This morning, I noted that Iran’s government is telling the Iranian people that the Obama administration has consented to Iranian enrichment of uranium, thereby dismaying our European allies. I linked to, but did not discuss in detail, a Time article that appeared today. The Time article was based on interviews with Obama administration officials and was intended to put a positive spin on the administration’s effort to engage with Iran. Now, news from Vienna, where representatives of Iran, the U.S. and other nations are meeting, allows us to put the whole story together.
The Time article is the best place to start. It breathlessly describes President Obama’s personal involvement in negotiations with Iran, and the genesis of what the administration considered to be a brilliant plan:
President Barack Obama has a personal stake in the outcome of Monday’s meeting in Vienna between Western and Iranian nuclear experts on the future of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium. That’s because, Administration sources tell TIME, Obama personally weighed in three times during secret, multiparty negotiations with the Iranians over the last four months….
The backroom talks began in June, when Iranian officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency their country was running out of fuel for an aging research reactor built for the Shah in 1967 by American technicians. …
“We very quickly saw an opening here,” says a senior Administration official involved in the multiparty negotiations that ensued, speaking on condition of anonymity. The U.S. realized it could arrange for the manufacture of the specialized plates from an unorthodox source: the stash of low-enriched uranium Iran has produced in violation of U.N. Security Council demands at its massive Natanz uranium-enrichment plant over the past several years. The U.S., Israel and others had estimated that the Iranian stockpile was enough — if Iran kicked out inspectors and repurposed its enrichment facilities to enrich uranium to weapons grade — to produce material for a single atom bomb. So, the idea that Iran might agree to send most of it abroad to be turned into harmless plates for the research reactor seemed an opportune way to defuse tensions.
In early July, Obama traveled to Moscow, where his top nonproliferation aide, Gary Samore, floated a proposal to the Russians: If Iran would agree to export a supply of LEU to Moscow, the Russians could enrich it to the level needed to power the research reactor, and then the French, who had been brought into the discussions, could turn it into the specialized plates that are used to produce the isotopes. The plates, which Iran does not have the capacity to turn into weapons-grade uranium, would then be sent back to Tehran. “The Russians immediately said, ‘Great idea,’ ” says the senior Administration official. …
The Americans wanted to make sure the Iranians weren’t going to pull a fast one and persuade the Russians to get the material for the research-reactor fuel from a source other than Iran’s own stockpile. When President Obama met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in New York City at the U.N. General Assembly in late September, he pressed the Russian to “confirm at the level of the President that this whole deal hinged on it being Iran providing the fuel,” says the senior Administration official. The official says Medvedev agreed.
Obama then had a further phone conversation with ElBaradei late in September to confirm the details of the deal, which was finally announced at the Oct. 1 Geneva talks between Iran and the key Western powers, Russia and China. At those talks, U.S. negotiator, William Burns, had a one-on-one conversation with his Iranian counterpart to confirm the amount of uranium involved in the deal, and they agreed to the Oct. 19 meeting to determine details of the transfer.
That was the background of today’s meeting. Administration officials were careful to tell Time that they “were not particularly optimistic” and that the deal could “break down over details.” Still, they thought it had potential to be a win-win:
[B]oth sides have reasons to seek progress: if the deal were to go forward, the U.S. would have succeeded in securing most of Iran’s existing stockpile against weaponization. Iran, for its part, could see the deal as legitimizing their enrichment of uranium in violation of U.N. demands.
So what happened today? Iran repudiated the deal. Now, Iran wants a foreign country, France or someone else, to ship it the nuclear material it needs for civilian purposes, but it wants to keep its own enriched uranium at home:
The move came as Iranian officials held talks with representatives of America, France and Russia in Vienna. An earlier meeting in Geneva on Oct 1 had yielded an agreement which some saw as a possible breakthrough.
Iran has amassed at least 1.4 tons of low-enriched uranium inside its underground plant in Natanz. If this was further enriched to weapons-grade level – a lengthy process – it would be enough for one nuclear weapon.
But Iran agreed to export 75 per cent of this stockpile to Russia and then France, where it would have been converted into fuel rods for use in a civilian research reactor in Tehran. This would have been a significant step towards containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Before talks, however, Iranian officials signalled they would renege. “Iran wants to directly buy highly-enriched uranium without sending its own low-level uranium out of the country,” reported a state television channel.
Remember the “win-win” contemplated by the Obama administration? We would gain because Iran’s enriched uranium would be shipped out of the country rather than be weaponized, and Iran would gain because the deal would, in effect, legitimize Iran’s secret and illegal uranium enrichment program. So what has happened is that our part of the deal fell through, but Iran is nevertheless using the negotiations to claim that the Obama administration has acceded to its nuclear enrichment program. Iran’s Fars News Agency reported today:
Representatives from Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and three western states have convened in two-day talks in Vienna on October 19-20 to discuss supply of nuclear fuel for Tehran reactor.
Informed sources close to the talks in Vienna said that the US has in a series of secret meetings informed its European partners of Washington’s decision on acceptance of uranium enrichment in Iran.
The sources reiterated that a number of Washington’s EU allies have voiced strong protest against the decision, calling it a too big concession to Iran and a second blow to their stance by the US administration after the White House gave up suspension of enrichment activities in Iran as a precondition for talks with the Islamic Republic.
So that’s the fruit of Obama’s foray into personal diplomacy and engagement with Iran over the last four months. This is what Obama refers to as “smart diplomacy.”
UPDATE: An InstaPundit reader makes a good point:
Now we know why Obama turned his back on Iranian protesters. Note that the secret negotiations began in June. What else went on in June in Iran? Oh yeah… those pesky election results protests.
Basically, he turned his back on the Iranian people because that whole free election fight of theirs wasn’t nearly as important as the nuclear deal he was working out with Iran’s regime. Too bad the regime couldn’t be trusted to actually live up to its end of the bargain. Big surprise there, that you can’t trust political leaders who believe in silencing their own people…
Maybe that should serve as an object lesson to us about Obama…
That’s one of the problems with personal diplomacy–you get too much invested in the person on the other side of the table.