Iran and Engagement Lite

I was going to write this post this morning, but decided to hold off until Iran responded to the IAEA draft agreement on outsourcing the uranium enrichment for its experimental reactor. Good thing I did, because it’s actually an easier argument to defend now that Iran has initially declined to accept the deal. (For Iran, that’s not the same thing as rejecting it. But the argument stands nonetheless.)

My original thought was to how it was that my pessimism before the first Geneva meeting earlier this month had been so off the mark. At the time, the revelation of the secret Qom facility seemed to exacerbate the trust deficit and the confrontational rhetoric that had long doomed the diplomatic track. But by this week, it appeared that the negotiations had resulted in the first real breakthrough since Iran accepted the IAEA’s Additional Protocol in 2003.

The opening, of course, came from the new possibilities presented by the experimental reactor running out of fuel. And the way in which that opening was used to patch together a deal that, had it been accepted, might have planted the seeds for broader multilateral cooperation in the future was portrayed as a success for “diplomacy” and President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement.

Now this may be a distinction without a difference, but I’m not sure if that would have been the case, even had Iran accepted the deal. (Or if it subsequently does.) The reason being that the deal for the experimental reactor represented a new variable, upon which, as I argued in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 2 Geneva meeting, everyone’s interests converged. The Obama administration’s engagement policy was certainly a prerequisite to the creative solution that was found to it. And it could be the kind of confidence-building measure that ultimately does lead to further breakthroughs.

But it doesn’t alter any of the more thorny points of disagreement, and even clouds them. That explains both France and Israel’s discomfort with the way in which the issue of ongoing uranium enrichment has receded as the central focus of the negotiations.

As things stand, the Obama administration cannot accede to the principal Iranian demand of broadening the discussions beyond the nuclear dossier without significantly damaging the consensus among its EU partners (principally France). And the Iranians cannot accede to the principal American demand of a freeze and ultimate abandonment of its uranium enrichment without significantly damaging the domestic political consensus around the issue.

The problem for Obama is that he’s hemmed in from actually adopting a true engagement policy without preconditions, due to domestic political constraints and the risk of alienating the EU3. But in the absence of one, he’s forced to resort to engagement lite, which amounts to the same “freeze or sanctions” approach in friendlier packaging.

This isn’t so much a criticism of Obama, as a recognition that this, like just about all the major internaitonal crises he faces, is one without any obvious solutions. Even if his approach results in momentary successes — like the experimental reactor deal, should it be ironed out — it leaves little cause for anything but the most guarded optimism.