News reports and oped in the US media insist that the recent Iranian-Turkish-Brazilian uranium swap offer is a cause for concern, that Iran is marching forward in obtaining the capability to make nukes, and that the only options in dealing with Iran are either ineffective sanctions or a risky war (which can also prove to be ultimately ineffective) -- and yet the same reports never bother to ask how we got to such a state of affairs in the first place.
In looking back on the history of the current standoff between the US and Iran over Iran's nuclear program, it is instructive to note all the opportunities that the US missed in resolving the standoff peacefully while also addressing any real concerns about weapons proliferation.
For example, there was a time when the Iranians had offered to place severe restrictions on their enrichment program, and to even open the program to multinational participation, thus ensuring that it could not be used to secretly make bombs. These offers -- some of which were endorsed by American and foreign experts -- were simply ignored in favor of a policy of insisting on "zero enrichment" in Iran. As the former IAEA head Elbaradei noted:
I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, "Iran will buckle under pressure." But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride.
So now we come to the uranium swap agreement. The argument is over fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to make medical isotopes for cancer patients. You have to wonder, what was the point in US effort to prevent Iran from purchasing the reactor fuel on the open market in the first place, especially when you consider that the US gave the reactor to Iran along with several kilos of weapons grade uranium to fuel it (After the revolution, Iran converted the reactor to use lower-enriched uranium as fuel, which it purchased from Argentina.)
The TRR is a relatively small and quite well-known nuclear reactor which operates under full IAEA safeguards; it is not a weapons risk except to the most feverish imagination, and has a legitimate, humanitarian purpose. So, why did the US insist that Iran not be permitted to buy the fuel on the open market as usual to power the reactor as in the past? After all, the US is the party who argues that Iran doesn't really need any indigenous enrichment capability because it can always freely buy all the reactor fuel it needs on the open market ... Well, obviously not!
And if the purpose was to prevent Iran from getting closer to making nuclear weapons, then surely preventing Iran from purchasing the fuel was idiotic since the Iranians simply turned around and started making 20% enriched uranium on their own, which (as our media tell us constantly) puts Iran closer to making bombs than ever before.
And if the purpose was to "close the loophole in the NPT" which allows countries to enrich their own uranium by restricting uranium enrichment to a few countries, then the signatures of two major "emerging nations" -- Turkey and Brazil -- on the swap proposal, which explicitly asserts that enrichment is a sovereign right in its very first Article, has to be seen as another defeat for the US position.
Nevermind the greater opportunity this fiasco has provided the Iranian government to burnish its nationalistic credentials at home where Iran's nuclear program is massively popular, whilst portraying the US as intransigent and untrustworthy.
As Geoffrey Forden notes on ArmContolWonk, Iran's agreement to send out its enriched uranium was a "big deal":
Iran has experienced a history of being denied access to the nuclear infrastructure it bought into in the West. (I’m primarily thinking of the $1 Billon it investing in Eurodiff but Iran can, and does, list other examples.) It is a tremendous leap of faith for Iran to send this material out of country and the world should appreciate it. It is also, or at least should be, a big deal for the West
Instead of taking up the Iranians on this -- even if to call a bluff -- the Obama administration simply dropped the ball.
The bottom line: The US wanted to strongarm Iran even on this point, and the policy badly backfired. So now what? More sanctions on top of sanctions? The Obama administration, which started out talking about "engaging Iran," missed a great opportunity to do exactly that while also deflating Iran's claims that it can't rely on foreign promises of reactor fuel. Having how committed himself to the same path of sanctions and threats against Iran as the Bush administration, Obama has allowed himself to be boxed-in to a policy that has no real "end" in sight, except possibly a military stunt that will also probably badly backfire.
In the annals of diplomatic history, this has to be one of the most pathetic examples of shooting one self in the foot. But more importantly, it raises the question of how dedicated the US really is to resolving this standoff peacefully, and whether there are ulterior motives at work to actually make a military confrontation more likely. It is said that one should not attribute to conspiracies what can be better explained by incompetence. But I can't help remember that the "WMDs in Iraq" was similarly used as a pretext to launch a war there. There is a pattern emerging, of avoidiing and undermining potentially peaceful resolutions.