Obama's secret offer to Iran: Prove you won't build a bomb and you can have nuclear energy

Krazy kwestion: Hasn’t this always been the U.S.’s not-so-secret offer to Iran? Ignatius is getting lots of media buzz for his column today but I’m not sure why. Could be we’ve reached the point in this endless decade-long diplomatic labyrinth where no one can remember anymore what has and hasn’t been placed on/removed from the bargaining table, but I’m reasonably sure this has always been on it.

President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation “will never pursue nuclear weapons.”

This verbal message was sent through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Khamenei last week. A few days before traveling to Iran, Erdogan had held a two-hour meeting with Obama in Seoul, in which they discussed what Erdogan would tell the ayatollah about the nuclear issue and Syria.

Obama advised Erdogan that the Iranians should realize that time is running out for a peaceful settlement and that Tehran should take advantage of the current window for negotiations. Obama didn’t specify whether Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium domestically as part of the civilian program the United States would endorse. That delicate issue evidently would be left for the negotiations that are supposed to start April 13, at a venue yet to be decided…

But the diplomatic path still seems blocked, judging by recent haggling over the meeting place for negotiations. Istanbul was expected to be the venue, but the Iranians last weekend balked and suggested instead that negotiators meet in Iraq or China. U.S. officials see this foot-dragging as a sign that the Iranian leadership is still struggling to frame its negotiating position.

I went googling for comments Bush made about Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program and found a Reuters piece memorialized at Free Republic alllllll the way back in September 2005. The lede: “President George W. Bush on Tuesday said Iran had a right to a civilian nuclear program if it did not gain expertise or materials to build an atomic weapon.” A month earlier, the U.S. had backed an EU proposal offering Iran cooperation on nuclear energy if it agreed to suspend enrichment. Per Article IV, signatories to the Nonproliferation Treaty have an “inalienable right” to nuclear power for peaceful uses, a point Iran’s been making since the beginning of this clusterfark. The big worry has never been that they might start building nuclear power plants; the worry is that the plants are just a pretext for them to amass uranium, which they can then spin beyond energy-grade to weapons-grade purity in their centrifuges. If they agreed to give up the centrifuges, then in theory the west could supply them with all the energy-grade uranium they need to keep their power plants going. That would basically eliminate their ability to build a bomb. (The plutonium byproduct generated at the power plants could also be used for bombmaking but the west would insist on being allowed to confiscate that.)

The problem is, even if the sanctions on Iran have started to bite so hard that they’re now willing to back off on nukes, they can’t do it without a tremendous loss of prestige. It would be a total capitulation; they’d have gone from being able to power their own reactors to depending upon their enemies to do it for them, with nothing to show for it except a return to the pre-sanctions status quo. Only if the regime fears that sanctions could so weaken their economy that the population will revolt will they feel they have no choice but to bow in the name of self-preservation. But in that case, why not turn the risk of destabilization to their advantage by pressing on? The closer Iran gets to having nukes, the more the calculus for the west changes from “destabilization is good” to “destabilization is bad” because toppling the regime could put live nukes in play amid the chaos of a revolution. Increasingly I think the only concession that might placate Iran enough to get them to back down is official recognition of the mullahs by the U.S. That would let them save face in a major way; the outrage here at home at Obama (or Romney?) for bowing to nuclear blackmail would let Tehran claim victory in the staring contest, even if it means giving up its centrifuges. The sanctions would lift, the regime would now be officially “legitimate,” and all would be well for everyone except, er, the Iranian people.

If you’re trying to read the tea leaves about a deal, here’s the best I can do: Not only did someone high up apparently leak the offer to Ignatius to test the waters of public opinion, but Iranian “pragmatist” Ayatollah Rafsanjani was just reappointed by Khamenei to lead the country’s Expediency Council. That’s surprising because Rafsanjani was kinda sorta associated with the Green Revolution three years ago; he took no active part but he’s a longstanding enemy of Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei backed at the time. Now that Ahmadinejad’s fallen out of favor, this guy is back in the supreme leader’s good graces — and lately he’s been talking about how he told Khomeini decades ago that Iran should try to build a relationship with the U.S. Hmmmmm.