Will the U.S. back off Iran?

Lee Sustar looks at the political maneuvering behind Iran's agreement with the U.S. to hold talks on Iran's nuclear program.

Barack Obama flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister Gordon BrownBarack Obama flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

THE HEAT has gone out of the U.S.-led effort to punish Iran for its nuclear program--but only for now.

At an October 1 meeting in Geneva to discuss the issue, Iran agreed to open a newly discussed nuclear facility to international inspectors and negotiate with the U.S. and other major powers over its broader nuclear program. Iran also agreed in principle to ship much of its enriched uranium to Russia to be further enriched for use in nuclear medicine--a move that would dramatically decrease its stockpile of the substance. In return, the U.S. will set aside its plan to gain support for new economic sanctions against Iran, which has already been hit hard by such measures after earlier disputes.

News of the nuclear deal came following a bilateral meeting of U.S. and Iranian officials meeting in Geneva, held during a broader conference on the issue involving Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council--the U.S., France, Britain, China and Russia--along with Germany. As news of the agreement leaked out, the Israeli government backed off its threats to take military action against Iran.

Iran's agreement came after weeks of heightened tensions with the U.S. and the West. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stirred the pot by repeating his claim that the Nazi Holocaust of Jews didn't place during Second World War--which led Israel's right-wing government to start pounding the war drums. Then President Barack Obama, while at the Pittsburgh meeting of the Group of 20 largest economies, announced that Iran had developed a secret nuclear facility in the city of Qom.

In fact, Iran was already preparing to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the existence of the plant and its function--to enrich uranium--and was within IAEA guidelines. And U.S. intelligence agencies admittedly learned of the facility years ago when it was in the early stages of construction.

Nevertheless, Obama used the disclosure of the Qom plant's existence to sound like a George W. Bush-style hard cop. Backed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama raised the specter of more sanctions on Iran for pursuing what Western officials claim is a military-oriented project. The New York Times noted:

After months of talking about the need for engagement, Mr. Obama appears to have made a leap toward viewing tough new sanctions against Iran as an inevitability...American officials said that they expected the announcement to make it easier to build a case for international sanctions.

Gordon Brown got into the act, declaring, "The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the entire international community." President Dimitri Medvedev of Russia--which had previously sought to limit any sanctions on Iran--also condemned Tehran's nuclear program.

Next, Iran upped the ante with a test launch of missiles with a range of up to 1,200 miles--far enough to hit Israel and targets in Europe.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama made a splash at the United Nations by calling for world nuclear disarmament--but announced no concrete measures to do so, even though the U.S. alone has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the world many times over.

The media ignored that fact, focusing instead on the mere possibility that Iran could convert uranium from a legal nuclear energy program into a weapon. Nor did any establishment pundits consider Iran might be interested in developing a missile system because its neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, are currently occupied by U.S. troops, and that the U.S. is leading the push for sanctions.

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INDEED, THE latest sanctions proposed by the U.S. would be severe and provocative--such as an effort to try and block Iran from importing gasoline. Though one of the world's leading oil producers, Iran lacks the capacity to refine enough oil to meet domestic demand for gasoline.

Yet with the Geneva meeting came a change of tone. Iran, with an economy already hit by a decline in the price of oil and the impact of previous sanctions, agreed to allow inspections of the Qom facility, which it claims is to enrich fuel for civilian nuclear power.

That move, along with the plan to send uranium to Russia for further processing, marks a significant shift. It appears that Ahmadinejad was following the North Korean style of negotiations--raise the stakes with aggressive military or diplomatic measures in order to gain leverage in talks.

So inspectors will go to Qom, and a new round of talks on Iranian nukes will begin.

But if Iran blinked, so did the U.S. In order to get Russia on board, Obama had to agree to cancel George W. Bush's plans to install missile defense in Eastern Europe. Although the U.S. has always maintained that the missiles were intended to protect Europe from Iran, everyone knew they were designed to put pressure on Russia. So if Obama wanted Medvedev's help in pressing Iran, the U.S. had to pull the plug on the missile defense.

And even if the U.S. did try to impose sanctions via the UN Security Council, Russia and China would almost certainly have blocked the toughest measures, such as the ban on gasoline sales.

So after all Obama's tough talk, we're back to what the president promised on the campaign trail: to "engage" Iran. In fact, the Bush administration, despite making Iran the centerpiece of its "axis of evil," had already done so, relying on Tehran's influence to stabilize the situation in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

The hard-line neoconservatives in the Bush White House always chafed at that policy, however, and pushed the idea of a targeted military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. In fact, Iran offered to the Bush administration to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for a U.S. pledge never to attack Iran militarily. The U.S. refused.

The neocons' case against Iran was undercut in 2007 by a report by U.S. intelligence analysts, which concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and was years away from producing such a weapon. Moreover, Bush's Iraq debacle made even a limited U.S. strike against Iran far more difficult, both militarily and politically. Thus, the "realist" section of the U.S. foreign policy establishment backed Obama's "engagement" plans.

Still, no one should imagine that U.S. imperialism's approach to Iran has turned benign. For Washington, negotiations and military aggression are different means to the same end. Whether State Department officials or the Pentagon brass are taking the lead, the aim remains the same: consolidate U.S. control over the Persian Gulf--which, in turn, requires subordinating Iran to the U.S. agenda, one way or another.

As Iraq expert Michael Schwarz wrote:

It is not that Iran is a military threat to anyone, and especially to anyone they care about. It is because Iran is a political-economic threat to the U.S. dominance of the Middle East and its precious underground resource. The Obama administration, like its Bush predecessor, is unwilling to "peacefully coexist" with a regime that is unwilling subject itself to U.S. economic and political "leadership."

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OBAMA'S IRAN policy has been affected by Ahmadinejad's theft of that country's presidential elections in June and the ongoing repression of Iran's pro-democracy movement. For the U.S., Ahmadinejad is the best possible president of Iran--a holocaust denier who relies on an increasingly militarized state to maintain his regime. This makes it easier to build support for aggressive action in the U.S. and internationally.

And given that Iran is highly unlikely to abandon its nuclear program--which is, in fact, within the framework of IAEA rules--the U.S. can quickly shift back toward a more confrontational approach whenever the Obama administration concludes that it is useful to do so. As the New York Times noted, the possibility of sanctions still looms:

"This was a day very much for the engagement track of the two-track strategy," a senior American official said, with the second track--increased sanctions--to be discussed only if this new round of negotiations founders.

Ahmadinejad, too, seeks to benefit from the pattern of escalating crisis followed by calmer negotiations. Under pressure from the mass movement, he hopes to use the specter of confrontation with the U.S. and the West to pressure the opposition to line up behind him in the name of national unity. At the same time, however, Iran can't easily afford another round of sanctions at a time when Ahmadinejad's illegitimate government is trying to consolidate control.

Even so, while Ahmadinejad doesn't want an all-out confrontation with the West, he and his clique need brinksmanship. The more the U.S. and its allies intervene--or threaten to do so--the greater pretext Ahmadinejad has for cracking down on opponents he portrays as agents of Zionism and Western imperialism.

Therefore, what the media calls the "Iran nuclear crisis," won't go away, even if the Obama administration prefers talks over new sanctions at the moment. Obama himself stressed that point when discussing the deal with Iran. "We're not interested in talking for the sake of talking," he told reporters. "If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely."

Ever since the U.S. "lost" Iran in the 1979 revolution that toppled Washington's murderous ally, the Shah, successive presidents have alternately pressured and "engaged" the Islamist governments. At stake is not only pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf and control of vital oil and gas resources, but also the U.S. effort to project its influence deep into Central Asia--which means a continued, and aggressive, U.S. military presence in the region, whatever decision the Obama administration makes about Afghanistan.

Certainly it's a relief that aggressive U.S. and Western actions against Iran seem to have been set aside for the moment. No one, however, should be under the illusion that a permanent, peaceful solution is forthcoming. As long as Iran remains an obstacle to U.S. aims in the Middle East, the sanctions and threats will continue--and the antiwar movement will have to meet that challenge.