U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday and outlined the Obama administration’s policy goals on Iran, arguing that engaging in talks would serve the purpose of getting more members of the international community on board with implementing tougher sanctions against Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlines the Obama policy towards Iran at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlines the Obama policy towards Iran at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Clinton said the administration was “deploying new approaches”, characterizing Iran as a “threat” and saying they had “no illusions” about “the imperative of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

The current administration is operating under the same set of assumptions as the Bush administration in formulating its policy towards Iran. Foremost among these is that Iran’s nuclear program is intended to allow the country to produce nuclear weapons.

This has been the acting assumption of consecutive administrations despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in November 2007 claimed that Iran was pursuing a weapons capability until 2003, but judged that the country had since “halted its nuclear weapons program”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also repeatedly affirmed that is has found no evidence of an active nuclear weapons program. The most recent IAEA report on Iran, from February 19, confirms that Iran has produced only low-enriched uranium, not the highly-enriched uranium necessary to produce a bomb.

The enrichment process takes place through the use of centrifuges that separate the uranium isotopes, altering its composition. Enrichment refers to the process of increasing the percentage of U-235. Iran has only enriched uranium to less than five percent U-235, whereas it would be necessary to enrich to ninety percent or more in order to be used for the production of a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA report said there were “a number of outstanding issues” that “need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.” These include questions about what it refers to as “the alleged studies” and “the uranium metal document”.

The “alleged studies” refers to information supposedly extracted from a laptop computer purportedly originating from Iran and obtained by U.S. intelligence that allegedly shows weapons-related activities. Iran has insisted that the documents have been fabricated, and the IAEA has been unable to verify their authenticity or corroborate what they purport to prove. The agency has repeatedly stated that it has found no diversion of any nuclear-related materials in connection with these alleged studies.

The “uranium metal document” refers to information Iran had in its possession describing the process of casting uranium into two hemispheres for use in nuclear weapons.  The IAEA has in the past announced its satisfaction with Iran’s explanation for its possession of this document, so it is unclear why this issue is still considered unresolved. One likely explanation is that the agency is under political pressure not to give Iran a clean bill of health.

Iran has explained to the agency that it unwittingly obtained the document along with centrifuge documentation it obtained from Pakistan. The IAEA’s report of November 15, 2007 listed just “two remaining major issues relevant to the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear programme”, its enrichment program and the alleged studies. By the time of its report of February 22, 2008, the alleged studies remained the only major remaining issue, and the IAEA was awaiting confirmation from Pakistan on the origin of the uranium metal document to help corroborate Iran’s explanation for its origin. The subsequent IAEA report, on May 26, stated that “Pakistan has confirmed … that an identical document exists in Pakistan.”

The week before that report’s release, the Secretary General of the IAEA, Mohammed El Baradei, noted at the World Economic Forum that, “We haven’t seen indications or any concrete evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and I’ve been saying that consistently for the last five years.”

The most recent IAEA report stated that no other evidence than the uranium metal document has been found that Iran has any information on the design or manufacture of components necessary to build a weapon. It also stated that there was no evidence any nuclear material had been used in connection with the alleged studies.

At the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing Wednesday, Clinton said the Obama administration is willing to engage Iran  along with what is known as the P5+1, a group of nations consisting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. She indicated that a “successful engagement” would mean that “our partners around the world” would recognize “that they must work with us and support our efforts, including tougher sanctions.”

By participating in the P5+1 talks, she explained, the U.S. would gain “more leverage with other nations” and increase “even further our ability to ask more from other nations.”

What the administration would ask, she made clear, is that if Iran rejects U.S. “offers” or the talks prove “inconclusive or unsuccessful”, then the administration would expect support to implement “crippling sanctions” against the country.

It’s unclear what “offers” the Obama administration would be willing to make to Iran. Administration officials have already explained that the goal of the proposed talks would be to persuade Iran to suspend it uranium enrichment activities, something Iran considers non-negotiable.

The Bush administration policy towards Iran consisted of an ultimatum demanding that it stop its work on enrichment and the insistence that no effort would be made to engage the Iranians diplomatically unless Iran acquiesced to this demand.

The policy outlined by the Obama administration differs only in that it would be willing to sit down at the table with the Iranians, but every indication so far is that the only purpose for doing so would be to reiterate the same demand that they halt all enrichment activity.

Iranian leaders have repeatedly expressed their desire to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. and other world powers, but at the same time have made it clear that they have no intention of surrendering their right, guaranteed under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear energy program.

With no significant shift in U.S. policy, therefore, towards acknowledging Iran’s rights under the NPT, any such talks are extremely unlikely to result in any kind of agreement or understanding between the U.S. and Iran.

There is little to indicate that actually improving relations or coming to any kind of agreement with Iran is actually a goal of U.S. policy. As the administration has candidly admitted, the objective of engaging in the P5+1 process is to garner support from allies for harsher sanctions.

The New York Times reported earlier this month, “By showing a readiness to engage Iran, American officials said, the administration is trying to build support among allies like Germany and France, and more skeptical players, like Russia, so that if diplomatic effort fail, it can marshal support for tougher sanctions against Tehran.”

But engaging in the charade, the U.S. will be able to say that it tried, but that diplomacy failed. The calculation of the Obama administration is that it will be able to some extent heal the tattered image of the U.S.in public perception around the world after eight years of the Bush administration, and thereby help to create the political atmosphere necessary to get other nations on board with its policy, indistinguishable from that of the previous administration, of attempting to change Iran’s behavior through threats and intimidation.