Old foreign policy advice to speak softly and carry a big stick will do for Iran

Opinion: Obama has refused pressure to assume the worst about Tehran’s ambitions

President Hassan Rouhani: his election provides America and the international community with a window of opportunity. Photograph: Reuters

President Hassan Rouhani: his election provides America and the international community with a window of opportunity. Photograph: Reuters


There’s an interesting parallel to be drawn, as we plunge into this JFK-fest, between how Jack Kennedy dealt and Barack Obama is dealing with nuclear brinkmanship with Russia and Iran respectively.

As Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings foreign policy analyst, writes of the need to resist alarmist thinking, “the first observation from Kennedy’s Cold War experience is that if you assume the worst, you may get the worst”.

Obama, like Kennedy during the Berlin and Cuban crises, has refused despite pressure from Congress and both the Israelis and Saudis, to assume the worst about Iran’. The calculation is that Iran will ultimately remain susceptible to traditional deterrence in the face of continued US commitment to protecting Israel and its overwhelming firepower. In the circumstances Iran can then be allowed to develop a limited civilian nuclear programme . . .

Of Kennedy, Pollack writes “A more nuanced approach led him to opt for a blockade of Cuba rather than the airstrikes and invasion recommended by virtually all of his advisers. His strategy gave the Soviets the chance to realise they had made a mistake and back down without causing a war”.

Soft words, big stick
That doesn’t mean Chamberlain-like naivety, or unilateral disarmament in the face of a regime, even under its new president Hassan Rouhani, that is brutal, antidemocratic and has worrying strategic regional ambitions.

The point is to speak softly and carry a big stick. But it means taking the window of opportunity that Rouhani’s election has provided and ensuring that the new president is not undermined at home by an “intransigent” international community unwilling to do a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. And ensuring that he is rewarded – an easing of sanctions, freeing some Iranian funds frozen in foreign accounts, allowing trade in precious metals, and an easing of pressure on countries not to buy Iranian oil.

Because a deal is possible on an interim agreement in this decade-long dispute. The challenge this week in Geneva, after a false start 10 days ago, was to put words on an understanding between the parties that is already more or less on the table. It would see Iran freeze its uranium enrichment at a lowly 3.5 per cent, sufficient for civil but not military use, allow widespread UN inspections, and close –or partially close – the Arak heavy water reactor plant.

The talks in Geneva between Iran and the “P5+1” group, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, France, Britain, Russia and China – and Germany, have not yet found that elusive wording.

One of the central problems is an insistence by the Iranians that their right to enrich uranium for civil purposes be explicitly acknowledged. No way, say the Six . The US is apparently willing, nevertheless, to see enrichment to 3.5 per cent for civil use continue. The more hawkish French are less amenable and also want the Arak plant, which will be capable of producing plutonium, closed.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during the week insisted that “we will not step back one iota from our rights” (ie rights to civil nuclear power), but he did not say those rights had to be asserted explicitly in a deal.

Iran has insisted for more than a decade that it will not give up its nuclear programme completely. Even the Iranian moderates who support the current proposal demand that the world recognise the country’s right to a peaceful nuclear programme – a deal without limited civil enrichment will simply not sell.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to rail against “an extraordinarily bad deal”, insisting no agreement should be reached unless Iran gives up its enrichment capacity. It was a point pressed on Tuesday in a letter to US secretary of state John Kerry by a group of six US senators while another group of 14 senators yesterday announced they would start work on a new package of sanctions.

There are still real questions over whether Obama can deliver on any deal agreed on the currently discussed basis. Apart from facing down the French and Israelis, he faces a real prospect of rejection in Congress. And regional allies like the Saudis wonder if it’s all part of a grander US plan to facilitate its gradual withdrawal from the region.

“It won’t be perfect,” Pollack writes of the likely deal, “but our worst mistake would be to make an impossible ideal the enemy of a tangible ‘good enough’ agreement”. And a chance to begin de-escalating one of the world’s most dangerous stand-offs.

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