February 17, 2010

Has Obama really “bent over backwards” for Iran?

In a recent press conference, Barack Obama said:

“I think that we have bent over backwards to say to the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are willing to have a constructive conversation about how they can align themselves with international norms and rules and reenter as full members of the international community.

“The most obvious attempt was when we gave them an offer that said we are going to provide the conversion of some of the low-enriched uranium that they already have into the isotopes that they need for their medical research and for hospitals that would serve up to a million Iranian citizens. They rejected it—although one of the difficulties in dealing with Iran over the last several months is it’s not always clear who’s speaking on behalf of the government, and we get a lot of different, mixed signals. But what’s clear is, is that they have not said yes to an agreement that Russia, China, Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States all said was a good deal, and that the director of the IAEA said was the right thing to do and that Iran should accept.

“That indicates to us that, despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, that they in fact continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization.”

The president’s narrative here is partially true. Just as he claims, the West made Iran an offer regarding its supply of low-enriched uranium. But by no means did the West “bend over backwards” or show its willingness to have a “constructive conversation.” Yes, there was a deal, but no, it wasn’t a good deal, at least not from Iran’s perspective; it certainly wasn’t a deal that anyone should have expected Iran to accept.

The two sides first met in Geneva last October. At issue was what to do about Iran’s supply of low-enriched uranium. At the time, Iran had been enriching its uranium to 5%. It had long made it known that, in order to continue operating a reactor that produces medical isotopes, it would need to start enriching to 20%. (Iran is running out of its existing supply of isotopes, which it purchased from Argentina in 1993. Sanctions prevent it from purchasing any more uranium from abroad.)

But the West didn’t want Iran enriching at all. So it proposed that Iran send three-fourths of its uranium to Russia and France, where it would then be enriched to 20% and finally sent back to Iran. The Obama administration told reporters that “forestalling Iran would allow time to negotiate a more comprehensive and difficult agreement, one intended to end all of Iran’s production of new nuclear material.” Iran said it would accept the deal, and the two sides planned to meet in Vienna later in the month to work out the details.

But the devil proved to be in the details, and to date the two sides have still not reached a deal. According to Mohamed ElBaradei, who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until November 30, Iran wants a simultaneous swap. In other words, instead of having to wait around a year to receive back its uranium, it wants to receive a batch of 20% uranium as soon as it ships out its own stock. According to ElBaradei, Iran doesn’t believe that France can be trusted to return the uranium.

Iran’s lack of trust is certainly well-founded. As Muhammad Sahimi explains, in the 1970s Iran, under the rule of the Shah, paid France over $1 billion for enriched uranium. But then the 1979 Revolution occurred, and ever since then, France has refused to hand over the uranium or refund the money Iran had paid for it. Sahimi explains that Iran has even more reasons to distrust Russia.

Although Iran refuses to send out the bulk of its uranium all at once, it continues affirming that it’s willing to send out its uranium to be further enriched by another country. It’s simply insisting upon a simultaneous swap.

Not an unreasonable demand, if you ask me. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) [.pdf], Iran is entitled to keep and enrich its uranium to 20%. And lest anyone fear that Iran might try to make a nuclear weapon, it should be remembered that, in accordance with the NPT, Iran has established a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Which means that Iran cannot produce weapons-grade uranium (that is, uranium enriched to over 90%) without the Agency, and thus the entire world, knowing about it.

But none of this matters to President Obama. He wants Iran to get rid of its uranium supply pronto, and that’s all there is to it. And if Iran doesn’t comply, he’s made it clear that it will face a “significant regime of sanctions.” “Bending over backwards”? Trying to have a “constructive conversation”? Only in Obamaland.

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