November 12, 2013
Number 11/13 #02
As readers are probably aware, in last weeks Geneva talks between the “P5+1” (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran, the parties at one point appeared close to an interim agreement, with Foreign Ministers flying in to join the talks, but then broke up without reaching one. While France publicly objected to elements of the deal initially, and were blamed by Iran for the talks failure, the reasons the talks ended without agreement was because the Iranians walked away from the terms on offer according to the diplomats involved. Talks are set to resume on Nov. 20, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials making it amply clear that the Israeli government is not at all happy with the terms being discussed (Netanyahu’s comments on the subject on US television are here.) This Update deals with analysis of the reported proposed terms of the Geneva “deal” and where the negotiators can go from here.
First up is an analysis of what was discussed in the context of past negotiations with Iran from American Middle East expert Michael Rubin. In particular, he argues that, despite the fact that Iran needs sanctions relief, there is no evidence that the Iranian regime is willing to give up its nuclear ambitions, and this looks more like past attempts by Iranian President Rouhani, when he was nuclear negotiator, to deceive and divide the West while continuing with nuclear efforts. Rubin argues that the deal offers no significant sign Iran will curtail its nuclear efforts, and lists various shortcomings of the reported details of the Geneva agreement. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE. More on the history of Iranian efforts to use negotiations to deceptively cover nuclear progress from Iran experts
Next up is an editorial from the Jerusalem Post calling on the P5+1 to reconsider their priorities in the wake of what reportedly was discussed at Geneva. The paper disputes the argument that insufficient Western willingness to relieve sanctions pressure will cause the Iranians to abandon negotiations or some international players to stop enforcing sanctions. It then agrees with the characterisation of the proposed deal by Netanyahu – shared by American politicians, the French and the Saudis – that what was discussed in Geneva was a “bad deal”, especially with respect to the failure to cut the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate and the failure to address the Arak plutonium-producing nuclear plant being readied for operations. For the rest of the paper’s argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Mark Dubowitz and Reuel Marc Gerecht, Iran experts at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy, focus on additional sanctions as the route to improve the proposed Geneva deal. They argue that, thanks to the sanctions and the political promises of Rouhani, the P5+1 has more leverage over Iran than it has ever had – but that this is dependent on the implied threat that further sanctions escalation will follow if no deal is reached. They go on to argue that the idea of offering “carrots” in the form of sanctions relief in order to allow the “moderate” Rouhani to sell a deal to regime hardliners is extremely unlikely to be an effective negotiating strategy. For all the details of their assessment of how to reach an acceptable deal, CLICK HERE. Also calling for tougher sanctions is US Congressman Brad Schneider. In addition, Ray Takeyh, Middle East expert at the venerable Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the balance of power in the negotiations and also urges preparation to use tougher sanctions as leverage.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Some general analysis of the discussions in Geneva by Washington Institute expert Simon Henderson in a video interview.
- Iran put out statements apparently toughening their stance in the wake of the talks.
- Also discussing US negotiating strategy – including the need to threaten stronger sanctions if no deal is reached – is former senior American official specialising in the Middle East Ambassador Dennis Ross. Plus, a news report claiming the US Administration was already softening sanctions quietly in the lead up to the Geneva talks.
- Jonathan Tobin and Boaz Bismuth express gratitude to the French for their public demand for a toughening of the original P5+1 stance before talks ended without an agreement.
- Before leaving for Geneva to discuss the aborted nuclear deal with Iran, US Secretary of State John Kerry made some highly critical remarks about Israel’s peace policy in an interview on Israeli and Palestinian television. Some interesting responses to Kerry’s remarks come from Israeli strategic expert and recent AIJAC guest Efraim Inbar, Israeli columnist Arik Elman, and from Israeli international law expert Alan Baker.
- Both the IDF and an Israeli NGO send help to the devastated Philippines in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan.
- Isi Leibler writes about what he sees as an increasingly serious disconnect between the Obama Administration and Israel.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Allon Lee looks at what most reporting of the latest revelations in the ongoing story about allegations Arafat was poisoned with polonium left out. Subsequently, additional developments in this story include the Russians releasing a report saying the evidence does not support a finding of polonium poisoning, and a leading British nuclear biomedical expert saying it is “highly unlikely” Arafat was poisoned with polonium.
- Sharyn Mittelman on how the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority celebrates as heroes Palestinian murderers released by Israel.
- Ahron Shapiro on a story in the Australian which got it very wrong on Jerusalem and some demolition orders issued for illegally constructed apartment buildings.
- Or Avi-Guy on how the International Tennis Federation took a stand against the sort of discrimination against Israelis advocated by BDS activists.
- AIJAC’s statement on the latest reports about Australian government plans to change the Racial Hatred Act.
By Michael Rubin
CNN, November 9th, 2013
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva on Friday amidst speculation that marathon talks might yield a nuclear deal, or at least an agreed framework for future talks. Should the two sides come to an agreement, both the State Department and the White House will hail the breakthrough, even as they caution that they will re-impose sanctions should Iran violate the deal. That would be an empty threat. As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can attest, diplomats don’t abandon a process once begun.
The Iranian nuclear portfolio has stymied diplomats for well over a decade. The Iran issue was the first crisis outside the borders of Europe on which the European Union took the lead. EU officials hoped to show that diplomacy and multilateral organizations could be more successful than cowboy unilateralism. The crisis accelerated in 2005 when, after several warnings, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Iran in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards agreement. The diplomatic center of gravity then shifted to New York, where the U.N. Security Council passed a series of resolutions, many by unanimous vote, imposing increasing sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Both the United States and European Union augmented these sanctions with increasingly broad unilateral measures targeting both Iran’s oil industry and its currency. Collectively, the sanctions had effect.
By any Western standard, Tehran has every reason to come in from the cold. The Iranian economy is in shambles. In September, the Iranian Bureau of Statistics announced that the Iranian economy, already weak, had shrunk 5.4 percent over the previous year. Inflation upon basic foodstuffs is high. According to the Iranian Central Bank, over the past year, the price of bread increased 38.8 percent, dairy products were up more than 50 percent, and the price of tea increased over 58 percent. Smokers – and Iran is full of them – suffered even greater sticker shock. The price of tobacco nearly doubled in a year.
The problem is that the Iranian leadership does not operate by Western standards. Seldom does the Iranian government place the wellbeing of its population above its own revolutionary ideology. The Supreme Leader considers himself the Deputy of the Messiah on Earth. Sovereignty comes from God; what the Iranian people may think is beside the point.
Iranian officials will certainly say what is needed to relieve sanctions, but the Iranian leadership has no intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions. On February 9, 2005, Hassan Rouhani gave a speech entitled “Iran’s Measures Rob the Americans of Foresight,” in which he outlined a doctrine of surprise. The Islamic Republic achieved repeated victories over the West because “the actions of the regime took the world by surprise.” In 2009, Rouhani bragged about dividing and deceiving the West in order to advance Iran’s nuclear program. If at first you succeed, try, try again.
Deception is not hard when an adversary wants to be deceived. The West celebrated Rouhani’s phone call with Obama – never mind that on October 2, according to Iranian radio, Rouhani backtracked on his willingness to compromise in his own press conference back in Tehran. Diplomats applauded hints that Iran might close the underground nuclear facility in Fordo, never mind that the same day Western sources reported the possible concession, Iran’s nuclear chief ruled it out. The State Department breathed a collective sigh of relief when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appeared to bless Rouhani’s diplomacy by calling for “heroic flexibility,” never mind that his aides quickly clarified that he endorsed only a change in tactics, not a change in policy. For his part, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared to the Iranian press Thursday that “the Islamic Republic of Iran makes no deal over its [nuclear] right.” Kayhan, a newspaper whose editor Khamenei appoints and often serves as his voice, last month ridiculed the notion of confidence-building with the West.
It appears Iran has not made any deal that would curtail its nuclear ambition. As described, the framework upon which U.S. and Iranian negotiators appear to agree fails to resolve those issues of most concern to regional states. Obama has unilaterally waived Security Council resolutions demanding a complete enrichment cessation. There may be some enrichment suspension at key sites but, as Rouhani bragged in 2009, he used an early suspension to install new and better centrifuges. And while Iran might convert some more highly enriched uranium to less usable fuel rods, it has backtracked its own earlier proposals to ship fissile material abroad.
Of even more strategic concern, the deal does not address Arak. On Thursday, a German court sentenced four businessmen who sold components to Iran for that plutonium-producing plant. When Arak becomes operational within a year, it can produce enough plutonium for two bombs per year. Nor has Iran made any concession on Parchin, where Iran conducted weapons research. In short, Kerry can arrive back from Geneva and declare triumphantly, “I have in my hand a paper signed by Mohammad Javad Zarif,” but the agreement does not stop Iran from assembling the material or know-how needed to make a bomb. There is no truth and reconciliation component to the deal: Iran needs not come clean on its previous activities. If the regime had truly has a change of heart, such transparency should not be an issue.
Diplomats may celebrate a deal, but a bad deal can be worse than no deal. Sometimes, the hangover is not worth the celebration.
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But this line of thinking assumes that the Islamic Republic has shown any willingness to make concessions, something that is highly doubtful judging from what we know about the materializing deal.
Iran has not, apparently, agreed to significantly reduce the number of centrifuges in operation – including its newer IR-2 centrifuges – that make nuclear breakout a real possibility.
Nor does it seem that Iran has agreed to stop construction of its Arak plutonium reactor, a project with no civilian use that, if completed, would be nearly impossible to attack, since doing so could ignite the plutonium. It has not even agreed, apparently, to significantly reduce the amount of 20-percent enriched plutonium in its possession.
And transparency, perhaps the most crucial element in any agreement, is severely lacking. All promises made by Iran must be verifiable. Sites such as Parchin, near Tehran, where Iran is thought to have conducted nuclear arms experiments, must be opened to inspectors.
If a nuclear deal is reached without these elements, the Islamic Republic would be freed from some crippling sanctions and at the same time be able to continue to develop nuclear weapons.
The US and other P5+1 members should not be concerned about taking too tough a stance. The Iranians face serious domestic pressures. Their economy is a shambles with skyrocketing inflation and unemployment and low growth. Oil exports, their main source of income, have been severely curtailed. The Iranians are in desperate need of relief.
The P5+1 appears to be willing to allow Iran to extricate itself from its dire economic crisis. Instead of restricting its concessions to the release of frozen assets, the P5+1 has reportedly shown a willingness to weaken the sanction regime. The White House says these concessions are “reversible.” But there are too many businesses waiting for a green light to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic. Softening sanctions is easy. Reinstating them if Iran breaks its side of the agreement would be much harder.
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected outright the materializing interim nuclear agreement, calling it “a very bad deal.” And Israel is not alone. France is strongly opposed to the proposal, as are the Saudis and other Sunni states on the Persian Gulf. In the US Congress there is bipartisan support not just for keeping in place existing sanctions, but for adding more.
Thankfully, the proposed nuclear deal was not signed in Geneva this weekend. We hope the criticism voiced by Netanyahu, the French, the Saudis and Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the US has compelled members of the P5+1 to reconsider their priorities in negotiating with the Iranians.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry noted recently, a bad deal would be worse than none at all. The agreement considered this weekend in Geneva was precisely such a bad deal.
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France blocked a disastrous nuclear-arms deal sought by Obama. Now Congress has a chance to say merci.
Was the deal that Iran came close to negotiating with six world powers in Geneva over the weekend likely to keep Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon? Not according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said that the proposed agreement—to relax economic sanctions while reining in only parts of Iran’s nuclear program—was a “sucker’s deal.” All indications are that it was Mr. Fabius and the French government whose skepticism blocked the bargain intensely sought by the Obama administration and the mullahs in Tehran.
Over the past two decades, no country has been more consistent than France in recognizing Iran’s unrelenting mendacity about its nuclear ambitions. The White House now will undoubtedly try to pressure French President François Hollande to relent. With talks set to resume on Nov. 20, lawmakers on Capitol Hill who want to encourage Mr. Hollande to stand firm now have an opportunity to do so—and to stymie the administration’s efforts—by enacting more hard-hitting economic sanctions on Iran.
Yet in Geneva, even France seems to have joined its partners—the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and Germany—in being ready to grant de facto recognition of the Islamic Republic’s “right” to enrich uranium. Iran has plenty of low-grade uranium because its spinning centrifuges have been implicitly accepted by President Obama and U.S. allies. What seems to have troubled the French about the negotiations—but no one else—was that construction would continue on Iran’s heavy-water reactor, giving Tehran a pathway to a plutonium bomb, and that not a single piece of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be dismantled.
The perplexing thing about the Obama administration’s recent diplomacy regarding Iran: Messrs. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry don’t seem to recognize that they will likely never again have as much economic leverage over Tehran as they do right now.
The impact of Euro-American sanctions on Iran is what helped to jump-start the presidential campaign of Hasan Rouhani, who was elected in June on promises to court the West and rescue the economy. Electoral opinion has, of course, never overridden theocracy in the Islamic Republic. But to whatever extent Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei fears popular unrest provoked by sanctions, that trepidation will lessen once economic pressure is relaxed.
The efficacy of sanctions depends on the threat of escalation, where an ever-expanding web of restrictions scares off foreign businesses. Even when sanctions on Iran were violated, that didn’t really matter, because Washington—Congress, really—created an impression that it intended to encircle Iran with an economic minefield.
The sanctions game with Iran has been as much psychological as legal. When the Obama administration sends a signal that it is willing to reduce economic sanctions for little in return, the general impression abroad—reinforced by French objections to the soft American position in Geneva—is that the White House’s resolve is waning.
The White House similarly forfeited whatever military leverage it had over Iran in September by bungling matters in Syria, where Tehran strongly backs Bashar Assad’s regime. When Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, France was unambiguous about its willingness to strike at Assad militarily; it was the U.K. and then the U.S. that backed down.
So where does that leave us? Reports out of Geneva indicate that the Obama administration was ready to unfreeze Iranian assets and ease sanctions on exports, including gold, petrochemicals and the Iranian auto sector, which would have brought tens of billions of dollars to the regime. The White House seems not to appreciate the ironic effect of its attempted deal-making. Any concession on sanctions that releases hard currency to Tehran provides cash that it could spend on its nuclear program—or to aid the Assad regime or any of Iran’s other unsavory friends.
According to the administration’s narrative, Iran’s nuclear pacification is going to happen through a series of ever-increasing “carrots” (read: bribes) delivered by the U.S. and Europe and sold by the “moderate” Rouhani to the hard-core guardians of the Islamic revolution as a reason to devote their nuclear program to purely peaceful purposes.
Epiphanies do happen. It is possible, though highly unlikely, that Mr. Rouhani—the former right-hand man of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who drove the nuclear program in the 1980s and 1990s—now wants to forsake his nuclear legacy. But why would the prospect of easing sanctions help him persuade the Revolutionary Guards and Supreme Leader Khamenei to abandon the cause? They have already invested their pride, billions of dollars and much of their religious authority on the cherished goal of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Geneva negotiations indicate that Mr. Rouhani’s bosses are willing only to make concessions that are easily revoked or not much of a nuclear impediment to start with.
The U.S. and its allies seem much more likely to get the attention of the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards if the pain from sanctions is so intense that a choice has to be made between economic collapse and the nuclear program.
America’s capacity to inflict more pain on those who are driving Tehran’s nuclear effort is substantial. New financial sanctions could lock up all of Iran’s currency reserves—around $70 to $80 billion—held abroad, which would effectively shut down non-humanitarian imports and collapse the rial, Iran’s currency. Financial relief would only come when Iran takes steps to verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its military-nuclear program—and only through controllable accounts, in Europe, where Tehran could exchange funds for industrial goods.
Even new sanctions may not be enough to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. But after the debacle of American policy in Syria, sanctions are really the only hammer the U.S. has left. America would have a strong hand in negotiations with Iran if President Obama were serious about leaving “all options on the table”—including the threat of military action. His hand might be decent if he were prepared to play economic hardball. But he has to be prepared to fail in order to win. It’s the price of admission to power politics in the Middle East.
Mr. Dubowitz is the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Iran sanctions and nonproliferation projects. Mr. Gerecht, a former Iran-targets officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, is a senior fellow at the foundation.