Won't take yes for an answer

IssueJune 2010
Feature by Milan Rai

US president Barack Obama has rejected new concessions from Iran over its nuclear programme, instead demanding a tightening of economic and financial sanctions, leading to growing fears of confrontation. This is the fourth major peace initiative from Iran since 2003 – all have been rejected by the US.

A TRR-ific deal?

The latest breakthrough came in relation to Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU), the product of its controversial uranium enrichment programme. Last October, the outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, proposed swapping 1,200kg of Iran’s LEU for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a medical facility supplied by the US in 1967. The fuel would be used to produce medical isotopes used in diagnosing cancer. These isotopes are expensive to import, decay by half in transit (and therefore are better produced near the hospitals that use them), and are in short supply globally.

The advantage of this swap for Iran would be that it could produce the medical isotopes in the TRR, before its current stock of fuel runs out (within the year), saving millions of dollars. The advantage for the world would be that a large amount of LEU, which could theoretically be enriched to weapons-grade, would be removed, reducing Iran’s opportunity to “break out” and develop a nuclear bomb (see box).

Iran was reluctant. It rejected three demands in the US-led offer: the LEU had to be taken out in one shipment; the swap would take place outside of Iran; and there would be a delay of up to twelve months before the new fuel rods would be delivered to Iran. The failure of this initiative was used by the Obama administration as a justification for new sanctions against Iran by the UN security council. Then, suddenly, everything changed.


On 17 May, after few months bypassing the “great powers”, and in the face of US scepticism, Turkey and Brazil pulled off a major diplomatic coup, reaching agreement with Iran on the TRR fuel swap. According to the agreement, Iran will deposit 1,200kg of LEU in Turkey, and will receive 120kg of fuel for the TRR in return, in less than twelve months. The Obama administration, far from praising Turkey and Brazil, accelerated its attempts to rally a new round of UN sanctions, and poured scorn on the new deal on the grounds that it did not involve the suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran. But it was the US that championed the idea of a TRR fuel swap separate from the enrichment issue back in October 2009. Then, a White House official told the New York Times the TRR offer was “intended to explore the proposition of whether Iran really wants to negotiate its way out of this problem.” (21 October)

Now that Iran has given a clear indication via Turkey and Brazil that it does want to negotiate its way out of the problem, the US says the TRR deal is pointless without the suspension of uranium enrichment. Goalposts. Moved.

Iran expert Trita Parsi observed that the “sudden change of heart in Washington” was particularly surprising as the three objections Iran lodged against the 2009 TRR deal (see above) had all been withdrawn: “Iran has agreed to the terms the US insisted on”.

Former senior US officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett observed: “The Obama administration has only itself to blame for this situation, because it has approached—and is still approaching—the Iranian nuclear issue with unilateral hubris worthy of George W. Bush”. The Leveretts went on: “For months, administration officials—and most US-based Iran analysts—have asserted that the Islamic Republic is too internally conflicted to have a coherent international strategy or make important decisions.”

Brazilian, Chinese and Turkish officials tried to persuade the US for months that a TRR deal was possible. “But Secretary Clinton and others in the Obama administration thought they knew better—and said so publicly.”

The fact that Brazil and Turkey ignored the US and brokered a highly-sensitive international deal with Iran is an indication that the global South has reached a new point in its development. Noted critic of US foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, observed that Turkey and Brazil have “terrified” the US foreign policy establishment: “they displaced the US as the primary agent in the region”.

No to yes

Trita Parsi suggests that: “there is a sense in the Obama administration that after the events of last year, a nuclear deal with Iran could only be sold domestically if Iran is first punished through a new round of sanctions…. A deal without punishment—even a good deal—simply wouldn’t be enough.”

In other words, the United States cannot take “yes” for an answer, even a complete climbdown on the TRR swap conditions. It must humiliate Iran.

This is merely the latest example of the US blocking a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis. In 2003, Iran offered a “grand bargain” to the United States, under which the US would end its sanctions and recognise Iran’s “legitimate security interests” in the region, and Iran would gain full access to peaceful nuclear technology.

In return, Iran would allow aggressive nuclear inspection rights for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “decisive action” against terrorists, coordination of policy in Iraq, the end of “material support” for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the conversion of Lebanon’s Hezbollah into a purely political organisation, and acceptance of a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US did not even bother to reply to this offer.


Despite this rejection, in 2003 Iran suspended its uranium enrichment programme and accepted a more stringent IAEA inspection regime, while it sought a more limited agreement on just the nuclear front.

After two fruitless years, which produced only an EU offer to Iran that an EU diplomat described as “a lot of gift wrapping around a pretty empty box”, Iran resumed enrichment. Despite this second major rebuff, Iran took a new step in 2005. On 18 September 2005, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the UN general assembly that Iran was “prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of the uranium enrichment programme in Iran.”

In 2007, Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, reiterated this offer: all countries with concerns, “including the US”, could participate in a uranium enrichment consortium in Iran. Zarid added: “Their people and other foreign nationals could come and go to work at the facilities, which would allow for the best type of monitoring.”

Former British ambassador sir John Thomson described the consortium idea in 2008 as “the best that is obtainable, and so long as it remains in force it precludes Iran from making a nuclear weapon”. Iran’s repeated public and private offers to place its uranium enrichment facilities under the control of an international consortium have all met with rejection.

Furthermore, in 2008, Iran offered full co-operation with IAEA inspectors in clearing up lingering questions regarding its nuclear programme, through a “work plan”. All the major questions were answered, yet Iran’s considerable cooperation was treated as irrelevant.

Iran is not blameless in this process. What is striking, however, is that each time Iran reaches out for compromise, the US (with British support) moves the goalposts, and cracks the whip.