Could U.S. Politics Hinder Obama's Iran Diplomacy?

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Anja Niedringhaus / AP

Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili attends a press conference in Geneva, where Iran and six world powers ended talks on Dec. 7, 2010, with an agreement to meet again early in 2011

It has long been clear that Iran's domestic political power struggle impedes prospects for any diplomatic breakthrough on the nuclear standoff — just a year ago, a confidence-building fuel swap agreed between Western and Iranian negotiators in Vienna was shot down in Tehran by conservative and reformist rivals to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But U.S. domestic politics too may be coming into play to restrain President Barack Obama from embracing a deal reportedly being discussed with the Iranians by European negotiators.

On Monday, as Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met in Geneva with E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a group of prominent U.S. Senators — including John Kyl, Joe Lieberman, Kirsten Gillebrand and John McCain — wrote to President Obama urging him to reject any proposal under which Iran would maintain a uranium-enrichment capability. "It is critical that the United States and our partners make clear that, given the government of Iran's patterns of deception and noncooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future," the Senators wrote. "We would strongly oppose any proposal for diplomat [sic] endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form."

The Senators' letter followed a statement made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the previous week that seemed to indicate a change in the U.S. negotiating position. She suggested that a diplomatic solution would include Iran exercising its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, once it had "restored the confidence of the international community" that its program had no military objective. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," she told a BBC interviewer.

Although the Bush Administration had taken the same zero-enrichment position demanded in the Senators' letter, until now the Obama team has been vague on whether it would accept Iran keeping a uranium-enrichment capability in a certifiably peaceful nuclear program. But Clinton's comments seemed to correspond with proposals reportedly put to the Iranians by Ashton. Media reports suggested European diplomats were offering a deal in which Iran could continue to enrich uranium if it satisfied transparency concerns raised by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, and agreed to a tighter and more intrusive inspection regime than the one currently in effect. Although Iran is not accused of currently building nuclear weapons, it is required by U.N. Security Council resolutions to suspend enrichment until it has satisfied the IAEA's concerns. But according the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory, once the IAEA has resolved the disclosure issues that had raised questions about its intentions, Iran has the right to enrich uranium for energy purposes under international scrutiny.

The Bush Administration, along with Israel and France, believed that Iran could not be trusted with a civilian enrichment program, because that would give it the technological basis to build weapons within a year or two, should it choose to break out of the NPT — as North Korea did in 1994. The Senators who wrote to Obama on Monday clearly share that view — which, however, is not supported by most of the countries currently implementing sanctions against Tehran or by some influential voices in Washington, who have warned that no diplomatic solution is possible while demanding Iran relinquish the right to enrichment for peaceful purposes. "The Bush Administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous ... because it seemed so unreasonable to people," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry told the Financial Times last year, citing Iran's NPT rights. "It sort of hardened the lines ... They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose."

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told an interviewer, "The Iranians are determined to have a nuclear program. Notice I did not say a nuclear weapon. But they are determined to have a nuclear program, notwithstanding the last six or seven years of efforts on our part to keep them from having a nuclear program." The more realistic goal, he argued, was to press Iran to agree to greater oversight of its program in order to build confidence in its stated peaceful intentions.

Unless the West is able to force the Tehran regime into an as-yet-unlikely surrender, some form of compromise on the question of enrichment may be the only diplomatic game in town. And Clinton's statement signaled that the Administration may be coming to realize that. But powerful voices in Washington are mustering to stop President Obama from playing that game. And that means that, even if Tehran is amenable to a deal — and that remains a very big if — trying to make one could leave Obama going into his 2012 re-election campaign facing charges of being "soft on Iran." Given the epic mistrust between the U.S. and Iran, and the skepticism of Obama's domestic political critics, any long-term deal on the nuclear issue may still be years away. But hawks will be warning that the clock is ticking and pressing for tougher measures.