- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2014

The Obama administration’s carrot-and-stick approach to Iran was on full display Monday, with the White House praising Tehran for progress in dismantling parts of its nuclear program — while also working successfully behind the scenes to get the Islamic republic disinvited from a Syrian peace conference.

The contrast between the two approaches, senior U.S. officials said, should temper the idea that a thaw in the overall relationship between the West and Tehran signals deeper Iranian participation in America’s wider diplomatic strategy for the Middle East.

The U.S. still harbors significant mistrust for Tehran, Obama administration officials said, particularly with regard to Iranian involvement in Syria’s civil war and the Geneva II peace conference slated to commence Wednesday.

“We continue to have major concerns about various aspects of Iranian policy, including in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region, and we will remain focused on those issues and determined to confront them,” one senior Obama administration official said Monday during a background call with reporters.

“These are two separate tracks,” the official said. “The discussion of whether Iran should be invited to Geneva II [is] entirely a separate issue from whether and how we are making forward on stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program.”

Furor over the prospect of Iranian influence in the region’s conflicts erupted in Washington on Sunday after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had invited Iran to participate in the Syria conference.

SEE ALSO: U.N. withdraws Iran invitation to Syria talks

Although the gathering has been organized largely by officials from the U.S. and Russia, it is technically being overseen by the United Nations. During recent weeks, there has been uncertainty over who would be invited and concerns have been raised about the possibility that rebels inside Syria might seek to boycott the conference.

Syrian President Bashar Assad will be represented at the conference. But the Syrian National Council, the main political arm of rebels who have spent nearly three years engaged in a bloody fight for Mr. Assad’s ouster, agreed only Friday to send an official delegation.

Major world powers backing opposite sides of the war also will be there, with the U.S. and its European and Middle East allies behind the anti-Assad opposition, and Russia behind Mr. Assad.

But the question of whether to include Iran, a subversive backer of forces loyal to Mr. Assad, has lingered to the eleventh hour.

Conditions for Iran

The Obama administration has long said it would tolerate Iranian participation only if Tehran made a public show of support for the Geneva Communique, a basic framework that the U.S., Russia and other international delegations crafted at a conference in Switzerland more than a year ago.

The document essentially called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria — a step many believe would foreshadow Mr. Assad’s removal from power.

Although some Iranian leaders have voiced support for a “political solution” to the Syrian war, they have not specifically endorsed the communique. That sent tempers flaring at the State Department when it became clear that the United Nations invited Iran to the conference anyway.

Iranian leaders accepted the invitation but, after a flurry of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the Obama administration Monday, the United Nations suddenly announced that the invitation had been rescinded.

The State Department responded with what might be read as an elated — albeit obliquely worded statement: “We are hopeful that, in the wake of today’s announcement, all parties can now return to focus on the task at hand, which is bringing an end to the suffering of the Syrian people and beginning a process toward a long overdue political transition.”

Whether such can be attained in Syria right now remains to be seen. But what was clear Monday was the delicate challenge facing the Obama administration when it comes to confronting Iran’s desire to play a more substantial role in the region’s geopolitics.

High stakes

At a minimum, the high-stakes jockeying to prevent Iranian participation in the peace conference seemed to expose just how paradoxical the administration’s policy toward the Islamic republic has become.

Earlier Monday, Obama administration officials announced their satisfaction with clear-cut steps being taken by Iran toward curtailing its nuclear program. They said Tehran’s actions deserved roughly $6 billion in sanctions relief from Washington over the coming six months.

While the officials said the initial and partial relief is temporary and will remain contingent on sustained confidence in the wider international community that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon, they appeared eager to counter critics who say the White House is moving too quickly toward dismantling a sanctions regime that has taken years to build.

One senior administration official shot back at reports that international businesses have begun flocking to Tehran to seize on financial openings created by the sanctions relief. The official stressed that the easing of some restrictions on international gold and petrochemical, and auto-sector trade with Iran amounts to no more than “modest financial relief” for the Islamic republic and “does not in any way mean that Iran is open for business.”

Iran’s nuclear steps

The administration’s comments, meanwhile, followed the release of an International Atomic Energy Agency report concluding that Iran has stopped enriching uranium to levels above 5 percent and taken confirmable steps toward eliminating its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.

The Obama administration said it is confident that Iran also has disabled the technical connections at its Natanz and Fordo nuclear plants, which created the 20 percent stockpile. The official said the administration is also satisfied that Tehran is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency toward permitting deeper access to international observers inspecting those two plants, as well as Iran’s Arak nuclear facility.

“If you put all this together,” one senior administration official said, “this increases our confidence that Iran cannot break out to a nuclear weapons without the international community being given wider advance.”

The Iranian moves signal Tehran’s apparent eagerness to comply with the Joint Plan of Action agreed to during recent months by Tehran and a grouping of the U.S. and fellow U.N. Security Council permanent members France, Britain, China and Russia, plus Germany — with the goal of dampening the threat of a military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program.

Israel and other U.S. allies have long suspected that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb. Tehran argues that its program is for purely peaceful and civilian means.

The Obama administration’s announcement that it will go forward with sanctions relief on Iran represents the first step in what could grow into a wider detente with Tehran.

Despite the preliminary relief that began to take effect Monday, the administration said it would hold firm on oil sanctions.

The administration did say, however, that it would go forward with granting Iran access to some $4.2 billion seized by Washington. The money will be released in installments dependent on the active destruction over the coming six months of Iran’s 20 percent stockpile of uranium, one administration official said.

Despite the benefit this may provide to Iran’s ailing economy, the official sought to downplay the relevance of the measure, describing it as a “drop in the bucket” for Tehran.

“Over the coming six months, oil sanctions alone will cost Iran more than $30 billion,” the official said, adding that the Iranian economy needs $60 billion to $70 billion to recover and that “$6 to $7 billion will not fill that hole.”

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