Obama: U.S. Deal with Iran Would Require End to "Nuclear Program"

President Barack Obama, shown participating in a Monday presidential debate. He called for Iranian leaders to “convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” (AP Photo/Win McNamee).
President Barack Obama, shown participating in a Monday presidential debate. He called for Iranian leaders to “convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” (AP Photo/Win McNamee).

WASHINGTON -- Saying “there is a deal to be had” with Iran, President Obama at Monday night’s debate laid down a marker for possible negotiations: Tehran’s leaders must “convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” and accept “inspections that are very intrusive.”

How those words might translate into an agreement -- if Obama is re-elected -- is less than clear.

At face value, the comments at the final presidential debate appear to reflect a toughening of the U.S. position.

At initial Istanbul talks that Washington and five international partners held with Tehran last spring, Obama administration officials reportedly signaled a readiness to allow the Persian Gulf nation to continue enriching uranium at limited levels, backed up by an exhaustive inspections regime to verify compliance. Iran, which insists that its enrichment effort is solely for peaceful purposes, has repeatedly sought an affirmation of its right to produce nuclear fuel and demanded that economic sanctions be lifted.

On Monday night, “Obama sharpened his rhetoric in the debate -- three times did he say that the aim was to end the Iranian nuclear program,” Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, told Global Security Newswire after the televised event. “That contradicts the idea that there would be a give-and-take [in negotiations], including a cap on enrichment at 5 percent [enrichment] under strict inspections.”

World leaders suspect that Iran’s atomic program is aimed at eventually developing a nuclear arms capacity. The nation has attained a level of 20 percent enrichment, a potential springboard toward a 90 percent purification level usable in atomic weapons.

Under intense pressure from Republicans not to agree to any continued enrichment by Iran, Washington envoys quickly backtracked on the more flexible position floated last spring, according to issue experts. Since then, the multilateral talks have largely stalled.

However, the New York Times reported over the weekend that the Obama administration was readying a plan to launch bilateral talks with Iran for the first time in more than 30 years, to commence after the November elections. U.S. and Iranian officials promptly denied the reports.

The two sides have held informal contacts on and off for at least a year, according to administration insiders, who said there might indeed be a post-election opportunity for bilateral talks even if no official commitment to do so has yet been reached.

Meanwhile, a new round of so-called P-5+1 discussions -- involving Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China -- appears to be coming together.

Once back at the negotiating table with Iran, would the Obama team revert to a position of absolutely no enrichment allowed? This was a hard-line objective embraced by the Bush administration.

It might come down to what the president meant by two words -- “nuclear program” -- when he faced off against Republican contender Mitt Romney at the debate table in Boca Raton.

Obama could have been threatening that the United States would not tolerate any level of continued uranium enrichment. Alternatively, if a concession on continued enrichment proves necessary to strike a deal, could Obama explain that back during the Oct. 22 debate, he solely meant any Iranian nuclear weapons effort must come to a definitive end?

There is virtually no disagreement between Washington Democrats and Republicans over that basic demand, but GOP lawmakers have said they would demand far more restrictions on Iran’s activities.

“If Obama's debate statement -- which was kept vague -- means a return to Bush's zero-enrichment objective, then there won’t be a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge,” Parsi said. “I suspect that the president kept it vague for a reason.”

Namely, the U.S.-Iranian relations experts said, “I think he is keeping it vague to sound tough in the debate but have flexibility at the negotiating table.”

“I suspect Obama meant Iran must ‘end’ its nuclear weapons ambitions,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said after the debate. “I think he appreciates the fact that zero enrichment is not a likely endgame.”

Whatever the meaning of “nuclear program,” Obama said his administration was “not going to let up the pressure until we have clear evidence that that [cessation] takes place.

“And one last thing,” the president said. “The clock is ticking.”

Going into the next presidential term, if a diplomatic solution remains elusive, the time almost certainly will come for choosing whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities or to simply live with an atomic-armed regime, experts said.

“It’s going to become more clear down the road that it’s either this [diplomatic] path or a military confrontation,” Parsi said in an interview earlier yesterday. “And at that point, perhaps it is easier to make the right decision.”

Sadjadpour said the president has already signaled that the United States would find a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable.

“Obama made it again very clear that if faced with a binary choice -- an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran -- he'll choose the latter,” he said. Romney has made a similar commitment.

Tehran’s rulers also face a weighty decision, both experts noted.

“Iran has maintained a policy of neither confrontation nor conciliation with the United States,” Sadjadpour said. “We're forcing them to make a decision, one way or the other.”

During the Monday debate, Romney also attempted to strike a newly reframed balance between talking tough on Iran and leaving a greater opening for diplomacy than he had in previous remarks.

“A nuclear-capable Iran,” he said, “presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us.”

The GOP presidential candidate charged that Obama had signaled “weakness” from the outset of his administration. Romney again called Obama’s 2009 trip to the Middle East an “apology tour” and alleged that later that year and in 2010, the president remained “silent” when the Iranian regime used deadly violence against dissidents in the streets.

Obama disputed each of these assertions, winning some backup from news media fact-checkers.

Nonetheless, Romney asserted, Obama’s efforts to take a less aggressive U.S. approach in the region undercut Washington’s strength at the bargaining table.

“I think [Iran’s leaders] looked at that and saw weakness,” said Romney, noting that his Democratic opponent has also had a rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “All of these things suggested, I think, to the Iranian mullahs that, hey, you know, we can keep on pushing along here; we can keep talks going on, but we're just going to keep on spinning centrifuges.”

At the same time, Romney said, he would not rush into military action against Iran, as Vice President Joseph Biden recently suggested the GOP ticket might do, if elected.

“It's also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means,” Romney said during the debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation” on CBS.

Both candidates emphasized the “crippling” effect that four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions have had on Iran, suggesting that the damage to its economy should drive Tehran into negotiations over its nuclear efforts.

“The work that we've done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice,” Obama said. “They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we're not going to take any options off the table.”

Parsi took issue with this formulation.

“The spin in Washington obviously is going to be that the sanctions worked,” he said. “And I think that is an incomplete picture.”

Parsi argued that sanctions alone would be insufficient to force Iran’s hand but, rather, Tehran’s concessions on ending the most sensitive nuclear activities must be met by proportional concessions from Washington and its partners.

That would likely require flexibility on continued Iranian enrichment and concrete action to begin lifting sanctions -- either of which could stall because of political opposition the next president will almost certainly face from Congress, he said.

“After the elections, the president has to make up his mind,” Parsi said. “Are they going to go for this or not? If they go for it, they’re going to have to go to Congress and tell them, ‘We just solved a major problem in the world. Please don’t stand in the way.’”

The president must argue that “it’s far better than a continued sanctions policy without a compromise, and it’s certainly far better than war,” Parsi said.

That could be a difficult sell -- at least in a Republican-led House -- but if split control of Congress’s two chambers continues, it might be impossible for lawmakers to stop a deal or prevent the lifting of some sanctions.

Although the Obama administration to date has been reticent about taking on a political fight at home in order to strike a deal abroad with Iran, that could change in a second term, in Parsi's view.

“If the guiding star of the administration for the last couple of years has been reelection, going forward it’s going to be legacy,” he said. “Of all of the different foreign policy issues, however difficult [Iran] may still be, it is still easier than many of the others that he’s looking at.”

October 23, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Saying “there is a deal to be had” with Iran, President Obama at Monday night’s debate laid down a marker for possible negotiations: Tehran’s leaders must “convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” and accept “inspections that are very intrusive.”