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Opinion: Has Obama made agreement with Iran more difficult? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Barack Obama speaks in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, on Septrmber 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Next Wednesday, Iran and the P5+1 group of nations resume talks in the hope of reaching an agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue before the June 30 deadline.

The hype fomented over the “historic accord” in Lausanne may have made it harder to negotiate an agreement. One reason is that the issue has now become a theme of domestic politics both in Iran and the US.

In the US, Obama’s opponents are sure to do all they can to prevent him from cooking up a “diplomatic victory” to burnish his dismal legacy.

In Iran, radical Khomeinists will intensify efforts to prevent the Rafsanjani faction, which Rouhani and his entourage are a part of, from using “the greatest diplomatic victory in Islamic history” as a springboard for winning next year’s elections for the Islamic Majlis and the Assembly of Experts and, eventually, showing Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei the door.

In the meantime, the Iranian nuclear issue continues to cast a shadow over peace and security in a turbulent Middle East.

Even if Iran does not mean to build a bomb, the fact that it is building the capacity to do so is enough to destabilize an already shaky balance of power, trigger a nuclear arms race, and encourage dangerous miscalculations on all sides.

The bad news is that the P5+1 talks have transmuted into bilateral negotiations between Tehran and Washington.

Obama’s zeal to make a deal—any deal—may have rendered an agreement more difficult, if not impossible. His confusion and weakness have convinced the mullahs that with every new round, they can blur the baseline in their favor.

The saga started with the demand that Iran comply with six resolutions of the United Nations’ Security Council, especially Resolution 1929, that puts in place precise conditions for the lifting of sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic.

Under Obama’s guidance, that baseline was blurred into a demand that Iran modify minor aspects of its nuclear program. When Iran rejected even that, Obama changed the baseline again by accepting Iran as a “threshold” nuclear power, only demanding that it stay one year away from making a bomb for a period of 10 years.

Now Iran says that even that baseline is not acceptable.

The best option may be to return to the original baseline, that is to say the UN resolutions which, unlike what Kerry is trying to spin, are precise in content and from.

That baseline has several advantages.

First, it would stop the issue from becoming a football in Iranian and US domestic politics. It would also end the Iranian illusion that they are dealing with a pushover like Obama who is prepared to sacrifice US national interests in pursuit of personal grandeur.

The de-Americanization of the issue would also deprive Khomeinists from taking risks with Iran’s national security in the hope of thumbing their nose at the “Great Satan.”

A nuclear-armed Islamic Republic under a sinister regime with millenarian illusions is not just a problem for America, it is a danger for regional and world peace.

This does not mean that the US should be excluded from diplomatic efforts.

An ad hoc contraption with no clear mandate from anybody, the P5+1 group has no legal existence, no clearly established leadership, and no precise authority to report to.

This could be corrected by demanding the Security Council pass a new resolution appointing the P5+1, or a variation thereof, to a precise mission to negotiate over Iran’s compliance with the UN resolutions.

Of course, if Obama wishes to pursue his dream of charming the mullahs out of their turbans he could do so by initiating a separate set of talks focusing on bilateral issues of which there are plenty.

The original UN baseline, effaced by Obama, had several promising features. It included an Iranian accord to freeze its program pending a comprehensive plan to enable Iran to build a nuclear industry for peaceful purposes.

Iran, however, suddenly decided to reject the freeze in the hope of getting something better from Obama.

Back to the original baseline, the new negotiating team, which would include the US, could start by demanding that the freeze be reinstated.

The original baseline also included legal and constitutional measures committing Iran not to build nuclear weapons. There were precedents with several countries, notably Germany, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Kazakhstan using legal and constitutional systems to forswear nuclear weapons.

In 2008, Iran had indicated it was prepared to consider similar measures. When Obama seized leadership of the P5+1 talks, Iran wiggled its way out of that suggestion.

Instead, it claimed that Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei had issued a fatwa forbidding nuclear weapons. An excitable Obama seized upon this fatwa as a ray of hope, enabling Iran to backtrack on promises of legal measures.

In the end, however, neither Obama nor anyone else saw the non-existent fatwa.

By returning to the pre-Obama baseline, talks could focus on constitutional measures promised by Iran.

Back to the pre-Obama baseline, the UN would demand that Iran honor its promise of adopting the additional protocols of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The UN would also be able to renew its offer of linking Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity to its needs.

The “need-oriented” formula means that if and when Iran builds a nuclear power station it would be allowed to domestically produce the fuel required. (Right now, Iran has no nuclear power station that requires domestic fuel production. The fuel for its only plant in Helliyeh, built by the Russians, is supplied by Russia for its lifespan of 37 years.)

Under Obama, talks have focused on how much uranium Iran could enrich—uranium which it does not require. It is like demanding that a bald man be allowed no more than a dozen combs, a luxury which, by default, he does not need.

The Obama method has caused confusion and delayed a solution. It has persuaded the mullahs that the cost-benefit calculation is in their favor. The best thing Obama can do is to try, at least, to do no more harm.