed by the perspective that as long as Iran doesn’t know who will be in the White House next January, it can’t be expected to negotiate seriously with the P5+1 on a long-term solution that would require that the U.S. make some firm commitments to Iran.
In other words, the change of subject to the broad support for diplomacy versus war has in effect lent the Obama Administration a hand in keeping the real Iran question – which has to do with how it plans to address Iran’s insistence on its nuclear rights through negotiation – out of the presidential contest.
But “kicking the can down the road” does not necessarily mean progress in figuring out how to resolve thorny issues. From the looks of it, neither does the idea of “we are going to keep sanctioning until Iran decides to negotiate seriously.” To be sure, one can continue to hope that this is not so. In the words of the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, the Iranian economy is “beginning to buckle” under a new round of tough sanctions. “So we think that there’s still considerable time for this pressure to work,” she said. But even Rice has to acknowledge that “this is not an infinite window.”
The reality is that sanctions may or may not prod Tehran to accept a bad deal but, after almost 9 years of negotiations, it is highly unlikely that the Iranian leadership will back down from its repeatedly declared position even in the face of a deteriorating economy. This is especially so since Tehran’s declared stance — that it will not sign onto something that will permanently treat Iran differently than other countries in terms of its permitted enrichment activities and the kind of inspection regime that is required to oversee its nuclear program — is not an especially outrageous position.
This is why Hibbs is correct to assert that a long-term solution to the stand-off will require some sort of firm commitments to Iran, including for instance “permitting Iran to continue enriching uranium after the IAEA, having implemented Additional Protocol-plus, delivers its imprimatur that Iran’s nuclear program is clearly dedicated to peaceful use.”
But the way Hibbs has laid out the end game already hints at how difficult negotiations are going to be even if – a very big if – a re-elected Obama Administration gives firm commitments to permit Iran to continue enriching eventually. Tehran will have all sorts of concerns and questions. How can it be assured that the IAEA’s imprimatur will not take forever? What does the “Additional Protocol-plus” entail? Iran knows it includes the inspection of the military site at Parchin, but is that it? Will the “plus” remain permanent or in a state of constant flux? And how does this schedule of the IAEA giving a clean bill of health to Iran coordinate with the potpourri of sanctions imposed by the UN, US, and EU?
The United States for its part will have all sorts of concerns, the most important of which is the fear that Iran will play games if sanctions are lessened in a step-by-step approach pushed by the Russians and now included in the IAEA resolution. The decision to ease up, even a little, on an instrument that has been quite successful in cornering Tehran for the sake of continued negotiations will not be easy. It could even prove impossible. But, assuming a re-election, the Obama Administration will no longer have electoral politics as an excuse for not deliberating on it.