Iran nuclear deal collapses. Time for US to get tough?

Iran rejected a UN-brokered nuclear deal Wednesday that would have sent its uranium stockpile abroad. The Obama administration is now under pressure to make good on its promises of 'consequences.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iran's rejection of a nuclear deal with international powers for treatment of its enriched uranium stockpile shifts the focus to the Obama administration. Washington now must lay out the "consequences" it said would result from any Iranian "no" to the negotiated agreement.

After weeks of hints that the rejection was coming, Tehran said Wednesday it could not accept a draft deal reached Oct. 1 in United Nations-brokered talks between Iranian officials and representatives of the US, France, and Russia.

The deal would have resulted in Iran shipping about 70 percent of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to Russia and France by the end of the year, where it would be further processed into a form usable in a Tehran research reactor.

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The deal would have delayed Iran's ability to fuel a nuclear weapon by about a year – and given President Obama breathing room to explore his preference for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomacy.

But with Tehran's "no" now official, Mr. Obama will be under pressure – domestically from Congress, and diplomatically from partners such as France, Britain, and Israel – to proceed with toughened international economic sanctions.

Obama returns to Washington from an extensive Asia trip Friday with other issues demanding attention – from troop levels for Afghanistan to next week's state visit by Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh. He had repeatedly suggested he was giving the Iranians until year's end to demonstrate through words and actions a positive response to his offer of engagement.

Iran's decision shortens that diplomatic opening.

Iran's counteroffer

In declining the deal Wednesday, Iran said it would consider other options for its uranium stockpile – provided it remained in the country – and called for a return to talks.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently said the deal had already been negotiated and could not be reopened or amended.

That approach drew a sharp reaction from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who told an Iranian news service, "Diplomacy is not black or white. Pressuring Iran to accept what they [in Washington] want is a non-diplomatic approach."

But Iran's decision appeared to leave no option to the Obama administration but to proceed to the "consequences" that Secretary Clinton has repeatedly said a rejection would prompt.

In Washington, members of Congress and Iran analysts who have been dubious about the prospects for engagement with Iran were quick to call for sanctions.

"The idea that somehow we could bring the Iranians into submission through dialogue or let somebody else pressure them, I believe that game should now be over," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

Obama's challenge

It will be a challenge for the US to get other world powers to go along with toughened sanctions on Iran. Both Russia and China, important commercial partners of Tehran, hold veto power in the UN Security Council and could nix any sanctions resolution. But Mr. Sokolski says it is "certain," on the other hand, that nothing will happen without Washington.

"The world does pay attention to what we do and is paying particular attention to what we do about this issue," he says. "If [the US] really presses for this, all things are possible. But if we don't, you can forget it for sure."

Obama discussed the Iranian issue with both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao during his Asia trip. Mr. Medvedev reiterated a statement he made during a meeting with Obama at the UN in September, which suggested Russia would consider sanctions if Iran rejected the uranium deal. President Hu declined to show any public enthusiasm for additional sanctions, and it was unclear if he had suggested anything different in his private meetings with Obama.

But even Medvedev's repeated openness to sanctions does not mean Russia could be counted on to support a sanctions resolution in the Security Council, Russia analysts say. "It's not clear what the Medvedev statements really represent," says Paul Saunders, a Russia expert at the Nixon Center, a foreign-policy think tank in Washington.

Russia preferred the noncommittal position it was allowed to take during the weeks of Iran's indecision on the uranium deal, Mr. Saunders says. In that sense Moscow, like Washington, will also now find itself under the international spotlight.

See also:

Is Russia playing both sides on Iran nukes?

Iran nuclear deal: How serious is Tehran's balk?

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