Classified U.S. diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks show that the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has played a double game with Iran's Shiite government, mixing public offers of reconciliation with secret collaboration on hard-line strategies favored by Iran's Sunni Arab rivals and Israel.
The classified cables also make clear that the major U.S. news media was mistaken in dumping the blame on Iran for the failed negotiations in 2009 and 2010 seeking a swap of some Iranian low-enriched uranium for nuclear isotopes. The cables reveal that those U.S. gestures were, in part, calculated to fail and thus to justify harsher sanctions against Iran.
According to the cables, key oil sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf were alarmed at comments from the newly elected President Barack Obama advocating a "new beginning" between the United States and Iran, including substantive negotiations on its nuclear program.
The United Arab Emirates deemed Obama's reconciliation offers "confusing" and the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia said Obama's position "fueled Saudi fears that a new U.S. administration might strike a "grand bargain' [with Iran] without prior consultations."
European governments also expressed misgivings about ambiguities in Obama's position, prompting the new administration to dispatch Daniel Glaser, acting assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes, to a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, on March 2 and 3, 2009, involving many of Europe's top Middle East experts.
Glaser explained that Obama's "engagement" strategy with Iran was only the velvet glove covering an iron fist. "'Engagement' alone is unlikely to succeed," Glaser told the meeting, suggesting the overtures were merely necessary steps to justify a more aggressive strategy. Referring to the short time window for any talks, he added, "time was not on our side."
The experts got Glaser's message. "Iran needs to fear the stick and feel a light 'tap' now," said Robert Cooper, a senior European Union official. The cable added, "Glaser agreed, noting the stick could escalate beyond financial measures under a worst case scenario."
So, even as the Obama administration was discussing a possible swap of Iranian low-enriched uranium, it was pressing ahead with plans to enlist the world community, including Iranian trading partners China and Russia, in a new round of sanctions.
The leaked cables show that China was swayed by promises that Saudi Arabia would replace any oil from a possible Iranian cutoff, and Russia was brought onboard by Obama's agreement to move a ballistic missile defense site from Poland and the Czech Republic to a ship-based system targeted on Iran.
By early 2010, both China and Russia had agreed not to exercise their UN Security Council vetoes to stop new sanctions against Iran. A January 2010 cable reported that a Russian official had "indicated Russia's willingness to move to the pressure track." [New York Times, Nov. 29, 2010]
Derailing a Uranium Swap
Meanwhile, Iran's internal dissension had complicated an agreement on a low-enriched uranium swap. Though the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embraced the idea in fall 2009, agreeing to give up about half of Iran's low-enriched uranium to get nuclear isotopes for medical research, some of his political opponents -- favored by the West -- attacked the proposed deal.
When Ahmadinejad's government sought some modifications on how the uranium would be transferred, the Obama administration dismissed any changes and the major U.S. news media jumped on Ahmadinejad for supposedly reneging on the original agreement.
The leaked cables, however, shed new light on what was actually occurring. The Obama administration wasn't really committed to the swap idea as much as it was using the appearance of negotiations to set the stage for a new round of sanctions. The moves by Iran's internal opposition to torpedo the deal also look different in this context, as possibly a tactic to help the West isolate Ahmadinejad's government.
In spring 2010, Ahmadinejad agreed to another version of the uranium swap proposed by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, with the apparent backing of President Obama. However, that arrangement came under fierce attack by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered a hawk on Iran, and was mocked by leading U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.