Back to the Future with Iran

The speculation I’ve seen to date on the Obama administration’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program suggested that it was phasing out the demand for a freeze on uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks, instead making more intrusive IAEA inspections to protect against weaponization — the so-called Additional Protocols — the focus of any ultimate deal.

Not so, according to this WSJ piece (via Friday Lunch Club). Instead, the Obama administration is likely to insist on the Additional Protocols as part of a substantial deal in addition to a “freeze for freeze” as a precondition for talks.

The WSJ article cites Iranian “political insiders” as saying Tehran might go for the “freeze for freeze” — a temporary freeze on uranium enrichment in return for acorresponding freeze on any additional sanctions (such as the one onselling refined petroleum to Iran working its way through Congress) — but I’m skeptical. The deal, in its combined form, essentially recreates terms that Iran had already agreed to in 2003, had fully implemented by 2004, and went on to reject for various reasons in 2005 and ever since.

Meanwhile, according to the same Iranian “political insiders,” Tehran’s accepting the “freeze for freeze” would be conditioned on the West ultimately accepting Iranian uranium enrichment program, which would be “internationalized” in return for technological assistance. That, too, is an offer the U.S. and the EU3 have consistently rejected, preferring instead to guarantee Tehran access to offshore sources of nuclear fuel.

Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see anything new here on either side. As Marc Lynch cautioned the other day with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “There’s a real risk that the Obama administration will fool itself intothinking that it can do the same basic things as Bush . . . butsucceed through better execution.” That seems like a good description of what’s happening here.

A real game-changer would be no preconditions for negotiations, with the deal on the table being the Additional Protocols in exchange for an “internationalized” Iranian fuel enrichment capacity. The negotiations would then identify benchmarks for Iranian cooperation with the IAEA, which would in turn trigger the gradual lifting of UN and unilateral sanctions. Until we see reports of that, I’m skeptical that this particular track of the Iran engagement policy will go anywhere.