National Security Network

Iran: Diplomacy Builds Pressure

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Report 21 September 2011

Iran Iran Ahmadinejad iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad United Nations United Nations General Assembly

President Obama stepped to the podium this morning at the United Nations General Assembly and declared, "This year has been a time of transformation.  More nations have stepped forward to maintain international peace and security. And more individuals are claiming their universal right to live in freedom and dignity." Yet Iran stands out, oppressing its people, defaulting on its international obligations and sending to New York a leader who is weaker than ever before. U.S. leadership, coalition pressure and the prospect of diplomacy have put Iran under unprecedented pressure, even as outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen reminded us yesterday that diplomacy and outreach between our countries was "something we all need to spend a lot of time on."

After delays apparently designed to show Ahmadinejad's weakness, hikers released as he prepares to address the UN General Assembly. According to the New York Times, "Iranian state-run media said Wednesday that two Americans arrested two years ago while hiking along the Iran-Iraq frontier and imprisoned on espionage charges had been released... The release of the men followed days of optimism and uncertainty over the fate of the Americans after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised last week that they would be freed as a humanitarian gesture ‘in a couple of days.' The announcement by Mr. Ahmadinejad appeared calibrated to garner favorable attention before the Iranian leader flew to New York to attend this week's United Nations General Assembly meeting. But soon after his announcement, Iran's judiciary denied that the men would be freed imminently, saying it had exclusive authority to order their release." [New York Times, 9/21/11]

Ahmadinejad as "loquacious as ever," but his weakness translates into a weaker Iran. Geneive Abdo, fellow at the Century Foundation and National Security Network notes: "Gone is the self-confident rhetorician of revolutionary outrage and nationalist fervor. In his place stands a broken man. The hikers' episode is only one more piece of evidence that the last eight months have proven to be the beginning to the end of the president's political career. Ahmadinejad's U.N. speech will probably be as loquacious as ever, and may contain interesting surprises -- such as his declaration last year that it was the United States Government which launched the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But his words should not be taken as a message from anyone other than Ahmadinejad." The New York Times' Roger Cohen explains, "Ahmadinejad is a much reduced figure since his last appearance.  He's contested at home, notably by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the clerical establishment, which have taken to mocking Ahmadinejad... He's also been reduced by the fact that the Arab Spring has occurred, and young Muslims through the region are not looking to Iran... In the end, you'll have to conclude, I think, that Ahmadinejad has been more of a celebrity, saying provocative things - vile things - about Israel, about 9/11, but really holding his country in a kind of paralysis - ambivalence - that has made Iran weaker over the course of his presidency." [Geneive Abdo, 9/14/11. New York Times, 9/20/11]

Iran's "denial, deceit and evasion" under scrutiny at the International Atomic Energy Agency. In a speech before the IAEA, Energy Secretary Steven Chu criticized Iran's failure to live up to its international obligations, saying, "Iran has continued to engage in a longstanding pattern of denial, deceit, and evasion, in violation of its nonproliferation obligations. Time and time again, Iran has refused to satisfy legitimate concerns about the nature of its nuclear program - selectively rejecting IAEA requests for access to, and information about, its nuclear facilities... Iran's government has a choice: it can comply with its obligations and restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear activities or it can face deepening isolation and international censure." [Steven Chu, 9/19/11]

International pressure continues to grow, building on last year's successful efforts. Last year, members of the UN Security Council -- including usually reluctant members Russia and China -- came together and voted to impose biting sanctions on Iran. Building on last year's efforts, this year has seen new cooperation from states like Turkey. AP reports, "An early warning radar will be stationed in Turkey's southeast as part of NATO's missile defense system, the foreign ministry announced Wednesday... The system is capable of countering ballistic missile threats from Turkey's neighbor Iran, which has warned Turkey that deploying the radar at the military installation will escalate regional tensions." China has also increased cooperation on curbing investment in Iran's oil sector. Reuters reported earlier this month that, "China has put the brakes on oil and gas investments in Iran, drawing ire from Tehran over a pullback that officials and executives said reflected Beijing's efforts to appease Washington and avoid U.S. sanctions on its big energy firms... The slowing of China's energy investments in Iran was prompted, at least partly, by Beijing's efforts since late 2010 to ease tension with the Obama administration and cut the risk of Chinese oil firms being hit by U.S. sanctions that Congress has vigorously backed, said officials." [AP, 9/14/11. Reuters, 9/2/11]

Heightened isolation is a result of the administration's approach. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution explains how the Obama administration's efforts to work with the international community to isolate Iran are paying off. She writes, "An extensive early effort by the Obama administration to engage Tehran in negotiations helped persuade reluctant European allies to adopt unprecedented sanctions on trade and investment in Iran's energy sector when these negotiations failed. Washington has also managed to transform the U.S. relationship with Moscow through an ambitious diplomatic reset, which notably incorporated a tacit acceptance of the Russian commitment to finishing Bushehr. In exchange, Moscow has proven newly accommodating on Iran, showing greater cooperation on sanctions, including its decision to withhold anti-missile systems sales to Tehran." [Suzanne Maloney, 9/16/11]

Diplomacy remains essential, despite challenges. As Admiral Mullen noted yesterday, "We haven't had a connection with Iran since 1979. Even in the darkest days of our -- of the Cold War we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran so we don't understand each other. If something happens... it's virtually assured that we won't get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world. So... stability there as one of the economic engines for the world for the foreseeable future, is something we all need to spend a lot of time on." During the recent launch of the Atlantic Council's latest Iran report, Barbara Slavin concluded, "Diplomacy is also essential, despite the frustration of dealing with a government riven by internal divisions and whose officials sometimes seem to regard negotiations as a zero-sum game." [Mike Mullen via Federal News Service, 9/20/11. Barbara Slavin, The Atlantic Council, 9/15/11]

What We're Reading

Two U.S. men that were given eight year jail terms by Iran for spying have been released on bail, according to Iran's state media.

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.

The French and U.S. presidents planned a concerted push to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to end his bid for full UN membership and to instead seek upgraded status in the world body.

The sprawling street battles that have engulfed Yemen in recent days are rooted in a strategic power struggle among a renegade general, a billionaire tribal leader and the family of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The global economy has entered a "dangerous new phase" of sharply lower growth, according to the International Monetary Fund.

British police have been given more time to question six men arrested in what officials called a significant counterterrorism operation.

Mexican authorities announced the capture of a top leader of the Knights Templar drug gang suspected in a 2007 attack that killed five soldiers.

U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke is urging Beijing to reduce barriers to foreign companies doing business there, reflecting the businesses' growing frustrations with the pace of Chinese economic reform.

Scattered violence in impoverished areas of Zambia's capital marred but did not derail general elections in this copper-rich southern African country.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times scrutinizes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leadership in the past few months.

John Podesta explains why the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell has strengthened our military.

Edwin Truman examines the Euro's existential crisis and how to address it.