Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The clock may be ticking for fresh sanctions against Iran, but a deadlock can be avoided if both sides demonstrate pragmatic flexibility and a willingness to reach a middle-of-the-road solution on Iran’s nuclear program.

An initial proposal backed by President Obama after an Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva of the U.S., Iran and five other nations, would have Iran ship out a bulk of its low-enriched uranium in exchange for high-grade uranium necessary for a reactor in Tehran to continue to produce medical isotopes.

That deal is still salvageable, albeit in a revised format, contrary to an avalanche of media reports that have proclaimed it dead.

For sure, the Iranian side has taken its blessed time coming up with a definite and final response, and there have been strong domestic voices of opposition to the deal from the likes of Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker and former top nuclear negotiator.

However, news from Iran indicates that this debate has been largely if not entirely settled in favor of those advocating a nuclear swap. Recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told international media that Iran is willing to accept the proposal but with the following modification: Instead of sending out 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium in one go, Iran would be willing to send out 400 kilograms, initially placed under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Persian Gulf island of Kish. Upon delivery of new fuel rods from Russia and France, Iran would place a second such shipment in the IAEA’s hands.

Iran’s counterproposal has many advantages, including the fact that it meets the U.S. demands two-thirds of the way and could well set into motion a new dynamic favoring resolution of other issues on the U.S.-Iran plate. Another advantage is that by virtue of including both the U.S. and France in the deal, it breaks Russia’s monopoly on Iran’s nuclear market. Equally important is the side effect in terms of confidence-building and thus improving the overall climate between Iran and the international community.

Lest we forget, the absence of a nuclear deal coupled with increased pressure on Iran in the form of sanctions and other punitive measures is a recipe for escalation of the nuclear crisis in an undesirable direction that does not serve anyone. Iran, after all, desperately needs the nuclear fuel for its reactor that provides radioisotopes to some 200 hospitals around the country.

For its part, the Obama administration could definitely use a foreign policy breakthrough at the end of its first year in office. Various administration officials have been too quick to reject Iran’s counterproposal, which deserves serious consideration. Iran’s envoy to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, has rightly criticized America’s “take it or leave it” approach.

No one should be under the illusion that such a nuclear swap will lead to the resolution of all outstanding disputes between the U.S. and Iran. For example, the fate of Palestinians is one such factor that may weigh heavily on Tehran, which historically has supported their cause.

The Obama administration would be prudent to steer clear of its predecessor’s tendency toward unbounded vilification of Iran and to adopt a pragmatic and realistic policy based on “mutual respect, mutual interests,” to quote Mr. Obama’s Persian New Year’s message last March.

Since then, the policy of engagement with Iran has journeyed through ups and downs. At present, it is again down, but that can change and move to a constructive path if both Tehran and Washington learn from history and focus on how to make meaningful and flexible responses to each other’s gestures.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies and is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team (2004-05).

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