By M K Bhadrakumar
The range of interpretations given by the small group of journalists invited to United States President Barack Obama’s briefing on Iran last week is truly amazing. What comes to mind is Mona Lisa, the famous song sung in a soft baritone voice six decades ago, before Obama was born, by another African-American from Chicago, Nat King Cole:
Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa,
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there and they die there.
Was there a “mystic smile” on Obama’s lips when he briefed the media? David Ignatius of the Washington Post was certain
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Obama put the issue of negotiating with Iran “firmly back on the table”, but Peter David of The Economist was equally sure Obama “unveiled no new policy”.
Marc Ambinder and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic thought Obama was grandstanding before his domestic audience about the effectiveness of his policy of engagement joined with tightening the squeeze on Iran economically and politically.
Prominent commentator Robert Kagan drew satisfaction that Obama signaled “there was no new diplomatic initiative [on Iran] in the offing”. On the whole, the neo-conservatives in the US are delighted that the glove on their president’s fist hides high-quality steel.
They all are probably right in their own way. However, against the backdrop of the upcoming US Congressional elections in November, one main purpose of the briefing was to reassure Israel and the influential pro-Israel lobby in US politics that the Obama presidency’s Iran policy of harping on the theme of engagement meant no real harm to the interests of the Jewish state.
The heart of the matter is that the US policy on Iran is again at a crossroads. Obama made the case that he tried to engage Iran early in his presidency, but Tehran failed to respond. But, in actuality, did he really try? While he made overtures to Tehran, sections within his own administration strove for “regime change” in Iran and undertook covert operations. Iran was given the chance to negotiate at gunpoint.
At some stage after last year’s presidential election in Iran, Washington convinced itself about the scope for a “color revolution” in Tehran. Whereas, the priority should have been to negotiate with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was well ensconced in power and could take tough decisions. Obama instead tried to enter into correspondence with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, forgetting entirely that he himself is but a caesar.
Second, Obama claimed as a pillar of his Iran strategy the emphasis he placed on his nuclear non-proliferation agenda by living up to the US’s own responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and organizing a successful NPT conference. Yet, as the world sees it, US policies are riddled with contradictions and in effect are shredding the treaty to pieces.
Moscow’s course correction
However, it was his “reset” with Russia that Obama presented as the third crucial leg of the US’s Iran policy. In short, Washington takes pleasure that Moscow not only betrayed Tehran but also lent a hand to encourage China, the European Union and Canada also to spurn Iran.
Russia dumped Iran most opportunistically. But anyone who has been opportunistic once can do so again, and the US could already be sensing it.
Nothing else can explain the alacrity with which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed on Wednesday to the US Senate to act favorably on the “new START”, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia signed by Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in April and which needs to be ratified by the US Senate before it goes into effect.
However, Moscow, which places great store in the START treaty for Russia’s resurgence on the world stage, calculates that ratification requires 67 votes in the US Senate, which means the Obama administration would have to mobilize all 59 Democrats and independents and find at least another six Republicans to get the “new START” ratified. So far the only Republican senator who has publicly committed to support ratification is Richard Lugar from Indiana.
Moscow seems to factor in that the policy shift on Iran has gone too far without commensurate returns and a course correction is useful. Kremlin rhetoric has tapered off. A new ambivalence has crept into the status of Russia’s deal for supply of S-300 missiles to Iran.
Russian company Lukoil last week supplied refined petroleum products to Iran, ignoring the US threat of retaliation – and that too, in partnership with Chinese oil company Zhuhai Zhenrong. Moscow received the Iranian oil minister to discuss bilateral cooperation and Russian officials have spoken of the likely commissioning of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in August. The diplomatic front too shows signs of stirrings. Russia has joined China to criticize the US and the European Union’s moves to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran.
Reset of US-Russia reset?
On Monday, the Iranian ambassador in Moscow, Reza Sajjadi, visited the Russian Foreign Ministry to have a “fruitful exchange of views” with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin regarding “themes related to the development of mutually beneficial Russian-Iranian economic and trade cooperation”. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, “Mutual interest was expressed in reinvigorating bilateral collaboration in this sphere.”
On Tuesday, Sajjadi was back to meet First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov. A Russian statement said, “The parties exchanged views on issues of the bilateral, regional and international agenda with particular focus on Russian-Iranian political dialogue and joint work aimed at resolving key international and regional problems.” (Emphasis added.)
The US’s reset with Russia seems to be the shakiest leg in its Iran policy. Curiously, this problematic leg also happens to be made of a mixed alloy cast from Russian and Chinese metals.
The US’s successive acts of provocation against China in the Asia-Pacific in recent weeks could have fallout on Beijing’s stance regarding the Iran issue. Significantly, the US has put Beijing on notice publicly. US special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control Robert Einhorn, who will proceed to Beijing later this month amid the rising tensions in Sino-US relations, said:
We want China to be a responsible stakeholder in the international system and that means cooperating with UN Security Council resolutions. It means not backfilling, not taking advantage of the responsible self-restraint of other countries.
One concern a number of countries expressed when approached to take measures against Iran is that “if we practice restraint, China will fill in behind, China will take advantage of our restraint”.
For Iran, the stakes are high, too. Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister Hossein Noghrehkar said last week China had invested US$29 billion in Iran’s oil sector and another $11 billion worth investment is in the pipeline, including for the setting up of seven refineries.
To be sure, Beijing’s perspective on the US-Russia reset comes into play. Beijing seems to estimate that the US-Russia reset has not gone much beyond Obama’s “Burger Diplomacy” with Medvedev. On Monday, a Chinese commentary took a good look at Moscow’s Iran policy. It said:
As an ally of Iran with many strategic and economic interests in the country, Russia’s pro-Western stance is unlikely to last … Iran not only represents an important regional ally for Russia but also a useful bargaining tool in diplomatic relations with the West, especially the US. For now, Russia has decided its relations with the US are more important than its relations with Iran.
Russia’s pandering to Western countries has brought more negative than positive results … Russia has gained little from its pro-Western stance. Meanwhile, Russians have voiced more doubts and criticism over Medvedev. Against such a backdrop, Russia cannot afford to lose Iran. Therefore, in the near future Russia is very likely to soften its tone toward Iran.
All in all, Obama’s “Mona Lisa smile” last week needs to be put in perspective. On the one hand, he apparently indicated to Tehran he was leaving open a “pathway” for a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue and for a deal that allows the latter to maintain its civilian nuclear program as long as “a clear set of steps” could be negotiated that are “sufficient to show that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons”.
Meanwhile, Obama proposed a “separate track” for talks regarding Afghanistan, given the two countries’ “mutual interest” in fighting the Taliban. He said Iran should be a “part” of the regional talks about stabilizing Afghanistan and “could be a constructive partner”.
The words were conciliatory. On the other hand, Obama insisted the US had the upper hand, the Iranians had been diplomatically isolated and sanctions were already “biting” and that, in this overall context, he was merely being logical in driving home the advantage by choosing to re-engage Iran.
He also offered vaguely hawkish hints regarding the option in reserve to use force if diplomacy fails. Nat King Cole sang, “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?”
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.