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America Moves the Goalposts

Posted by alanmirs on May 25, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist

America Moves the

Published: May 20, 2010

NEW YORK — John Limbert, once a U.S. hostage in Tehran, now charged with
Iranian affairs at the State Department, has given a good description of the
caricatures that bedevil American-Iranian non-relations

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Roger Cohen


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Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

Americans see Iranians as “devious, mendacious, fanatical, violent and
incomprehensible.” Iranians, in turn, see Americans as “belligerent,
sanctimonious, Godless and immoral, materialistic, calculating,” not to mention
bullying and exploitive.

That’s Ground Zero in the most traumatized relationship on earth and the most
tantalizing. Tantalizing because Iran and the United States are unnatural
enemies with plenty they might agree on if they ever broke the ice. Limbert, a
bridge-builder, has spent half a lifetime trying to deliver that message. It
never flies. Poisonous history gets in the way. So do those that profit from

If all the mistrust needed further illustration, it has just been provided by
the Brazilian-Turkish deal on Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU), the peevish
U.S. reaction to it, and the apparent determination of the Great Powers, led by
the Obama administration, to burrow deeper into failure.

I believed Obama was ready to think anew on Iran. It seems not. Presidents
must lead on major foreign policy initiatives, not be bullied by domestic
political considerations, in this case incandescent Iran ire on the Hill in an
election year.

More on that later, but first let’s take a cold look at the Brazilian and
Turkish leaders’ achievement in Tehran, how it relates to an earlier American
near-deal, and what all this says about a world undergoing significant power

I’ll take the last point first. Brazil and Turkey represent the emergent
post-Western world. It will continue to emerge; Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton should therefore be less trigger-happy in killing with faint praise the
“sincere efforts” of Brasilia and Ankara.

The West’s ability to impose solutions to global issues like Iran’s nuclear
program has unraveled. America, engaged in two inconclusive wars in Muslim
countries, cannot afford a third. The first decade of the 21st century has
delineated the limits of U.S. power: It is great but no longer determinative.

Lots of Americans, including the Tea Party diehards busy baying at wolves,
are angry about this. They will learn that facts are facts.

Speaking of facts, I must get a little technical here. Iran has been
producing, under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, LEU (enriched to
about 5 percent). It is this LEU that would have to be turned into bomb-grade
uranium (over 90 percent) if Iran were to produce a nuclear weapon. The idea
behind the American deal in Geneva last October was to get a big chunk of LEU
out of Iran to build confidence, create some negotiating space, and remove
material that could get subverted. In exchange, Iran would later get fuel rods
for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

Iran, doing the bazaar routine, said yes, maybe and no, infuriating Obama.
Iran now wanted the LEU stored on Iranian soil under I.A.E.A. control, phased
movement of the LEU to this location, and a simultaneous fuel rod exchange.
Forget it, Obama said.

Well, Turkey and Brazil have now restored the core elements of the October
deal: a single shipment of the 1,200 kilograms of LEU to a location (Turkey)
outside Iran and a one-year gap — essential for broader negotiations to begin —
between this Iranian deposit in escrow and the import of the fuel rods.

And what’s the U.S. response? To pursue “strong sanctions” (if no longer
“crippling”) against Iran at the United Nations; and insist now on a prior
suspension of enrichment that was not in the October deal (indeed this was a
core Obama departure from Bush doctrine).

Obama could instead have said: “Pressure works! Iran blinked on the eve of
new U.N. sanctions. It’s come back to our offer. We need to be prudent, given
past Iranian duplicity, but this is progress. Isolation serves Iranian

No wonder Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, is angry. I believe
him when he says Obama and U.S. officials encouraged Turkey earlier this year to
revive the deal: “What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to
do the swap. We have done our duty.”

Yes, Turkey has. I know, the 1,200 kilograms now represents a smaller
proportion of Iran’s LEU than in October and it’s no longer clear that the fuel
rods will come from the conversion of the LEU in escrow. But that’s small
potatoes when you’re trying to build a tenuous bridge between “mendacious”
Iranians and “bullying” Americans in the interests of global security.

The French and Chinese reactions — cautious support — made sense. The
American made none, or did only in the light of the strong Congressional push
for “crushing” sanctions. Further sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear
behavior; negotiations might. I can only hope the U.S. bristling was an opening

Last year, at the United Nations, Obama called for a new era of shared
responsibilities. “Together we must build new coalitions that bridge old
divides,” he declared. Turkey and Brazil responded — and got snubbed. Obama has
just made his own enlightened words look empty




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