The Slow Checkmate on Iran

by Ryan B. Greer

This past December, The Economist published an opinion piece, “Playing Chess With Iran,” in which the author surmised that President Obama’s Iran strategy was more clever than his critics give him credit for (Economist 2010). Diplomacy, and how it addresses security threats like Iran’s nuclear program, is waged on many fronts and tends to be boiled down in mainstream public discourse to carrot-and-stick exchanges between the two parties; but there are always several moving pieces on the board, some rarely seem related to the overall objective but are integral to achieving objectives. As the West and other parties continue to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, judgments of progress should recognize the multifaceted nature of coaxing an adversary to their tipping point, rather than simply what the Obama administration says about Iran or whether opinions are changed in each iteration of the six-party talks. As the Iranian regime runs out of means to pursue nuclear weapons and support wanes amongst its people, it will become increasingly likely to open up to the demands of the U.S., from terminating its nuclear goals, to dropping support for terrorists and strengthening human rights.

After a second round of recent disarmament negotiations with Iran has proved fruitless, the President’s critics will no doubt rekindle their accusations of incompetence, whether it be related to his supposed “apology tour” abroad or soft approach to Iran itself. However, upon more scrutiny, it is clear that the administration’s approach has kept Iran’s most significant threat – its nuclear ambitions – from coming to fruition, while slowly lining up the other pieces on the chess board. From coalition-building to targeted sanctions, and from carrot-and-stick negotiations to (at least) tacit approval of tampering with Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, the Obama administration is lining up a tough and comprehensive diplomatic assault on Iran, and its results, though gradual, may prove significant.

Mainstream discussion of diplomatic pressure on Iran focuses on simplistic and direct approaches. For example, the six-party talks in December led to agreement only to hold more talks late last month, and as those negotiations fizzled out, the New York Times quoted a “senior Western diplomat” claiming that the point of the Istanbul negotiations was “to find out if Iran is serious” about negotiations, while another pointed out that “[e]very idea [the West] put[s] forward they find a reason not to take it up” (Erlanger 1/21/2011). The Iranian delegation declined to swap uranium for fuel rods for its Tehran reactor, allegedly because it can enrich its own uranium to power the plant (Erlanger 1/24/2011). While Tehran’s looking the West’s gift horse in the mouth will undoubtedly dominate the debate amongst pundits, more salient to global security is that the Iranian regime has come to the negotiating table twice in as many months, and are running out of options for defying the West unfettered.

A Coalition of the Eager

Iran’s reach may extend beyond its borders, but its more powerful enablers are gradually becoming more open to reigning it in.

At first glance, the recent visit by China’s President Hu Jintao appeared as simply an effort to boost trade relations and cool tensions between the two countries by offering deferential respect to the Chinese leader on American soil. But the visit itself began with a small private dinner whose attendees were not business leaders or members of the press to report handshaking between the leaders of the two superpowers; the dinner was for the presidents, a couple senior aides to Mr. Jintao, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Purportedly to discuss human rights and currency valuation, the dinner with the United States’ top diplomat and the national security advisor unlikely missed the opportunity to address the subject of Iran. Likewise, with Russia, coverage of President Medvedev’s trip to the U.S. may have been dominated by discussion of his trip to a local burger joint, but likely marked the start of pressure for ratification of the new START treaty, which Russia ratified last week. It seems more likely that the revised nuclear disarmament agreement was less a move symbolizing fear of a new Cold War, and more a headline for the international community: that nukes are a weapon of the past and states increasing their reserves will be under the watchful eye of two of the world’s biggest militaries. Russia may continue to deny any nefarious nuclear plans on Tehran’s part, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that “Iran should comply with all the demands by the IAEA and the UN Security Council” (Interfax 1/25/2011). This implies that Russia is open to inspectors going into Iran to ensure only peaceful energy pursuits, but likewise implies that if inspectors find attempts to weaponize, or if Iran denies them access, Russia would be on board with U.S. actions to contain the rogue nation.

Closer to home, some of Iran’s neighbors may relish its support or even thrive from it, but others are more supportive of the West in private than their public face may suggest. In Lebanon, Hizbullah has effectively taken control of the government, a feat not easily accomplished without Iranian (and Syrian) support, which may lead the government’s next iteration to strike a partnership with Tehran that will make the West uneasy. However, other neighbors, even aside from Israel – the public face of Iran’s local quarrels – are increasingly concerned by Iran’s quest for nuclear enrichment. According to diplomatic cables obtained by the New York Times, the United Arab Emirates is fearful of Iran obtaining nuclear capabilities, Bahrain would like to see Iran’s enrichment terminated “by any means necessary,” and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia implored the U.S. to use military strikes against Iran to “cut the head off the snake” (Colvin 2010). Arab counties with majority Muslim populations will give America’s struggle against Iran serious credibility, particularly with respect to building a local coalition that can isolate its influence.

Tehran’s Sacrificed Pawns

One salient outcome of President Obama’s global outreach effort was the acceptance – on a global scale – of last summer’s sanctions. Russia and China in particular have histories of dragging their feet to reprimand Tehran, but signed onto the UN sanctions passed in June to target the military and financial institutions alleged to be assisting in the nuclear enrichment process.

Sanctions are never perfect solutions to global security concerns: critics claim they harm populations not necessarily complicit in the nefarious acts they aim to punish, or else that they are skirted and dangerous behavior continues unfettered. However, contemporary sanctions (unlike the 1960 sanctions against Cuba, for example) tend to be targeted against only those perpetrating the human rights or security threats at bar; in the case of Iran, the focus is mainly on Iranian banks, members of the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). In some cases, other countries may assist Iran in sanctions avoidance, as Jonathan Schanzer in his piece in The Atlantic alleges Egypt is doing through a joint financial institution (Schanzer 2010). In other cases, Iran works on its own, such as the Iranian regime’s “ongoing creation and use of new front companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, and other deceptive measures to protect IRISL and AIO and to advance its proliferation activities” (Treasury 2011). But every measure Iran takes to undermine U.S. sanctions, America answers through new designations and other enforcement mechanisms. Soon, the cost of avoidance will overtake the benefit.

Iran’s attempts to circumvent U.S. efforts and find itself a place in international commerce are a sign that the sanctions are working. Domestically, the regime pledged to end its energy subsidies and within a day of the announcement, gas prices went up 75%, suggesting that the plan could lead to crippling inflation (Economist 2011). Moreover, now that China has reduced its oil imports from Iran and global support for sanctions will prevent the benefits incumbent with membership in the international financial and commercial sectors, it is unlikely that domestic demand will be sufficient to keep domestic commodities markets afloat. The recent concern over energy subsidies and the willingness to come back to the negotiating table in regards to its nukes undoubtedly result from worry in Iran beyond uranium for its Tehran plant, but a culmination of global economic pressure that may not be the tipping point, but is substantial enough thorns in Iran’s side for it to reconsider its behavior.

The Trojan Horse… Er, Worm

Those prone to panic may be concerned at how slowly the chess match against Iran is proceeding, while the Islamic Republic is pursing nuclear capabilities. It is unclear where it came from, but a computer virus known as Stuxnet has infected the operating system at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, corrupting a fifth of the nuclear centrifuges and delaying Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities; and repair of the damage will be difficult with sanctions that will prevent the import of related high-tech machinery. According to the New York Times, there is evidence suggesting the worm was a joint Israel-American project; and even if that is not the case, it is unlikely that either the Israelis or the Obama administration are going to offer Tehran a helping hand to fix their centrifuges; and Secretary Clinton has signaled that the worm may set Iran back several years (Broad et al. 2011). Complex enough that it will not be defeated any time soon, but gentle enough not to warrant reprisal, Stuxnet represents a new era of conflict: non-lethal, targeted, cyber attacks against only severe threats to global peace and security. Halting its enrichment not only reduces Iran’s bargaining power, but severely limits the threats to global security that it can create, freeing up time for the U.S. to slowly pursue coalition-building against a nuclear Iran.

Check…

If the U.S. can maintain global support for Iran’s disarmament while Iran’s most powerful bargaining chip is handcuffed and its economy falters, the six parties may be called back into session in the near future. None of the administration’s moves appear powerful enough to be the tipping point in changing Iran’s path, but it is gradually chipping away at Iran’s lifelines. If future negotiations include incentives more significant than energy assistance, and Iran has more to risk as it runs out of global partners, perhaps serious advancement can be made. Even if not, the international isolation may broaden public support for the movements seen after the last election to oust President Ahmadinejad; as with the public’s the ruling clerics’ patience with the (at least verbally) belligerent political leader can only last so long, and the next administration may be more open to negotiation. In the meantime, the Obama administration’s efforts have kept the rogue nation surrounded, while calmly sitting back and waiting for it to walk into a checkmate.

The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent those of Georgetown University or any government entities. The author is a graduate student representing only himself and not any previous or current employers.

Sources Cited

William J. Broad, John Markoff, and David E. Sanger. “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay.” New York Times. 15 January 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/world/middleeast/16stuxnet.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp

Colvin, Ross. “’Cut off head of snake’ Saudis told U.S. on Iran.” Reuters. 29 November 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6AS02B20101129

“Playing Chess with Iran: One Game Barack Obama Has Not Yet Fumbled.” The Economist: Lexington. 9 December 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17677840?story_id=17677840

“Iran’s Struggle: The regime tightens its belt and its fist.” The Economist. 13 January 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/17900396?story_id=17900396

Erlanger, Steven. “Little Progress Is Seen in Iran Talks.” New York Times. 21 January 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/world/middleeast/22nuke.html?_r=2&hp

Erlanger, Steven. “Citing Options, Iran Rejects Uranium Deal, Diplomat Says.” New York Times. 24 January 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/world/middleeast/25iran.html?ref=iran

“Russia Against Unilateral Sanctions On Iran, Foreign Minister Says.” Moscow Interfax in Russian. 25 January 2011. Obtained from Open Source Center.

Schanzer, Jonathan. “How Egypt Is Helping Iran to Circumvent Sanctions.” The Atlantic. 15 November 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/11/how-egypt-is-helping-iran-to-circumvent-sanctions/66557/

U.S. Treasury Department. “Treasury Designation of Companies, Entities for Iran Sanctions.” Press Release. 13 January 2011. http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2011/January/20110114130747su0.9810908.html?CP.rss=true

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