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Published:September 16th, 2009 20:00 EST

U.S. Deadline on Iran: Where Did It Go?

By SOP newswire2

  • Iran`s new proposal to the West did not provide any opening for serious negotiations on the nuclear issue, but rather vague formulations for the agenda of any future talks. Back in July, when the G-8 announced that the opening of the UN General Assembly "would be an occasion for taking stock of the situation in Iran," most international observers understood that there was a hard September deadline that Iran had to meet to begin serious nuclear negotiations. Unfortunately, at this stage, there is little evidence that the Obama administration is about to adopt effective action in a timely manner in light of Iran`s policy of rejectionism, setting aside diplomatic engagement and moving to a policy of severe sanctions.

  • Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently acknowledged that the Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium has already reached a sufficient level so that it was possible to talk about Tehran having "a dangerous and destabilizing possible breakout capacity." Tehran undoubtedly observed that no serious action was taken against North Korea for its nuclear breakout, either by the Bush or Obama administrations.

  • The common assumption in Washington policy circles today is that even if Iran reaches the nuclear finish-line, the U.S. can fall back on the same Cold War deterrence that was used against the Soviet nuclear arsenal. However, Iran is a true revolutionary power whose aspirations extend into the oil-producing states. It is involved in both the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies, while its support for terrorism reaches into Lebanon, Gaza, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. With Iran threatening the flow of oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz as well, through which roughly 40 percent of the world`s oil flows, the nuclearization of Iran has global - and not just Middle Eastern - implications.

  • In 2003-2005, Tehran engaged with the EU-3 for two years, exploiting the talks to race ahead with construction of key uranium enrichment facilities, while fending off punitive measures by the UN Security Council for three entire years. Iran today is far more advanced than it was then and the time for diplomatic experimentation is extremely limited.


In the first part of September 2009, it became clear that Iran was defying the U.S. and its Western allies by again refusing to open serious negotiations over its nuclear program, thereby ignoring the deadline it had been given to respond favorably to President Barack Obama`s repeated overtures to engage diplomatically. After all, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on September 7 that, from his point of view, "the nuclear issue is finished." To be clear, he added: "we will never negotiate on the Iranian nation`s rights." Days later, Iran`s new five-page proposal to the P-5 plus 1 (the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) did not provide any opening for serious nuclear negotiations either, but rather vague formulations for the agenda of any future talks.

Indeed, the Iranian document began by asserting that the world was moving beyond "the difficult era characterized by domination of empires, predominance of military powers," in essence envisioning a period in which the U.S. was no longer a dominant power. It made reference to the need for "complete disarmament," but said nothing about Iran`s own nuclear program. In his Friday sermon on September 11, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei further backed the uncompromising Iranian nuclear stance that Ahmadinejad had voiced and which appeared in the Iranian document. It is to be remembered that Iran is presently in violation of at least five UN Security Council Resolutions that insist it suspend its continuing enrichment of uranium.

The U.S. Sets a September Deadline for Serious Nuclear Talks

Back in July, when the G-8 announced that the opening of the UN General Assembly "would be an occasion for taking stock of the situation in Iran," most international observers understood that there was a hard September deadline that Iran had to meet to begin serious nuclear negotiations. President Obama stated at a July 10 press conference after the G-8 meeting: "We`ve offered Iran a path towards assuming its rightful place in the world. But with that right comes responsibilities. We hope Iran will make the choice to fulfill them, and we will take stock of Iran`s progress when we see each other this September at the G20 meeting."

Unfortunately, at this stage, there is little evidence that the Obama administration is about to adopt effective action in a timely manner in light of Iran`s policy of rejectionism, setting aside diplomatic engagement and moving to a policy of severe sanctions. Engagement was the centerpiece of its Middle East policy and has been hard to abandon. For example, while rejecting the newest Iranian proposals on September 10, State Department Spokesman Philip J. Crowley reminded reporters that engagement was still official U.S. policy, stating: "We remain willing to engage Iran."

Moreover, within twenty-four hours he announced the Obama administration`s willingness to join the P-5 plus 1 in order to meet with Iranian leaders directly and open negotiations, despite the repeated statements coming out of Tehran. The hard-line Iranian newspaper Javan noted the dramatic U.S. shift on September 14: "One day after the hasty response to Iran`s updated package of proposals, America made a U-turn and announced that because these proposals could become a basis for direct talks with Iran, it accepts the talks over this package." Indicating Iranian understanding of the new U.S. policy, the article was entitled: "The Inevitable Acceptance of Nuclear Iran."

The first meeting between the two sides reportedly will take place in early October when Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, meets with Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator. They will be joined by representatives from the P-5 plus 1, but, according to Solana`s office, the meeting will not yet be a "formal negotiation," which presumably will come at a later stage. The September deadline appeared to have vanished and the Iranians have gained valuable time. 

A Display of Western Weakness

The consequences of letting the September deadline pass without demonstrating a decisive response is clearly not understood in Western capitals. Iran will carefully calibrate its next moves on the basis of how it believes the U.S. and its allies will act in the weeks ahead. Up until now, President Obama`s efforts to reach out to the Iranian leadership with carefully-crafted public messages and private letters have elicited the opposite response of what he intended. During March he stated in his address marking Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, that the U.S. wanted the Islamic Republic "to take its rightful place in the community of nations." While Ahmadinejad welcomed the administration`s call for dialogue with Iran, nonetheless he bluntly warned: "We say to you today that you are in a position of weakness. Your hands are empty, and you no longer promote your interests from a position of strength." What might have been seen in Washington as a magnanimous gesture was perceived in Tehran as a sign of reduced Western resolve. 

Iran`s Nuclear "Breakout" Scenario

There are two very important Iranian considerations that are likely to be affected by what the West does now. Just recently, Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), acknowledged that the Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium has already reached a sufficient level so that it was possible to talk about Tehran having "a dangerous and destabilizing possible breakout capacity." What he probably meant was that the Iranians could soon take their low-enriched uranium and put it through a further stage of enrichment to produce weapons-grade fuel. He announced that Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium for at least one atomic bomb. Under the breakout scenario, Iran would refuse any more IAEA inspections, shut down the IAEA cameras that provide a partial picture of what transpires in the Natanz enrichment plant, and manufacture high-enriched fuel.        

International precedents in this area are not encouraging. North Korea`s nuclear weapons program was initially based on plutonium and not uranium (now North Korea is moving into uranium enrichment as well), but nevertheless there is an analogy that can be made regarding its breakout from IAEA restrictions. It is to be remembered that North Korea`s Yongbyon nuclear reactor was under IAEA monitoring, which sought to verify that its spent fuel rods would not be reprocessed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In 2002, Pyongyang removed the IAEA seals from its stock of spent fuel rods and subsequently expelled international inspectors, while announcing its withdrawal from the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since that time North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and got away with them: first in October 2006 and then in May 2009. Reportedly, Iranian representatives were present at both. Tehran undoubtedly observed that no serious action was taken against North Korea for its nuclear breakout, either by the Bush or Obama administrations. Should Iran escape from the September deadline that the West itself instituted, then its readiness to follow the North Korean example will substantially increase.

Can the West Deter Iran?

The second area which will be affected by how Iran is handled at present will be deterrence. The common assumption in Washington policy circles today is that even if Iran reaches the nuclear finish-line, the U.S. can fall back on the same Cold War deterrence that was used against the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton`s offer in July of a "defense umbrella" against Iran to worried Arab states foreshadows the coming approach of the administration to a nuclear Iran. But will Iran respond to Western deterrence the way Washington hopes? Indeed, over the last year, Western leaders have repeatedly declared that a nuclear-armed Iran was "unacceptable." But should they subsequently acquiesce to Iran`s final sprint to a nuclear capability, what credibility will U.S. deterrence have with the leadership in Tehran after it successfully defied the West`s repeated warnings?

Unwarranted Complacency

There is an unwarranted complacency growing in the West about Iran. Some believe that if the world survived the advent of Pakistani and North Korean nuclear weapons, and the sky did not fall, then an Iranian bomb will be no more threatening. The cases are, of course, very different: Pakistan`s bid for nuclear power was based largely on its preoccupation with India, while North Korea has been focused on regime survival and its interests on the Korean Peninsula (not with conquering Japan). In contrast, Iran is a true revolutionary power whose aspirations extend into Iraq, to Bahrain, and the other oil-producing states. It is involved in both the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies, supplying weapons and training, while its support for terrorism reaches into Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Now Iran is heavily involved in South America and East Africa, with growing security and economic ties. With Iran threatening the flow of oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz as well, through which roughly 40 percent of the world`s oil flows, the nuclearization of Iran has global - and not just Middle Eastern - implications.       

In dealing with the new Ahmadinejad government, the proposals currently being considered in the U.S. Congress for a gasoline quarantine on Iran could be an important good start. The West must demonstrate political will, but time is now short. It must be remembered that the decision to engage Iran diplomatically has never been cost-free. In 2003-2005, Tehran engaged with the EU-3 (UK, Germany and France) for two years, exploiting the talks to race ahead with construction of key uranium enrichment facilities, while fending off punitive measures by the UN Security Council for three entire years. Iran today is far more advanced than it was then and the time for diplomatic experimentation is extremely limited. The scale of the next crisis with Iran will largely be affected by how the Obama administration responds to the challenge it faces when it meets the Iranians next month.

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Source: Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was Israel`s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-1999. He is the author of the newly-released book The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).