Can Obama Move His Red Line Forward to Strike a Deal with Iran?


Iran’s nuclear program is the one issue above all others that is preventing a whole-hearted American effort to change the parameters of the U.S.-Iran relationship.
Each side has set a red line, and the lines are miles apart. The United States continues to demand that Iran halt its nuclear program, and Iran insists that it will not. A rapprochement is not possible unless one side moves its red line forward.
In an op-ed in the New York Times last Sunday, New America Foundation/Senior Fellow Flynt Leverett and former State Department and National Security Council official Hillary Mann Leverett offer the Obama administration a way to move its red line forward in a way that avoids sacrificing core American national interests.
The authors suggest that the United States has no choice but to accept Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program, but that it might be able to get Iran to agree to an international inspections regime that prevents Iran from building a nuclear weapon – a status like that of Japan.
The argument for this kind of arrangement is supported by an International Crisis Group policy briefing published yesterday called “U.S.-Iranian Engagement: The View from Tehran.”
The report – which draws on exclusive interviews with high-level Iranian officials – supports the Leveretts argument in two ways.
First, it explains that “[Tehran’s] red line is the right to enrich on its soil; anything less will be viewed as unacceptable.” The Iranian leadership has invested too much political capital in its nuclear program to dismantle it under American pressure. No comprehensive deal will be possible if the Iranian people perceive the leadership to be caving to American demands.
Second, the leadership has likely not decided whether to pursue a weapon and is well aware of the risks that developing a weapon would entail. These include not only the likely international repercussions (further isolation, the threat of a military strike, a regional nuclear arms race), but also the fact that a weapon would shift the internal balance of power toward the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which would control the weapon.
The BBC proffered the Japan model idea to President Obama in its interview with him yesterday:

Justin Webb: A couple of former members of the National Security Council actually have suggested that you should go further, though, and that Iran should be regarded in the same way as Japan. That, in other words, nuclear reprocessing should be accepted, but monitored by the international community. Is that remotely possible?
President Obama: I think that the key, right now, is to initiate a process that is meaningful, that is rigorous, between not only the United States and Iran, bilaterally, but also continuing with the P5 plus one discussions, in a way that’s constructive. Without going into specifics, what I do believe is that Iran has legitimate energy concerns, legitimate aspirations. On the other hand, the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms in the region. Now-
Justin Webb: But could Iran have the right to reprocess energy?
President Obama: Now one point that I want to make is that in my speech in Prague, I talked about how we need to reinvigorate a much broader agenda for nuclear nonproliferation – including the United States and Russia drawing down our stockpiles in very significant ways, to the extent that Iran feels that they are treated differently than anybody else. That makes them embattled.
To the extent that we’re having a broader conversation about how all countries have an interest in containing and reducing, over time, the nuclear proliferation throughout. That, I think, has to be part and parcel of our broader agenda.

It appears that Obama is leaving the door open to some kind of arrangement similar to what the Leveretts suggest, but that he isn’t yet ready to take the leap without a broader international consensus on what an updated non-proliferation regime will look like.
— Ben Katcher


17 comments on “Can Obama Move His Red Line Forward to Strike a Deal with Iran?

  1. Don Bacon says:

    In lebanon, the Western-backed coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze parties landed 71 seats in the 128-member parliament, one more than four years ago, against 57 for Hizbullah and its Shiite and Christian allies. Hizbullah, who is backed by Iran and Syria, fielded only 11 candidates in the race, all of whom won seats.
    So not much change,
    There is some evidence that Nasrallah didn’t really want to win. A Hezbollah-led government would encounter serious policy challenges, a decrease in funds from the US and Gulf states (Lebanon’s finances are already precarious), and a decrease in other western political support for Lebanon requiring a greater support from Iran.
    Even with this, there is the possibility of a new political crisis in Lebanon.


  2. questions says:

    A quick read of the HuffPo piece on EU elections murks up the right-wingedness of the choices.
    It looks like economics, more of a push on global warming (!), and only a touch of immigration are major issues. Doesn’t seem on my quick reading to be crazy wing-nuts so far. But I’m certainly no expert on the EU. And I’ve made plenty of my own bad predictions over the years. I didn’t think the markets would drop as much as they did, that Obama’s cabinet would have Republicans, and there must have been at least one more error! (Please don’t supply a complete list, though. My ego will collapse!)


  3. WigWag says:

    Questions, Hezbollah’s defeat in Lebanon’s Parliamentary elections doesn’t necessarily mean that radicalism is burning out throughout the Islamic world. In fact, radicalism doesn’t seem to be burning out anywhere; not amongst the right wing, religious Israeli settlers; and not amongst the Europeans who voted in record numbers yesterday for anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant extremist candidates for the European Parliament.
    Both elections this past weekend demonstrate two things:
    1-The idea that Hassan Nasrallah or Hezbollah are popular in Lebanon is a myth. While Hezbollah won all the seats allotted to it by Lebanon’s Constitution, other than Amal, parties affiliated with Hezbollah did poorly. Hezbollah has no support amongst the Sunni or Druze communities in Lebanon and General Aoun’s humiliating defeat demonstrates that few Christian Lebanese support Hezbollah either.
    2-European leftists continue to wallow in irrelevancy. Although they can be noisy, they seem to have no luck whatsoever in convincing their fellow citizens that they are trustworthy enough to run any country or even to sit in the European Parliament. In fact it is the racist right wing parties that Europeans seem to be particularly comfortable with these days. Members of these parties were elected to the European Parliament in numbers bigger than ever before. And it wasn’t confined to just one nation; it was a Europe-wide phenomenon. Check out the results in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic to see what I mean.


  4. questions says:

    I was going to post a couple of days ago regarding WigWag’s list above. In the light of the election in Lebanon, it seems timely to suggest that there would seem to be a chance that people are burning out on radicalism, that Obama may have a chance to encourage an easing of a variety of tensions around the world. My original post was going to suggest that the easing of tension was at least a possibility, but maybe, just maybe, Lebanon is a start rather than an outlier. Maybe the world really is tired of nutwings.


  5. Don Bacon says:

    Amazing — all this discussion about Iran and not one mention of the gorilla in the room — AIPAC, which has recently dictated to its congressional minions that they should vote for the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (H.R. 2194 in the House and S. 908 in the Senate). It is sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman in the House and has 155 cosponsors, in the Senate by Sen. Evan Bayh with 55 Co-Sponsors.
    So Obama has limited options, plus he is trapped by his own lying past rhetoric saying that Iran is a big threat. April 5, 2009 . . .Obama: “So let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies.” Sure, Iran is a real threat to the United States. I have trouble sleeping at night because of the Iranian threat.
    In the meantime, I am happy to report that there has been an ongoing monitoring by the international community. The IAEA has repeatedly found that Iran is in compliance with the NPT. The most recent IAEA Report, 5 June 2009: “As has been reported in previous reports, the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.”
    Regarding US diplomacy with Iran the current, belligerent Secretary of State carries on the tradition of disproving the State Department motto: Diplomacy In Action. From a recent Newsweek interview with Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, May 23, 2009:
    Newsweek: “Had the Bush administration been more flexible, do you think it could have had a deal to freeze the Iranian enrichment program in its experimental phases?”
    ElBaradei: “There is no way you are able to deny them the knowledge. But if they do not have the industrial capacity, they do not have weapons. It is as simple as that. I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, “Iran will buckle under pressure.” But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride. They talk about their nuclear program as if they had gone to the moon. And they also understood—unfortunately, not wrongly—that if you have the know-how, you’re still kosher within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet you are sending a message: I can do this; I have bought myself an insurance policy, and you don’t want to mess with me.”


  6. JohnH says:

    Ben, could you then explain why Flynt Leverett’s first point is not worthy of consideration? After all, Washington’s refusal to “commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic” has been around as a central issue long before the nuclear issue ever surfaced. Is there any reason to think that it has magically disappeared?
    BTW, don’t take this personally. I am an equal opportunity critic of those who omit key, driving factors from discussion. The problem seems to be rampant in Washington policy and media circles these days. If these omissions are not serving an agenda, all I can think is that they must be evidence of group think.


  7. Ben Katcher says:

    Thanks as always for posting – but please do not accuse me of omitting pertinent facts to serve some unspecified agenda. I am not serving anyone’s agenda but my own.
    Of course, there are many things that make a different U.S.-Iranian relationship difficult to achieve, but at this point I think that the nuclear issue is the stickiest point.


  8. WigWag says:

    “WigWag was a few months ago predicting the Tamil Tigers were on the verge of winning an independent state, so maybe there is hope yet.”
    Well, I don’t remember saying it but I don’t doubt for a minute that I did. I am impressed with your memory though. As for me, I’m happy if I recall what I said yesterday.
    And, I have to confess that I predict even more poorly than I remember.


  9. Dan Kervick says:

    I think WigWag is probably wrong about #1, but probably right about #2 through #7. On the other hand, WigWag was a few months ago predicting the Tamil Tigers were on the verge of winning an independent state, so maybe there is hope yet.
    I thought most of Obama’s speech today struck the right notes, but that the passages on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were downright strange and massively inadequate, even within the self-imposed constraints of a speech that was supposed to be about broad themes, not specific policies. It made me worry the administration doesn’t understand the conflict and doesn’t even have a plan yet.
    To the extent suggestions of a plan could be discerned, it sounds like they are going to focus on spending years of fast-disappearing time trying to build up Palestinian governing capacity over a non-existent political entity, are forlornly hoping they can prevail on the Israelis to freeze the status quo in place while all this capacity-building progresses, and are punting all the hard questions down the road. If this is what they try, then I am afraid they are going to find their peace plan rapidly bulldozed by history and the violent and dynamic events on the ground. It sounds like the failed Oslo process all over again!


  10. WigWag says:

    Actually, Seamus, I do have a few more predictions I’m thinking about. To my list above, I would add the following:
    1) Between 2010 and 2012 the Supreme Constitutional Court in Turkey will revisit their 2008 decision and ban the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on charges that it is working to undermine the secular nature of the state. This will lead to rioting in Ankara that results in a military coup that topples the government. One result will be that Turkey is never admitted to the E.U.
    2) Fatah will continue to attack Hamas fighters in the West Bank (10 Hamas guerillas have been assassinated by Fatah in the past week). By 2010 the differences between Hamas and Fatah will be irreconcilable and the divorce between Gaza and the West Bank will be complete. Depending on your point of view, this will enhance chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians (on the West Bank), diminish chances for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians or have no effect one way or the other.
    3) Barack Obama’s popularity will plummet by 2010 and if he does get reelected in 2012 it will be by a surprisingly narrow margin. His soothing words will have proven to be irrelevant to fixing what ails the world. Domestically, the actions he correctly took to solve the worst economic crisis in a generation (e.g. running large budget deficits, nationalizing automobile companies, subsidizing the banks) will be viewed with far less enthusiasm once the immediate crisis is past. If he is reelected, his second term will be a failure, reminiscent of the second terms of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
    If it makes you feel any better, Seamus, here are the predictions that I made last year:
    1) The Arizona Cardinals would defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, 21-17.
    2) “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” would beat out “Slum Dog Millionaire” to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
    3) Hillary Clinton would be elected President of the United States.
    Erichwwk, I think Iran wants nuclear weapons for the same reason Israel does (actually for the same reason that all nuclear nations desire to possess those weapons). Like Israel, Iran is a proud, ancient culture with the scientific expertise and technological sophistication to create a nuclear weapons program indigenously. Like Israel, (and every other nuclear nation) developing nuclear weapons would be a source of pride for the Iranians. Like Israel, Iran is surrounded by implacable foes that would be happy to see it destroyed. Like the Israelis, Iran is surrounded by nations and non-state organizations that consider their religion to be “foreign” to the neighborhood. In fact, for the Iranians it worse than for the Jews, Sunni terrorist groups consider the Shia to be apostates (that’s pretty much the worst thing you can be in their eyes.) Like the Israel, Iran understands that possessing nuclear weapons gives them a modicum of protection from a conventional attack by another nation state. Like Israel, Iran believes (correctly) that possessing nuclear weapons provides them with a deterrent against nuclear attack by Israel, Pakistan, the United States or anyone else.
    I am skeptical that Iran can be convinced not to develop a weapon. Sanctions won’t work. They haven’t worked so far; in fact, if anything, they’ve spurred the Iranians to work even harder to enrich uranium. Despite the fantasies of the Europeans and Americans there will never be an enhanced sanctions regime. China and Russia will veto any enhanced sanctions program introduced at the Security Council.
    I am also quite skeptical that negotiations can induce the Iranians to stop any weapons program that they might have. What can the Americans offer; cultural exchanges and freer travel for Iranian citizens? It’s hard to imagine the Mullahs who run Iran finding that particularly compelling. Freer trade? What exactly does Iran have to sell other than oil and Caspian Sea caviar? Iran essentially has nothing to export other than oil and its already exporting every barrel it can sell. As for the caviar, the Russians have already fished the sturgeon in the Caspian to the point of extinction. In terms of consumer products, the Iranians can already buy whatever they can afford from the Chinese.
    At one point, the West could have used regime change as a chit. But the Iranians are not stupid; they already know that after U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan that the West is powerless to induce regime change in Iran. So what exactly does the West have to trade in return for Iran not developing nuclear weapons?
    By the way, I think Iranian nuclear weapons are far less consequential than many people do. Iran can be easily deterred from using nuclear weapons in the same manner that the U.S. and Russia deterred each other throughout the Cold War. I actually think that a reasonable argument can be made that the Middle East will be more stable not less stable if Iran possesses a nuclear weapon and I even think that an Iran that possesses nuclear weapons actually makes Israel marginally safer (because of the effect an Iranian weapon will have on the Sunni Arab states.)
    You ask, “Has Israel’s nuclear weapons been of help to that country?”
    The answer is certainly yes. Israeli nuclear weapons deter nuclear attack from other states that have nuclear weapons (like Pakistan) or that might someday aspire to obtain nuclear weapons (like Iran or perhaps even Saudi Arabia). Israeli nuclear weapons also provide a deterrent (but less of a deterrent) against non state actors that may eventually obtain nuclear weapons. While nuclear weapons don’t deter conventional attacks from non-State actors like Hamas or Hezbollah or even from individual nations (Israel already had a few nuclear weapons when Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War) they do deter large scale, coordinated attacks against Israel by Arab States acting in concert. Israel is more safe not less safe because it possesses nuclear weapons and this will continue to be true whether Iran develops them or not.
    Finally, Ericwwk, you ask, “What is your basis for your special insight…”
    My insights are anything but special. I’m just offering my opinion like everyone else. While its true that Leverett and Mann-Leverett are well credentialed and have experience in government, they’re little more than bloviators just like everyone else who posts or comments at the Washington Note (or in their case, the New York Times as well). Their experience makes their opinions well worth considering, but at the end of the day, just like you or me, they’re just giving their opinion.
    The biggest difference between them and the folks who comment at the Washington Note is that they’re paid bloviators; the rest of us just do it for the fun it.


  11. erichwwk says:

    Good point, JohnH. Until one can deal honestly with the past, one is handicapped in moving forward.


  12. JohnH says:

    Sad commentary that misses half the point. Interesting what Ben omitted.
    Leverett clearly said, “To fix our Iran policy, the president would have to commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic.” That was his first point.
    Yes, the red lines are far, far apart. Iran demands sovereignty; the US demands subservience.
    Iran’s nuclear program is only the latest flash point in US-Iranian tensions. The real issue dividing the countries goes back to when our boy, the Shah, got deposed.
    What agenda is served by omitting this?


  13. Cato the Censor says:

    Apropos of this topic, please see the Asia Times article re allegations that recent evidence of Iranian nuclear bombmaking is an Israeli plant:


  14. Seamus says:

    WigWag, you sure are cheerful! Is that list of disasters exhaustive or do you have a few more that you’re keeping under wraps?


  15. Sand says:

    Just a note.
    According to Lawrence Wilkerson: “…Israel will not be the SECOND country in the Middle East to use a nuclear weapon…”


  16. erichwwk says:

    Nice post on an important oped by the Leveretts, and the BBC/Justin Webb interview, Ben.
    Wigwag writes:
    “Between 2010 and 2012 expect to see the following:
    1) Iran will test its first nuclear weapon.”
    What is your basis for your special insight that counters “the leadership has likely not decided whether to pursue a weapon and is well aware of the risks that developing a weapon would entail”?
    Has Israel’s nuclear weapons been of help to that country?


  17. WigWag says:

    I am keeping my fingers crossed that the Obama health care package is passed quickly and that he gets to appoint one or two more Supreme Court Justices in the next year or two, because by the time he’s ready to run for reelection all hell is going to break loose.
    Between 2010 and 2012 expect to see the following:
    1) Iran will test its first nuclear weapon.
    2) The ICBM capability that Iran is developing will advance to the point where its ICBMs can carry nuclear weapons.
    3) As the United States withdraws from Iraq, the Iraqi civil war between Sunni and Shia will begin in earnest and result in thousands of deaths.
    4) Iraqi Kurdistan will declare independence setting off shock waves in Iran and Syria if not in Turkey.
    5) The U.S. effort in Afghanistan will be universally recognized as the quagmire it already is.
    6) Pakistan will deteriorate still further; its reputation as the most dangerous location in the world will only get worse. Not only will the Taliban be in ascendancy but a virtual civil war will exist between supporters of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari.
    7) After raising expectations in the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will prove as intractable as ever.
    Most importantly, Americans will learn that great oratorical skills (Obama) or lack thereof (Bush) have little to do with making the world a safer place.
    None of these foreign policy failures will mean that Obama can’t be reelected. After all, he could get lucky and the Republicans could nominate Sarah Palin.


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