Is Obama’s Policy of "Tough Diplomacy" Really Withering Away?

The first four years of the Obama Administration were marked by imposing an unprecedented set of sanctions and military threats against Iran. However, since July 2013 fewer sanctions have been imposed and less military threats issued. Indeed, the Obama Administration—along with some of the other four members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, commonly known as the P5+1—appeared to be sincere in trying to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran. They withstood pressures coming from Israel, its lobby groups and proxies in the US Congress and they pushed for a deal with Iran. In the end, a six-month accord between the P5+1 and Iran was reached on November 24, 2013, after a long and unprecedented set of negotiations. Will this accord last, and will it lead to a longer agreement? Was the deal the result of draconian sanctions imposed on Iran, as President Obama would have us believe? Was it the result of the election of President Hassan Rouhani and his promise of “constructive engagement,” as most people believe? Or could it be that President Obama’s policy toward Iran is changing?

In order to answer the above questions, a detailed examination of the Obama Administration’s policy of “tough diplomacy” is necessary. I have made such an analysis in Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.[1] The book is a continuation of a pervious book that was published in 2008 on the dual containment of Iran and Iraq.[2] The latter dealt with nearly three decades of attempts by the US and Israel to “contain” Iran, and it was concluded before President George W. Bush left office. The new book starts where the earlier book left off and follows the first four years of the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran.

President Barack Obama came to office promising engaging Iran. Yet, in reality his administration followed the policy of “tough diplomacy,” which included, among other acts, imposing “crippling sanctions” against Iran. Indeed, a close look at the Obama Administration’s Iran policy reveals certain continuity between this policy and the policy of “dual containment” pursued by the previous administrations, particularly by the George W. Bush Administration.

Given the history of containment policy, it was not difficult to predict prior to the 2008 presidential election that regardless of the outcome, the US foreign policy toward Iran would be determined largely by Israel and its various lobby groups in the US, especially American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Indeed, it was easy to foresee that if Obama became president, Dennis Ross, Obama’s closest advisor on Iran and the former director of WINEP, would play a leading role in determining the policy. Based on Ross’s writings and WINEP’s publications, one could expect that Obama would pursue a “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy” with Iran. The diplomacy, as Ross and WINEP had formulated, was intended to give an ultimatum to Iran in some face to face meetings, telling Iran to either accept the US-Israeli demands or face aggression, including, ultimately, a naval blockade and military actions. The meetings were also intended to create the illusion of engaging Iran in negotiations and, in so doing, gaining international support for the subsequent aggressive actions.

What was expected in fact happened.  Once Obama came to office Dennis Ross became special advisor to the Secretary of State for the “Gulf and Southwest Asia,” then special assistant to President Obama and his senior director for the “Central Region.” Thus, once more, an individual associated with WINEP became the main architect of Iran policy and in that capacity continued, with some modifications, the same policy that had been pursued by the Bush Administration.

It should, of course, be noted that besides Ross—who left his position at the end of 2011 and rejoined WINEP—there have been other Iran policy makers close to Israel and its lobby groups in the Obama Administration. One such person, who also left office in 2011, was Stuart A. Levey, the former Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Levey, a leftover from the Bush Administration, managed to carry on a crusade against Iran by formulating and implementing financial sanctions against Iran. Another person who left his position in February of 2013 and, subsequently, became president of the Israeli lobby group “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI) was Obama’s special assistant for arms control, Gary Samore. Nevertheless, for the most part the Obama Administration policy toward Iran proceeded along Ross’s policy of “tough” or “aggressive diplomacy.” How the policy was implemented is briefly discussed below.

As mentioned earlier, one of the main aims of the policy of “tough diplomacy” was to create the impression that the US is trying its best to engage Iran. This was tried soon after President Obama took office. For example, Obama’s message of March 21, 2009, on the occasion of the Persian New Year, was intended to create such an impression. To the uninitiated the message appeared to be conciliatory. But to those familiar with the history of the US-Iran relations, the message contained nothing that was essentially new and, indeed, accused Iran of some of the same charges that the Israeli lobby had concocted since the 1990s. Actually, a few days later Obama showed how little the US policy had changed when in his trip to Prague he spoke about a “real threat” posed by Iran to its “neighbors and our allies” and advocated the same missile defense system proposed by the Bush Administration.

By the summer of 2009, while numerous unilateral sanctions were being renewed, passed or contemplated, the Obama Administration was working hard to pass the fourth multilateral, United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran.  In order to get the Russian vote in the Security Council, in July 2009 Obama offered the Russians a quid pro quo: in exchange for a deal on the expiring 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and postponing the US deployment of anti-missile system in Europe, Russia would agree to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. Later, the Obama Administration sweetened the deal by promising to drop the deployment of an anti-missile system in Europe altogether.

On October 1, 2009, Iran held a meeting with the P5+1. This was followed by three other meetings, one on October 19, 2009, and two others in December
sasancontain2010 and January 2011. The first two meetings centered mainly on the swap of Iran’s low enriched uranium for higher enriched uranium intended to be used by a reactor in Tehran that produces isotopes for medical purposes. The swap deal was viewed by many, both inside and outside of Iran, as a ploy by the US to get enriched uranium out of Iran and then give Iran an ultimatum to stop any further enrichment or face the fourth round of UN sanctions. Even some US officials described the deal as a clever ploy.

Under massive pressure at home, President Ahmadinejad’s government, which had originally agreed to the swap, tried to modify the deal. Yet, the Obama Administration rejected any modification and began the final push for the fourth round of UN sanctions.  By this time many US officials, including Secretary Clinton, were admitting openly that the Obama Administration’s policy had been, throughout, not just an “engagement policy” but a “two-track policy” and that it was now time for the “pressure track.” This was, indeed, similar to the “carrot and stick policy” of the Bush Administration, which was always no more than offering Iran a stick.

What stood between Iran and a new Security Council resolution however, was China, which was opposed to additional UN sanctions. The Obama Administration therefore cajoled China, twisted its arms, and even threatened it financially, to make it go along with the new set of sanctions. By mid-March 2010 China’s resistance to slow down the US-Israeli push had weakened, and toward the end of March China agreed to discuss the US proposal for the fourth round of UN sanctions. Now, the only stumbling block in getting a near unanimous vote in the Security Council was the presence of three non-permanent members on the Security Council, Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon, which opposed the sanctions despite massive pressure by the US to make them go along.

On May 17, 2010, Brazil and Turkey struck a deal with Iran for swapping enriched uranium, almost the same deal that had been offered by the P5+1 to Iran in October 2009. The only difference between this so-called tripartite agreement and the US proposed swap deal was that Iran would send the low enriched uranium to Turkey rather than Russia, as it had been initially proposed. The Obama Administration rejected the tripartite agreement, making it clear that the original swap deal proposed was a ploy and that the ultimate intention of the US had been, all along, to use the deal to impose, in the language of Benjamin Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton, “crippling sanctions” against Iran.

On June 9, 2010, Resolution 1929, the fourth UN sanctions resolution against Iran, was passed by the Security Council, with Brazil and Turkey voting “no” and Lebanon abstaining. This was, of course, the same resolution that the Bush Administration was unable to pass due to time running out. The passage of the resolution officially ended the “diplomacy” phase of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy. After this multilateral sanction the US and EU intensified their unilateral sanctions, despite Russia’s protest that the measures were exceeding the parameters agreed upon and reflected in the UN Security Council resolution.

With the Obama Administration giving the green light, the US Congress passed, on June 24, 2010, one of the most severe unilateral sanctions acts against Iran, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA). The act had been in the pipeline for some time, but had been held back until the passage of the UN Resolution 1929. CISADA, which was signed by President Obama on July 1, 2010, strengthened the harshest sanctions act passed during the Clinton era, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.

After CISADA much of the new sanctions against Iran were enacted by the State and Treasury Departments, particularly under the leadership of Stuart Levey and his successor, David Cohen. In addition, there were once again repeated talks of possible military attacks on Iran by Israel, the US or both. These were not just the usual talks by the Israelis, neoconservatives or media pundits, but threats made by some high officials in the Obama Administration, such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen who stated on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on August 1, 2010, that “military actions have been on the table and remain on the table.” The push for attacking Iran intensified in late October and early November of 2010 as more Israeli and American officials and media pundits appealed to President Obama.

The combination of continuous threats and increasing sanctions affected the Iranian economy. In the fall of 2010 the value of Iran’s currency fluctuated wildly. The fluctuation was clearly a manifestation of uncertainty, speculation and fear that were mostly caused by the cumulative effect of sanctions. The sanctions were also exacerbating the rate of inflation in Iran and reducing the rate of growth of the economy. For example, while the rate of growth in Iran’s real GDP in 2007 was 7.8%, the rate for 2010, according to the April 2011 report of the International Monetary Fund, was only 1.0%.  The same report forecasted the rate of growth in Iran’s real GDP for 2011 to be 0%.

The Obama Administration appeared to be fully aware of the toll that the sanctions were taking on the Iranian economy and adopted a wait-and-see attitude, despite the pressure exerted on it by Israel and its supporters to engage in military adventures against Iran. It also appears that the current administration found various forms of sabotage—such as the introduction of the Stuxnet computer worm in the Iranian nuclear facilities, assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists—as well as agitation among separatist movements in Iran, quite useful in containing Iran. The issue of human rights violations in Iran also became a tool in the hands of the Obama Administration to mount verbal attacks against Iran.

By the end of 2010 the US policy toward Iran was back on the same track that it had been for over thirty years, a blatant containment policy. In other words, the policy of “tough diplomacy” had no more “diplomacy” left in it; it was simply a tough policy.  The two meetings between Iran and the P5+1, on December 6, 2010, and January 21, 2011, were therefore devoid of any substance and merely provided forums for the two sides to express their grievances.

With the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, and the preoccupation of the US, Europe and Israel with the revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East, there were less news reports in the popular US media about Iran and the need to contain it. Indeed, to the extent that the “Arab Spring” challenged some aspects of the old order in the Middle East and created uncertainty about the future of this order, the pressure on Iran slightly subsided.  But once the dust started to settle, the attention turned, once again, toward Iran, and the push by Israel, its lobby groups, and supporters in the US Congress, to intensify sanctions and threaten Iran militarily resumed. Moreover, the campaign of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities and trying to stir up ethnic tensions intensified.

In addition, there was increasing pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to accept the US demands. Under IAEA’s new director, Yukiya Amano—who was the preferred candidate of the West to replace Mohamed ElBaradei as the Director General of IAEA in 2010—Iran has faced harsh and confrontational reports about its nuclear activities. Indeed, the November 8, 2011 report of IAEA on Iran’s implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement was the harshest ever. The subsequent reports have continued to be confrontational.

Sanctions and threats of military action against Iran intensified after the November 2011 IAEA report. What Israel, its lobby groups, and their supporters in the US government wanted most was sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank. Such a sanction had been considered since the presidential election of 2008. The sanction was finally included in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama signed on December 31, 2011 and has been implemented ever since. In January 2012, the Council of European Union passed similar sanctions against the Central Bank and the energy sector of Iran.  In addition to these sanctions, there were repeated talks of possible military attacks on Iran by Israel, the US or both. For the most part, however, the threats, particularly by Israel, had been used to impose more severe sanctions.

Beginning April of 2012 Iran and the P5+1 held five more rounds of meetings, including meetings at the technical level. These meetings, similar to the earlier ones, produced no agreement between the two sides. It was, indeed, difficult to expect any agreements as long as more and more draconian sanctions were being levied against Iran and there were repeated talks of military attacks.

In the final analysis, the Obama Administration’s policy of “tough diplomacy” had mostly followed the script written by individuals associated with Israel and its lobby groups.  The policy was similar to those pursued by the neoconservatives under the previous administration. But while the “carrot and stick policy” of the Bush Administration was implemented in a brutish way, the Obama Administration’s “two-track policy” had been carried out in a more refined way.

At the end of President Obama’s first term in office, the combination of continuous threats and increasing sanctions had brought about massive economic hardship in Iran. However, these difficulties did not translate into what the architects of the policy of “tough diplomacy” had been waiting for, that is, widespread discontent in Iran.  Nor did the sanctions result in a complete collapse of the Iranian economy. The fate of the policy of “tough diplomacy” therefore remained uncertain. This was even more so, since by the end of Obama’s first term in office, some of the old guard responsible for formulating or implementing the policy, such as Dennis Ross, Stuart Levey, Gary Samore, and Hillary Clinton, had either left the administration or were leaving it.

It is too early to evaluate the changes that have occurred in the composition of the new Obama Administration’s foreign policy team and their approach to Iran.  However, it seems that with the departure of some of the old guard and the arrival of a new crew—such as Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel—the failed policy of “tough diplomacy” is withering away. True, the new crew, particularly Hagel, had to go through the mandatory vetting process by the Israeli lobby groups and publicly kowtow to Israel before being confirmed. Nevertheless, some of the newcomers, who were well versed with the power of Israel in formulating US foreign policy in the Middle East, could see that continuing the policy of “tough diplomacy” would ultimately lead to another war that the US could neither afford nor win.

One indication of the changing policy appears to be a softening in the position of the US in the meetings between Iran and the P5+1. In the last high level meetings, during the first term of President Obama, which took place in June 2012, Iran was told to “stop, shut and ship.” This meant, according to a summary provided by EU’s representative Catherine Ashton, a three step proposal to Iran: “stopping 20 percent enrichment activities, shutting the Fordow nuclear facility and shipping out stockpiled 20 percent enriched nuclear materials.”

The above proposal changed considerably in the second term of Obama’s presidency. In February of 2013, when the P5+1 and Iran meetings resumed, there was no more talk of “stop, shut and ship.” Instead, according to various news sources, Iran was asked to implement “voluntarily” three things in six months: 1) significantly restrict its accumulation of 20% enriched uranium, but keep sufficient amount to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR); 2) suspend enrichment at Fordow underground facility and accept conditions that constrain the ability to quickly resume enrichment at Fordow; and 3) allow more regular and thorough monitoring of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. As I wrote at the time, not only had the US blinked, but it had tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium, at least in the short-run. The Iranian negotiator at the time, Saeed Jalili, responded to these proposals by saying that they were more “realistic,” “positive,” and “closer to Iran’s position.” However, Iran argued that the so-called sanctions relief was not proportional to what was being demanded from Iran and that the endgame, i.e. what would happen after six months, remained unclear. With the Presidency of Ahmadinejad ending, and the presidential election in Iran on the horizon, no further high level meetings took place and no agreements were reached.

The new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and his Foreign Minister, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, picked up the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 where it had been left off under the Ahmadinejad’s government. Even though what Iran proposed at the first round of meetings was kept relatively secret, from various leaked reports one can surmise that the proposal was a modified version of the earlier P5+1’s offering. Iran apparently proposed to: 1) freeze its production of 20% enriched uranium and convert the stock of such uranium into fuel rods for the TRR; 2) relinquish spent fuel from a yet-to-be-operational Arak heavy water reactor; 3) sign the so-called Additional Protocol—which would allow for the most intrusive inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the IAEA—once unilateral and multilateral sanctions were lifted.

Iran also proclaimed, as it had done since the beginning of such meetings, that its “inalienable right” to enrich uranium under Article IV of the NPT must be recognized. But Article IV merely states: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” This is a broad and vague statement that does not spell out any specific “inalienable right,” including the right to enrich uranium.  The adversaries of Iran have used the ambiguity in the language to argue that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium. Iran has been fully aware of this dispute and, even if it publicly insists upon recognizing such a right, it knows that there is nothing in the law about such a specific right. Indeed, the law must be rewritten at some point to specify the “inalienable right.”

The accord that Iran signed with the P5+1 on November 24, 2013, had some elements of what was offered to Iran in February 2013, during Ahmadinejad’s government, and the counter offers made by Iran under President Rouhani.[3]  For example, on the issue of uranium enrichment, Iran conceded not to enrich uranium above 5% for six months and either to convert the existing 20% enriched uranium into fuel or dilute it. This concession did not affect Iran, since Iran did not need any more 20% enriched uranium for TRR.

As far as Fordow was concerned, there was remarkably no more demand for its suspension. However, according to the agreement, there should be no “further advances” of activities at Fordow. The same was stated with regard to the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and Arak reactor. This meant that the Arak reactor would not become operational for six months, a new demand that had been put forward as a result of pressure from Israel and its lobby groups. This concession, too, did not affect Iran very much, since starting this reactor had been postponed a number of times and, according to the last report of the IAEA, the start-up was not even achievable in the first quarter of 2014.

As far as the issue of allowing more regular and thorough monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the IAEA was concerned, Iran conceded. Without going into details, the accord called for “enhanced monitoring” by the IAEA of certain nuclear sites and facilities related to its nuclear program. But, again, this concession did not harm Iran, since Iran had persistently argued that it has nothing to hide and many of its nuclear facilities were already being monitored intrusively.

In exchange for these concessions, Iran was offered, in a nutshell: 1) a “pause” on “efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales”; 2) suspension of US and EU sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports, gold and other precious metals, auto industry, spare parts for safety of flight for Iranian civil aviation; 3) no “new nuclear-related UN Security Council sanctions” or “EU nuclear-related sanctions,” and a US “refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”; 4) establishment of “a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade for Iran’s domestic needs using Iranian oil revenues held abroad”; and 5) an increase in “the EU authorisation thresholds for transactions for non-sanctioned trade to an agreed amount.” Some of these offers were similar to those offered to Iran during the Ahmadinejad’s government, which, at that time, were deemed by Iran not to be proportional to the concessions.

The last section of the accord dealt with the clarification of the endgame that the Iranian negotiators during the Ahmadinejad’s government had asked for.  Under “Elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution,” the parties agreed that within a year they will reach a long term accord that would: 1) “Reflect the rights and obligations of parties to the NPT and IAEA Safeguards Agreements”; 2) “Comprehensively lift UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions”; 3) “Involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters”; 4) “Fully resolve concerns related to the reactor at Arak”; 5) “Fully implement the agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring. Ratify and implement the Additional Protocol, consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Majlis”; and 6) “Include international civil nuclear cooperation.”

The above third element seems to tacitly recognize some sort of enrichment “right.” Indeed, the fact that Iran is allowed to continue enrichment at a low level for the short-run makes denying it the right in the long-run difficult. Nevertheless, as I argued in my recent book, the devil is always in the detail. We do not know how the above agreement will be interpreted in the future and whether it will be used in a deceptive way by the P5+1 to halt Iran’s nuclear program altogether. A similar agreement between Iran and the EU3 (France, Britain and Germany) in 2004—termed the Paris Agreement, which called for a temporary freeze of uranium enrichment in Iran—was used by the EU3 to permanently halt enrichment. Moreover, we do not know if Israel, its lobby groups and its surrogates in the US Congress, will be able to derail the agreement.

In conclusion, the new agreement between Iran and the P5+1, however it is interpreted and wherever it will lead, is not simply the result of the election of President Rouhani in Iran. Much of the agreement was already on the table before the new administration in Iran arrived. Rouhani and his team changed the tactic of negotiation, speeded up the process, and accepted what had been offered to Iran under the Ahmadinejad’s government. The agreement was also not due to the success of the policy of “tough diplomacy.” On the contrary, it was the result of the failure of the policy. The policy of sanctioning Iran intensively was intended to collapse the Iranian economy, bring the masses into the street and prepare the ground for military actions. But, even though the draconian sanctions caused extreme hardship in Iran, the economy did not collapse and Iranians did not pour into the streets. Indeed, according to many reports, most people in Iran blamed the economic hardship on the sanctions. This caused the Iranian government to dig in its heels deeper and try to ride out the sanctions with what they called the resistance economy. Had it not been for the policy of “tough diplomacy,” a settlement with Iran could have been reached sooner. In that case, ironically, Iran’s nuclear program would not have been as advanced as it is today.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno.  His new book Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy” will be available in December, 2013. He can be reached at:


[1] This essay is partly based on the introduction to Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy”:–Obama-s-Policy-of–Tough-Diplomacy-1-4438-5247-3.htm.

[2] See The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment:

[3] For a copy of the agreement see:


Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: