Obama must be wary in dealings with Iran

By Dale R. Herspring

The recent meetings in Geneva involving the United States, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Iran raise a number of thoughts. To begin with, negotiations are difficult undertakings, especially when seven countries are involved. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it best when he said, “Diplomacy takes time.”

It is worth noting that Iran has been under crippling U.N. sanctions since 2006. That’s because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has believed that Iran is working to get nuclear weapons, a view shared by the U.S. intelligence community. Among the evidence, Iran is using a massive number of centrifuges to enrich uranium far beyond the level needed for civilian purposes. It is also producing heavy water, which goes with the production of nuclear weapons. 

A country does not need centrifuges to have nuclear power.  Nor does it need heavy water.  In fact, 17 countries have nuclear power and do not enrich weapons-grade uranium.  They rely instead on other countries, including Russia, France and the United States, to provide the appropriate civilian-grade uranium.  When the material needs to be replaced, the source countries take the depleted uranium back and replace it. Iran contends that such an arrangement would make them dependent on other countries.

In Geneva, what diplomats call “atmospherics” were good.  After the three days of meetings, Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zanif said, “I think we are all on the same wave length, and that is important.” Kerry said “There is no question in my mind that we are closer now.” However, not every participant shared Kerry and Zarif’s optimism. 

Based on comments by the French foreign minister, France led the opposition. Paris objected to the proposed agreement, claiming it would do too little to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment program and would not stop the development of a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium. Here is what the West wanted Iran to do. 

• Stop enriching uranium above 20 percent;

• Render unusable its existing stockpile of highly enriched uranium;

• Stop work on the plutonium reactor;

• Get rid of the centrifuges.

In return, the West would unfreeze some of Iran’s assets held in banks overseas and take some other financial steps.

So, why did the French (and the Israelis) oppose such an agreement? It comes back to Ronald Reagan’s famous comment, “Trust, but verify.” 

That is a good approach.  I am on the side of the French and Israelis. I have seen President Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy.  It is not original to Obama, but it is the idea that if you are nice to others, they will be nice to you. We would warn high-level U.S. delegations that the Russians were hard bargainers. Nevertheless, we would make unilateral concessions, expecting the Russians to respond by making some concessions in return. The Russians did exactly what we warned they would do. They pocketed the concessions and went on with the discussions.

I know we have ways of checking on what the Iranians are doing. However, even with advances in photo interpretation, it is still possible to hide things — something Iran is very good at.

Finally, if the reports are true, Obama may be facing another “dust-up.”  In spite of his tough talk, it appears Obama has been making unilateral concessions to the Iran. The reports claim that Obama may have been in contact with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani prior to their well publicized phone call,  and made some concessions in the way American sanctions on Iran are imposed

There is nothing wrong with a president acting on his own in foreign policy.  He is the boss.  However, it makes Obama’s tough talk on Iran sound even more hollow than in the past.

I have had my problems with both the French and the Israelis in the past. But in this case. I have to thank the French for helping us to avoid another debacle in our foreign policy.  The group will meet again on Nov. 20, but not at the foreign minister level.  Sending lower level diplomats is a sign that things are not going well.  I hope that is the case.

Dale R. Herspring. A University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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