THIS IS OBAMA’S SECRET IRAN STRATEGY—ITS A LONG ONE SO I’VE MADE IT INTO PARTS—IF THIS JUST DOESN’T TAKE THE CAKE—WHAT WILL?
Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy:
2013-2014: part 4 of 6
Round Two, The Secret Backchannel–To hear him tell it today, what precipitated the thaw was a strategic shift by Tehran on the nuclear front. In his version of the story—let’s call it the “official version”—two factors account for the Iranian change of heart. One of them was American coercive diplomacy; the other was a new spirit of reform in Tehran. And the two were interrelated. The first, as Obama himself explained in the March 2014 interview cited earlier, had taken the form of “an unprecedented sanctions regime that so crippled the Iranian economy that [the Iranians] were willing to come to the table.” The second was a corollary of the first. The same sanctions regime had also helped bring to power the new government of Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate approach would in turn culminate in the November 2013 signing of the interim nuclear deal, which “for the first time in a decade halts their nuclear program.”
Obama’s version is an after-the-fact cocktail of misdirection and half-truths, stirred by him and his aides and served up with a clear goal in mind: to conceal Round Two of his Iran outreach. In early 2013, at the outset of his second term, Obama developed a secret bilateral channel to Ahmadinejad’s regime. When the full impact of this is taken into account, a surprising fact comes to light. The turning point in the American-Iranian relationship was not, as the official version would have it, the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. It was the reelection of Barack Obama in November 2012.
Indeed, the first secret meeting with the Iranians (that is, the first we know of) took place even earlier, in early July 2012, eleven months before Rouhani came to power. Jake Sullivan, who at the time was the director of policy planning in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, traveled secretly to Oman to meet with Iranian officials. The Obama administration has told us next to nothing about Sullivan’s meeting, so we are forced to speculate about the message that he delivered.
Most pertinent is the timing. At that moment, pressure was mounting on the president to intervene in Syria. Sullivan probably briefed the Iranians on Obama’s strong desire to stay out of that conflict, and may have sought Tehran’s help in moderating Assad’s behavior. But summer 2012 was also the height of the American presidential campaign. Perhaps Sullivan told the Iranians that the president was keen to restart serious nuclear negotiations after the election. Recall that this meeting took place shortly after a hot microphone had caught Obama saying to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important . . . to give me space. This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Whatever the answers to these questions, it is a matter of record that Obama opened his second term with a campaign of outreach to Tehran—a campaign that was as intensive as it was secret. By February 2013, a month after his inauguration, the backchannel was crowded with American officials. Not just Sullivan, but Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, National Security Council staffer Puneet Talwar, State Department non-proliferation adviser Robert Einhorn, and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice were all engaging their Iranian counterparts.
In April 2013, the Americans and their P5+1 partners met with Iranian negotiators in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they offered to relieve the sanctions regime in exchange for the elimination of Iran’s stockpiles of uranium that had already been enriched to 20 percent. This was concession number one, bowing to the longstanding Iranian demand for economic compensation immediately, before a final agreement could be reached. Even more important was concession number two, which permitted the Iranians to continue enriching uranium to levels of 5 percent—this, despite the fact that six United Nations Security Council resolutions had ordered Iran to cease all enrichment and reprocessing activities.
Iranian negotiators rejected these two gifts—or, rather, they pocketed them and demanded a third, the one they coveted the most. Hailing the proposals by their counterparts as a step in the right direction, they criticized them for failing to stipulate the Iranian “right to enrich.” There was a difference, they argued, between temporarily permitting Iran to enrich uranium to 5 percent and recognizing its inalienable right to do so. If Obama wanted a deal, he would have to agree to shred the Security Council resolutions by offering, up front, an arrangement that would end the economic sanctions on Iran entirely and that would allow the Iranians to enrich uranium in perpetuity. By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Iran, and not America, had compromised.
Obama’s acceptance of this condition, the third and most important American gift, is what made the Joint Plan of Action possible. The American negotiators transmitted the president’s acceptance to the Iranians in the backchannel, and then John Kerry sprang it on his hapless negotiating partners in November. We do not know when, precisely, Obama made this offer, but the Iranians set their three conditions before Rouhani took office.
In brief, the Iranian election was hardly the key factor that made the interim deal possible. But it did supply window dressing at home when it came to selling the deal to Congress and the American public. By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Rouhani’s embrace of the deal represented an Iranian, not an American, compromise. In truth, Obama neither coerced nor manipulated; he capitulated, and he acquiesced.
- Sources—ben rhodes, david sanger, nyt, leslie gelb, ehud barak, saud al-faisal, recep tayyip erdogan, jake sullivan, puneet talwar, susan rice, robert einhorn, denis mcdonough, the new yorker, david remnick, farred zakaria, javad zarif, lee smith, hudson inst.,