Obama Gets Iran Ducks in a Row

It looks like President Barack Obama is getting his Iran ducks lined up in advance of the meeting scheduled between the P5+1 and Iran in October.

Duck 1: On Tuesday, Obama spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy by telephone for a half-hour, during which Iran was a central topic of conversation. PressTV later reported that on Tuesday, too, Sarkozy told lawmakers from his governing UMP, “It is a certainty to all of our secret services. Iran is working today on a nuclear [weapons] program.” I’m still trying to confirm that Sarkozy actually made those remarks, since although AFP picked up the report, I’ve yet to see it officially acknowledged. The claim goes counter to both the CIA’s 2007 Iran NIE and recent intelligence briefings to the administration. But if true, it’s a very serious game-changer. France, you’ll recall, lobbied especially hard for the IAEA to publish an annex of intelligence findings to the same effect in its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. And as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, France has maintained a consistently firm position on Iran and was instrumental in holding the line on moving sanctions forward in the aftermath of the CIA’s 2007 NIE.

Duck 2: Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to categorically rule out further and stricter sanctions in the aftermath of the IAEA’s Iran report and Iran’s negotiation package offering to open a dialogue with the P5+1. On Monday, though, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to walk that back a bit, saying that while sanctions are usually ineffective, they’re sometimes necessary. Today comes word that the Obama administration will be scrapping the European-based missile defense systems that had gotten Moscow so bent out of shape and that had often been informally coupled with the Iran portfolio.

Duck 3: Amid increasingly feverish talk of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu getting an itchy trigger finger, Isreali Defense Minister Ehud Barak has lowered the temperature by acknowledging that Iran poses no existential threat to Israel. It is, he said instead, a “challenge,” for both Israel and the rest of the world. Whether the threat of an Israeli military strike is realistic or has been used as a psychological tool, it’s important that once initial efforts at diplomacy does get under way, the military option is out of sight so that it doesn’t provide Iran with a convenient bogeyman.

Duck 4: Had I received Iran’s proposal for negotiations (.pdf) as a submission for a WPR briefing, I would have rejected it before getting past the first page. Seriously, that’s how bad it is. Nevertheless, the Obama administration wasted little time in accepting the offer to meet. It was a gutsy move, given that the document nowhere explicitly mentions the Iranian nuclear program. With a pretty generous stretch, the passage on energy security could possibly cover an international uranium enrichment consortium. But that’s it. Still, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it very clear that the discussions will very much center on the uranium enrichment freeze demanded by the UNSC in the absence of increased transparency on the part of Tehran. Most importantly, accepting the offer to talk is a pretext for getting Iran across the table and calling its bluff.

There are still some unknown variables, including whether Russia actually would support toughened sanctions. But if the pieces fall into place, what it all does is leave Iran with a pretty clear choice between negotiating in good faith and finding itself increasingly isolated. Even then, it still might not achieve a breakthrough. But this is the nature of Obama’s foreign policy initiative to date: to create the openings so that this kind of situation becomes possible. It’s an approach based on prioritizing the essential crises, and accomodating on the rest. Those who have seen only the latter have missed half the picture. For those who have seen only the former, this is where not only Iran’s bluff gets called, but Obama’s too.