A new round of talks with Iran?

Feb 7, 2013

A new round of talks with Iran?

Update from AIJAC

February 7, 2013
Number 02/12 #01

Reports are coming out about an agreement for  a renewal of negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program in late February following an exchange of remarks about returning to talks between US Vice-President Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the weekend. This Update features analysis, policy advice and background on how such talks might go.

First up is Washington Institute policy expert Michael Singh, who offers advice about how to move beyond just holding talks, and toward producing serious and productive engagement. He notes that repeated attempts at engagement by various US Administrations have failed and argues that the reason is that “Resistance” to the West has been a founding principle of Iran’s Islamic regime, and the regime has not yet reached a point where it is prepared to make a strategic shift way from that worldview. He suggests the only hope is to find new and creative ways to use both pressure and engagement to hasten a change in Iran’s outlook, and offers some suggestions. For Singh’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next, British commentator and author Douglas Murray takes on the apparent refusal of both Western government and commentators to accept at face value Teheran’s own words on its policies and intentions. He notes in particular the convolutions that some commentators and interlocutors go through to deny, minimise, or dismiss the repeated calls by Iranian leaders for Israel’s violent destruction. While he notes that talks are now scheduled, he calls for awareness of both how many times this exercise has been unsuccessfully tried before, as well as the strong evidence, in terms of both actions and words, that Iran’s leaders mean what they say. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor explores the possibly significant implications for the Iranian nuclear timeline of a little noticed announcement by Iran two weeks ago. Iran announced that they were converting their main Natanz uranium enrichment facilities to use much quicker and more efficient new models of centrifuges. While the details of what Iran is doing remain unclear, Grier notes that, because the new centrifuges “work three to four times faster than Iran’s current models”, this conversion looks likely to both drastically shorten the time Iran would need to stage a nuclear breakout via enriching uranium to military levels, and also make it much easier to conceal such work, as fewer of the new centrifuges would be required. For this analysis of a little-noted yet worrying development, CLICK HERE.

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Don’t Let Iran Stall for Time

Michael Singh

New York Times, February 5, 2013

As the United States and its allies increase pressure on Iran, Washington must remain steadfast in its demands rather than respond to Tehran’s obstinacy with increasingly generous offers.

Few of President Obama’s original foreign policy goals have eluded him so much as engagement with Iran. Over the weekend, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced during a speech in Munich that the United States was ready for direct talks with Iran. With the risk of war over Iran’s nuclear program looming, the offer is prudent, but it is also beside the point. As Iran continues to evade negotiations — literally in this case, since the Iranian foreign minister was in the same building as Mr. Biden — the real question is not whether America should talk to Iran, but how to get the Iranians to talk to us in earnest.

Diplomatic engagement with Iran isn’t a new idea. Every American president from Jimmy Carter on has reached out to Iran. But such approaches have never led to improved relations. That was true of the secret visit by President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, to Tehran in 1986 in what became the Iran-Contra affair; it was also true of quiet talks over Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, when the former achieved only fleeting tactical progress and the latter none at all.

The reasons for failure in all the approaches share a common thread: Iran shrank from any broad bilateral thaw because it feared engagement with the United States more than it feared confrontation.

“Resistance” to the West — and especially to the United States — was a founding principle of Iran’s Islamic regime. And while Iran has gradually normalized relations with many European and Asian allies of Washington, it has not done so with the United States itself, just as it has not with America’s ally Israel. To lose those two nations as enemies would be to undermine one of the regime’s ideological raisons d’etre.

As a result, serious engagement with the United States is likely to be only a consequence of a strategic shift by the regime, rather than a cause of it. And so far, no such shift has taken place. While there are signs of increasing dissent within the Iranian government as sanctions begin to bite more deeply, there are also indications that existing sanctions have done all they can in this regard: Iran’s oil exports are ticking upward after a long decline, and high inflation and unemployment have not produced mass unrest. This provides a good reason for America to offer direct talks — to counter Iran’s narrative of “resistance.” But there is little hope that Iran will accept this offer, or that talks right now would be productive.

In fact, the regime may feel that time is on its side. American and Israeli red lines for military action depend on the pace of Iran’s nuclear activities, meaning that Iran can delay conflict simply by slowing those activities, as it recently has done. Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders may be hoping that black-market workarounds and a pickup in global oil demand will allow their country to expand its exports.

So the United States must be more creative in the ways it uses engagement and pressure to hasten a change in Iran’s strategic outlook. On the diplomatic front, America has made clear that it is ready to meet bilaterally whenever Iran is ready to do so; such talks should be a complement — not an alternative — to the current multilateral talks, which also include Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany. But the bilateral talks would have to deal not just with the nuclear issue; they should also address the full spectrum of American concerns, including Iran’s support for terrorist groups.

Since America’s partners in the international negotiations are eager to see direct American-Iranian discussions, and to avoid the military confrontation that could accompany diplomacy’s failure, the United States should also insist that the others toughen their own approaches to Iran’s government, in hopes of strengthening the hands of those within Iran who argue for a course change.

These other countries should better enforce existing economic sanctions, and employ other available levers of pressure. They should warn Iran that they would support American military action if necessary and that they are prepared to treat Iran and its envoys as pariahs. In addition, they should support Iranian dissidents and counter Iranian activities abroad, for example by following America’s lead in designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group and addressing Iranian arms smuggling to Gaza.

As the United States and its allies increase pressure on Iran, it is vital that the Americans remain steadfast in their demands, rather than respond to Iranian obstinacy with increasingly generous offers. If Tehran believes it can wait out pressure or escape it via a narrow technical accord rather than a more fundamental reorientation, it will surely do so.

As the possibility of conflict looms larger and talks drag on, the United States and its allies should worry less about who is on their side of the negotiating table, and more about ensuring that whoever is on the Iranian side actually comes ready to bargain. Otherwise, any American-Iranian talks will not be a diplomatic breakthrough; they will just be another way station on the route to war.

Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute and former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.

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Take Iran at Its Word

Diplomats still think the answer to the nuclear standoff is to talk to Tehran. Perhaps because they don’t believe what the regime says.


Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2013

Anyone paying attention to the words and actions emanating from Tehran over the last few years should be easily convinced that anything and everything must be done to stop the Iranian regime from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Yet even now, the international community appears unwilling to declare this rogue regime an enemy, nor to do anything—even by way of sanctions or embargoes—to stop them.

Last week the Henry Jackson Society and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies brought a range of experts together in London to address this issue. We discussed Iran’s human-rights nightmare, the regional implications if the regime goes nuclear—and what might be needed to stop it. It was enlightening, of course, but also profoundly depressing. How can it be, at this time and at this stage, that governments and publics are still not dealing with this issue with anything approaching appropriate seriousness?

Our growing inability to focus on any epochal concern in a Twittering age is certainly one reason. But another, which is too little dwelt upon, is the extraordinary campaign of lies, obfuscation and casuistry that certain politicians, academics and commentators have over the course of a decade mounted so strenuously.

Those with ears to hear might hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promise to “wipe Israel of the map” or “erase Israel from the page of time.” But there remains a strange chorus who try to tell us otherwise.

Anytime this fact is even mentioned, some columnist, professor or radical politician can be heard saying that the Iranian president meant no such thing. Sometimes you can publicly walk them through the translation, and they will shift their argument. “Well,” they say, “he doesn’t mean it like that.”

The argument is extended until the dissembler can hold it together no longer. At which point they invariably say, “Well of course that is just rhetoric” or “That is just for internal political consumption.” The latter suggests, of course, that although the Iranian leadership may not be genocidal, a vast proportion of the Iranian people are.

On occasion, for variety’s sake, one is informed that in any case, Ahmadinejad is merely the president and as such is not taken seriously or has no political power. When it is pointed out that even if he had no power, the Supreme Leader certainly does, and that Ali Khamenei has said exactly the same things over many years, the game of dissembling goes on.

None of this might matter if it weren’t also for the Iranian regime’s actions. For a decade we have witnessed a high-profile game of evasion by the mullahs. Uranium enrichment sites have been closed to inspectors, then re-opened. Inspections have been promised, deferred, derailed and started again. One implied or explicit red line after another has been announced, broken through and subsequently redrawn.

In recent days there has been some delight at Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s hint that Iran might be open to new talks on its nuclear program. But how many times have we gone through this now? After 10 years of this game, the only real development is that the government in Iran is now far closer to its ambition of gaining a nuclear bomb. And that means that both the region and the wider international community are that much closer to the nightmare threat of nuclear armageddon.

Another point made frequently by Tehran’s defenders, apologists and denialists is that the regime has never acted in a hostile manner against any other neighbors. But the merest of glances across history belies this.

So, more importantly, do recent events. Iran’s arming and funding of terrorist proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, are not the inventions of right-wing warmongers. They are facts, and ones that the people of Lebanon and Syria are having to live and die with.

There is, of course, the unsettling fact that if Iran does go nuclear, it will not be the last of the current club to do so. Rather, it will be the first of a new nuclear club.

But the even more pressing reason to prevent an Iranian bomb, at all available and necessary costs, was illustrated by one of our guests on Wednesday. In his remarks, Rafael Bardaji, a former national security advisor to the Spanish prime minister, relayed his tale of meeting with Khamenei some years back. Summoned to breakfast while on a visit to Iran, the Spanish guests decided to ask an ice-breaking question: Within the apparently complex power structure of contemporary Iran, what was the Supreme Leader’s job?

“My job,” Khamenei replied, “is to set Israel on fire.”

They say it. They mean it. Yet still the world refuses to take them at their word. Shame on them or shame on us?

Mr. Murray is an associate director of the London-based Henry Jackson Society.

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Why Iran’s nuclear enrichment upgrade may be a ‘game changer’

If Iran succeeds in installing next-generation enrichment centrifuges at Natanz, as it reportedly has told the UN’s atomic agency it is doing, it could shorten Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon.

By Peter Grier, Staff Writer

Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2013

Iran may be about to install a new generation of uranium enrichment equipment at its big nuclear plant near the central city of Natanz. According to news wire reports, Iran on Jan. 23 notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, that it plans to introduce more than 3,000 upgraded centrifuges at the Natanz facility, which currently relies upon older IR-1 centrifuge models.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. The United States and its allies fear Iran is actually developing weapons under the guise of building up civilian reactor technology.

In this context, is the centrifuge news a big deal? Yes, it may be – if Iran is actually able to install the finicky machines and get them to work.

“Iran’s installation of more efficient centrifuges at Natanz could be a game changer,” tweeted Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the Institute for Science and International Security, on Thursday.

Centrifuges are the workhorses of fissile material creation. Thin metal tubes that spin at fantastically high speeds, they physically separate different isotopes of uranium gas. This allows operators to slowly create gas that contains more and more U-235, the isotope capable of sustaining a fissile chain reaction.

If that sounds difficult and tedious, it is. Centrifuges work in chains of thousands to produce uranium enriched enough for use in reactors. The more-refined material needed for nuclear weapons take even more time to produce.

Right now Iran uses IR-1 centrifuges based on parts and designs provided by the Pakistani scientist – and notorious nuclear proliferator – Abdul Qadeer Khan. The IR-1 technology is from the 1970s, and Iran has had difficulty in getting the centrifuges to run properly, perhaps in part due to the sabotaging effects of the Stuxnet computer worm thought to have been introduced into the plant by the US and Israel.

Iran has long said it is working on a second-generation IR-2, thought to be based on a later European design that uses superstrong steel instead of aluminum for rotors and is capable of enriching uranium much faster than the IR-1. Now, in a letter to the IAEA, Iran says it will install IR-2m centrifuges in a Natanz “unit”– a technical term that can mean up to 3,132 of the machines, according to the Associated Press.

The Iranians provided no time frame for the work, which would take months, if not a year, to complete. But the move is a blow to the US and its allies at a time when they are trying to get Iran to scale back its nuclear activities and cooperate more fully with IAEA.

The problem as far as the US is concerned is that better centrifuges could shorten Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon.

Right now the 10,000 or so IR1s installed at Natanz are enriching uranium to the level of about 5 percent U-235, which is the level needed for use in a civilian reactor. (At Iran’s Fordow underground facility, a smaller number of centrifuges is enriching uranium to 20 percent, a level needed for some specialized civilian uses.)

At some point, if Iran decides it wants uranium enriched to the 90 percent grade used in weapons, it could simply make a dash for it, taking its stockpiles of 5 percent and 20 percent uranium and refining upwards as quickly as possible.

US intelligence considers this one of the most likely ways Iran would try to get a bomb. Tehran would be wagering that it could get the material developed before the West noticed what was going on and retaliated – or that the US and its allies would not have the political will to retaliate at all, despite Israel’s threats and President Obama’s statements that Iran won’t get the bomb on his watch.

Right now, Iran would require two to four months to produce one weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium, according to an Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) report on the subject last fall.

But IR-2 centrifuges work three to four times faster than Iran’s current models, estimates the ISIS. That could shave weeks off its breakout time.

“With advanced centrifuges, Iran could increase by several-fold its production of [uranium enriched to 20 percent] and it could break out with far fewer (less than 1,000) machines. For this reason, any development of advanced centrifuges will inevitably increase tensions,” concludes the ISIS study.

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