Does Obama really want a deal with Iran?

The meeting in Kazakhstan next week between Iran and the P5+1 seems destined to fail.

To match Analysis IRAN-OIL/ASIA
The Iranian rial has lost 40 percent of its value since tough new sanctions were placed on it last year [Reuters]

Almaty, Kazakhstan, is in the eye of the volcano next Tuesday, when the P5+1 – the five permanent UN Security Council members, US, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany – meet again with an Iranian delegation over Iran’s nuclear programme.

The record shows that all 16 US intelligence agencies know Tehran is not working on a nuclear weapon. In a real negotiation, there would be a credible US offer on the table. There is none. This suggests what Washington really wants is to maintain – and turbo-charge – its harsh sanctions package. 

Let’s review the mechanism of this “negotiation”. Only a couple of weeks ago, on February 6, a new provision of US sanctions turned the screw on what has been known so far as the “gold-for-gas” trade.

Ankara has been paying Tehran in Turkish lira for its imported gas; Iran then used the money – held in Turkish Halkbank – to buy gold. Now the new sanctions strictly impose what Iran is allowed to buy with its Turkish lira; only food, medicine and industrial products.

Right on cue, Western corporate media again gloated how Iran is “frozen out of the global banking system”. Yet there’s absolutely no guarantee these latest sanctions will work.

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Gold will still be part of the picture. A Turkish bank may be threatened with exile from the Western-controlled financial system. But Russian – and Chinese – banks will cautiously find a way to circumvent this, and fill the void. As for Iran, it has decades-old experience of being sanctioned to death – and adapting to it.     

Turkey will still need to import natural gas from Iran – at 40 percent, its number one supplier. The other major supplier is Russia; for all of Prime Minister Erdogan’s erratic behaviour, Ankara would never commit the strategic suicide of depending on only one energy source.

So the only loser in this scenario will be Turkey. Why? Because Washington says so. 

Now look at Washington’s offer to Tehran; we suspend the gas-for-gold sanctions if you completely shut down the underground Fordow uranium enrichment plant. Not by accident, Fordow would be the most difficult to destroy among Iran’s installations in the event of that perennial “all options are on the table” – a US/Israeli attack.  

Right on cue, on Monday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry, via spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, went straight to the point; “Lately they have said ‘Shut down Fordow, stop (uranium) enrichment, we will allow gold transactions’… They want to take away the rights of a nation in exchange for allowing trade in gold.”

Thus Tehran has duly noted that Washington is not offering to lift UN sanctions; nor lifting unilateral US and EU sanctions; nor ending what amounts to economic war against Tehran – one of the key themes I detailed in this interview by young Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari.

Iraqisation ahead

No “gas-for-gold” for Iran is, for all practical purposes, an attempt to revive the ghastly “oil-for-food” in place in Iraq up to the 2003 US invasion/occupation.

And yet, even under a de facto Western trade blockade, the leadership in Tehran will still be plugged into Asian-wide markets – with the added incentive, from the point of view of vast swathes of the developing world, of moving deeper along the path of ditching the petrodollar.

Let’s look at the leadership in Tehran. They fought the bitter 8-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Politically, the war made them. They do favour the “Japanese option”, or latency period, in nuclear terms – as in mastering the technology and the know-how to build a nuclear weapon on short notice as the ultimate deterrent. In fact nearly 30 nations – apart from Japan – also qualify. 

Last Saturday in Tabriz, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated:

We do not want to build nuclear weapons. Not because America would be upset if we do so. It is rather what we have decided. We believe that nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and should not be built; and whatever weapons there are in the world should be destroyed. This is what we believe in; and this has got nothing to do with you (Americans).

When the Supreme Leader added if Iran “had decided to possess nuclear weapons, no power could have prevented us”, he was in fact expanding on the “Japanese option”; even if Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, nor is working on a nuclear weapon, if it is cornered and needs a nuclear weapon as dissuasion, it keeps its options open.

It seems that the powers that be didn’t get the message in Washington – or in Paris and London. Western arrogance, the record shows, is limitless. Assuming they know better, the usual Western diplomat suspects and analysts are betting a hardcore sanctions package will force Tehran to cry uncle.

What a bunch of useless people. Step on a plane. Go to Iran. Talk to Iranians. And try to learn something.

If they ever did, they would learn that for Iranians, a major power must be on the cutting edge of science – which is nuclear technology. A simple survey of Iranian media and blogosphere shows that from ultra-conservatives to reformists, everyone agrees Iran has the right to nuclear technology, as a nation subscribing to the NPT.

Iran needs nuclear energy for electricity because it imports too much refined oil. For the moment, Iran may be selling less oil because of the sanctions. But that, on one hand, increases the global price of oil (losers, in this case, are once again the Europeans); and Iran’s own oil is preserved for the future – when oil prices will be much higher.

Washington, for its part, tends to behave like the blind leading the blind. It’s as if no “analyst” bothered to study the last 150 years of Iranian history – no, watching Oscar-contender flick Argo does not qualify; the key theme is anti-imperial struggle.

Britain gave Iran countless ultimatums. Yet in the Persian way, if you submit, you’re a national traitor, while those who refuse to submit are heroes even if they lose, like Mossadegh in 1953.

The current nuclear drama is a remix/replay of the oil nationalisation drama of 1951-1953, when Iran also strived to become self-sufficient, and master of its own natural resources. Washington/London, at the time, not only gave ultimatums but also promoted an infamous coup.

After the Shah was toppled in early 1979, no need to mention that since then the West has been threatening Iran non-stop. 

No more Japanese option?

Professional optimists may argue that judgment should be suspended – at least for a while – on the Obama 2.0 administration’s Iran intentions.  

Yet it’s helpful to remember that even during the two terms of reformist President Khatami, Washington never made a serious offer to Iran – as in a full stop to the regime change obsession; the lifting of sanctions; and allowing Europe to freely invest in Iran (to Europe’s benefit). This would have done wonders to help the reformist movement in Iran.  

Now we’ve come to a new low, where even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can say something as noxious as, “We should not give much more time to the Iranians, and we should not waste time… We have seen what happened with the DPRK.”

It’s as if this time the head of the UN himself – not George “Axis of Evil” Bush – is calling for a war on Iran under the pretext of non-existent WMDs.

What this actually does is to sabotage the talks in Almaty even before the fact. Or Ban Ki-moon is supplementing his UN wages with part-time job for Bibi Netanyahu, giving diplomacy a little more time before Israel finally convinces Washington to bomb Iran.   

Brussels may gloat that Iran has lost a staggering $46 billion in oil revenues since last year’s turbocharged sanctions – with the rial losing 40 percent of its value. The Iranian population may have been the losers, but the Tehran leadership is stronger than ever; now more than ever they have no problem blaming the West for Iran’s predicament.

Working towards a real US-Iran deal would mean no regime change; Iran recognised as an important power in southwest Asia; no more sanctions; no more preventing other countries from investing in Iran; and fool proof Iranian guarantees that its nuclear programme is only civilian.

This would pave the way for Iran to solidify itself as the biggest and most dynamic economy in the Middle East and southwest Asia.

It doesn’t look like we’re heading this way. In a forthcoming book, Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies – and, crucially, a former Obama administration adviser – admits the famous “dual track” of sanctions combined with diplomacy “was not even dual. It relied on one track, and that was pressure… Engagement was a cover for a coercive campaign of sabotage, economic pressure and cyber-warfare”.

Echoes from Tehran suggest the Supreme Leader believes all the hype by the Obama 2.0 administration about direct talks with Iran is a trap. From his point of view, Almaty would only be serious if Washington eased the whole sanctions package – and not just easing gas-for-gold in exchange for closing down Fordow. 

Obama could do… something – even over the collective dead body of virtually the whole of Capitol Hill, for whom Iran is beyond evil.

Previewing a grand bargain in a not too distant future, Obama could, for instance, release Iranian assets frozen since the hostage crisis in 1979 (no, heroic Argo does not refer to that); he could allow the sale of spare parts for Iran’s ageing fleet of Boeings; he could tell the Treasury Department and the State Department to grant exemptions to Western companies who want to do business in Iran.

And yet a case can still be made that Obama 2.0 tactics are an extension of the Bush-Cheney era’s foreign policy; threats, diversions, ever shifting red lines, “all options are on the table”; and sanctions, sanctions and more sanctions.

No wonder Almaty may be carrying immensely low expectations. Anyway, nothing substantial will be decided before the Iranian presidential elections in June. But if the P5+1 does not get its act together – and start behaving like adults – sooner or later Tehran might be severely tempted to abandon the “Japanese option”. For good.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).