Amid talk of the economy and jobs in this year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama called for Iran’s leaders to “recognise that now is the time for a diplomatic solution” over the country’s nuclear programme. He added: “we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon”.
Since being sworn into office in 2009, Obama has emphasised his preference for a diplomatic solution. That year, in a conscious break from the rhetoric of his predecessor, George W Bush, he offered an “extended hand” to those prepared to “unclench their fist”. Despite these warm words however, there has been little improvement in the stalemate since then. Iran has continued its nuclear programme, while stopping short of actually making a bomb. Such a move, they are aware, would most likely trigger US military action, an outcome that both sides are keen to avoid. Meanwhile, America and its allies have applied ever-harsher and more broad-ranging sanctions, which are causing considerable suffering for Iranian citizens. Iran’s currency is half as valuable as it was one year ago. Inflation and unemployment are high, and private businesses are suffering. Foreign exchange reserves are substantially depleted. In 2010, before sanctions really started to hit, GDP grew by around 6 per cent, but is expected to be flat in 2013. Rather than pressurising the government in Tehran into talks, these punitive measures appear to be having the opposite effect.
Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told state media: “The new administration, like its predecessors, has repeated the issue of talks between Iran and the U.S. And they say the ball is in Iran’s court. The ball is in your court.” He added: “you [America] hold a gun to Iran’s head and you expect to engage in dialogue. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by these things.” Sanctions and threats of war are certainly not making him more receptive to discussion.
Thus far, those talks that have gone ahead have been unsuccessful. Obama’s repeated call for a diplomatic solution came as talks between Iran and the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ended inconclusively. Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA’s deputy director, said that negotiators “could not finalise” an agreement that “once agreed, should facilitate the resolution of outstanding issues regarding possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme”. He said that no date had been set for further talks.
So as the stalemate continues, what is the way forward? The most obvious solution is compromise. In recent weeks, numerous analysts have suggested a partial loosening of sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to restrictions on its programme. US-based think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the priority for America is to stop Iran from continuing to produce higher-enriched uranium, as it has been tacitly accepted that the country will not stop enriching to lower levels. It suggests that Tehran might agree to this in return for a loosening of sanctions. All that has been offered so far is the lifting of an embargo on airliners’ spare parts, which Iran rejected during earlier talks. The idea that the west might need to offer bigger incentives to open dialogue has been expressed by a variety of organisations, including the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Patrick Clawson, the think-tank’s director of research, has called for Obama to offer “juicier carrots” to Tehran.
However, the chances of this happening are slim. Even if Obama wanted to offer some more attractive measures to tempt Iran into talks, it is not his decision alone. Many of the harsher sanctions were passed by Congress, which has a Republican majority and favours even more punitive measures. There is also pressure from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington – not to mention the risk that if America is seen to be giving too much leeway to Tehran, its Middle Eastern ally, Israel, could take matters into its own hands with military action. Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has hinted repeatedly that he would be willing to undertake a unilateral strike.
Relations between Iran and the US are characterised by dislike and mutual distrust. Given the precedent of Iraq, when sanctions imposed on against Saddam Hussein’s regime were not lifted until America invaded the country in 2003, many in Iran do not believe that sanctions will ever be lifted unless there is a change of regime.
Western intelligence suggests that Iran is not actually starting to build a bomb. If it did so, US-backed military action would be highly likely. Assuming Tehran stays on this side of America’s “red line”, the outlook for the foreseeable future appears to be more deadlocks and grandstanding. Obama claims that “now is the time for a diplomatic solution”, but that can only be the case if both sides acknowledge the need for a few concessions.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.