Iran Again: Obama's Strategy May Pay Off

Along with the security snafu in Benghazi, Topic A on foreign policy in the White House race has been Iran. The Islamic Republic is an easy whipping boy in U.S. politics, and so it has been again for many months. Mitt Romney has blustered relentlessly that Iran is four years closer to a nuclear weapon during Obama's term. His Alpha Male threats earlier this year were red meat to his right-wing base, and possibly Jewish voters in particular, in crucial states like Florida.

Now, however, we have word that Iran may be taking steps that could help resolve the standoff. On the most contentious aspect of the nuclear issue, they are openly speculating about suspending high-level uranium enrichment in exchange for a vow from the West to lift sanctions. A report in Al Arabiya alleged that Iran would suspend the higher-level enrichment of uranium (to 20 percent purity) as a goodwill gesture in advance of talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, the so-called P5+1.

This now appears to be an overstatement. The speaker quoted, a key member of Iran's parliament, actually made it conditional: "In a situation where Iran is willing to suspend enriching 20 percent uranium as a good gesture, it is expected that 5+1 starts lifting sanctions."

What is interesting in this, however, is that it follows on widespread reports that a former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, has been actively talking to UN officials about the nuclear issue. Valayati has been for more than a decade the close adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei. The prospect that he is directly involved in the negotiating mix is certainly significant.

It follows many weeks of financial hardship and controversy in Iran as the broad and tight sanctions the U.S. and the Security Council have imposed take effect. This has been Obama's strategy, and it seems to be bearing fruit, however harshly.

With the expected Obama victory on Tuesday, the time has come to settle the outstanding differences between the United States and Iran. The long-festering nuclear issue can be resolved if the United States agrees to accept Iran's enrichment (new enrichment at a low rate of 5 percent), and Iran agrees to tight monitoring and transparency. As is typical of arms control negotiations, there are immense complexities -- in this case, to what level Iran would be able to enrich uranium, and how the monitoring of enrichment and current stockpiles would be designed and implemented.

But the outlines of a deal have been apparent for many months. If the devil is in the details, it is also in not reaching agreement on the details. While Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has retreated a bit from his vows to strike Iran's nuclear facilities this autumn, and despite powerful denunciations of Israel's threats by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chance of Israel attacking Iran within the next year cannot be discounted. Reports emerged Sunday that Netanyahu sought to ready Israel's air force for a strike on Iran in 2010, only to be resisted by the general staff because their capability was too thin.

An Israeli attack would not only bring retaliation upon Israel, but would radicalize Arab transition countries, probably bring down the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, and escalate the civil war in Syria. It would be very costly in civilian losses in Iran, moreover, as a new study documents at some length. The study states that 70,000 civilians could be killed or maimed in a Bhopal-like disaster, due to hundreds of tons of highly toxic uranium hexafluoride being stored at Iran's facilities. While that estimate is likely high, it reflects human damage if Israel only bombs nuclear sites. An attack could be much more ambitious.

For a country that, according to U.S. intelligence, has no nuclear weapons program, that scenario of thousands of casualties is rather sobering. Since the United States would inevitably be blamed and possibly brought into the attack (since blame would be assessed anyway), our dodgy standing in the Muslim world would be undercut again for many years to come.

At the same time, a cyberwar seems to be underway, begun by the Stuxnet computer virus that infected Iran's nuclear program, and allegedly answered by Iran's attack on Saudi Aramco, the giant oil company.

Without serious talks, this cycle of violence and threats can only escalate as Iran proceeds with nuclear development. So a diplomatic solution is a must, and it would be fitting for Obama to cash in his chips and secure a nuclear deal that would take this venomous issue off the global agenda. He has handled the Iran situation with great dexterity. The final act of this finesse is to be sure Iran can continue to enrich at a low level--their absolute right under international law--while getting from them agreement to keep their activities completely transparent and subject to intrusive inspections, as is the world's right.

There's a window between the U.S. presidential election and the Iranian election (June 2013) that would perhaps be the best opportunity to move forward. That could be a tacit acceptance of the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium or something short of that, with international controls over stockpiles, and a reduction or elimination of sanctions gradually as the new monitoring system proves itself. (Uranium 235 must be enriched to 90 percent purity or more to be "weapons grade.")

The Romney campaign has tried to make Obama seem weak on Iran, which the Iranians would find laughable. Obama has nimbly avoided an irreversible commitment to the hardline agenda of setting red lines and negotiating on the old formula of "no enrichment, ever." As noted, Iran has a right to enrichment, as long as it follows its legal obligations. Its transparency is what has been most contested, and it's within its power to resolve those doubts.

The Iran issue is central to the right-wing mantra on Obama's foreign policy as consistently showing "weakness." It's doubtful that this GOP narrative is gaining much traction electorally, and that ineffectiveness derives, I expect, from Obama's handling of Iran in particular (as well as taking down bin Laden and Gaddafi, of course). He has been tough and consistent, and at the same time has avoided the triumphalism that would make getting a deal more difficult. So, now, he is perfectly situated to move forward in the negotiations and take this nettlesome issue off his second term agenda.