February 23, 2013
Number 02/13 #05
A new round of P5+1 (meaning the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) nuclear talks with Iran, the first since July of last year, is scheduled for next Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Kazakhstan. There are reports that Iran will be presented with a “substantial and serious offer” from the P5+1 to halt the more worrying enrichment activity – but expectations seems generally modest. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran this week began installing much quicker second generation centrifuges. This Update offers some background to the talks and explores some of the reasons few expect a significant breakthrough.
First is Israeli academic expert Prof. Eytan Gilboa, who examines the recent diplomatic dance between the US and Iran about the possibility of direct bilateral talks. He notes that US Vice-President Biden’s offer of direct talks if Iran was prepared to make a “real and tangible” offer was swiftly rebuffed by the Iranians, who demanded all sanctions be lifted and Iran’s right to a nuclear program be recognised first. Gilboa concludes that recent appointments by US President Obama, as well as North Korea’s success in defying international sanctions and outrage, may have convinced Iranian leaders that US warnings and efforts to intimidate are not credible. For the rest of Gilboa’s analysis of the US-Iranian pre-Kazakistan summit preliminaries,
Next up, Washington Institute Iran expert Patrick Clawson explores an important but little canvassed reason not to expect a nuclear breakthrough anytime soon – the current disarray in Iranian domestic politics. Clawson says that Iranian political leaders have always been sharply divided and characterised by major disagreements about talks with the US, but the situation today is much worse than it has even been before, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei increasingly unable, as in the past, to successfully put an end to major debates. Clawson provides considerable evidence that Iranian leaders are unable to agree on, in his words, “a damn thing”, making Teheran’s agreement to and implementation of a nuclear deal “less and less likely.” For Clawson’s knowledgeable look at the Iranian political situation which has led him to these conclusions, CLICK HERE.
Finally, former senior US official Elliott Abrams has a quick look at the effect sanctions are having on Iran – and sees little sign that the impact is going to be enough to force a change of policy. He notes that while oil sales, the currency and foreign reserves are all down as a result of the sanctions, there is no sign that these trends are anywhere near pushing Iran to economic collapse, or impacting the population enough to cause a change in policy. He argues only much tougher sanctions – especially ones that would have a much larger impact on oil sales and the import of refined pertroleum products – have any chance of doing this, but these do not seem to be in the cards. For Abrams’ argument in full, complete with some relevant numbers, CLICK HERE. In addition, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz explore the reality behind Iranian claims that sanctions are creating shortages of vital medicines and threatening civilian lives.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A man is on trial in Cyprus (an EU member) for allegedly helping Hezbollah prepare terror attacks there, yet the EU continues to drag its feet, to the consternation of Israeli officials, over proscribing Hezbollah. Plus, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah comes out of hiding to threaten Israel, while Hezbollah clashes with Syrian rebel forces over its support for the Assad regime.
- In Israel, PM Netanyahu signs up former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her small HaTnuah party to his coalition, promising her the Justice Ministry and a role as chief negotiator with the Palestinians. Some good analysis of the implications of the move is here.
- Some excellent analysis of why the Israeli election turned out the way it did from Israeli polling expert Camil Fuchs in conversation with journalist Shmuel Rosner – here, here, here and here.
- While the Ben Zygier/Prisoner X continues to generate far too much coverage to summarise, some recommended pieces include Canadian academic Gil Troy’s argument why this is likely much less of a scandal than most coverage is implying, top Israeli journalist Ben Caspit on Israel’s need for censorship, some questions about ASIO’s role from Henry Benjamin of Jwire, and an enlightening interview on ABC radio with visiting Israeli journalist Alon Ben David.
- Plus, here is Israeli PM Binyamin Netnayahu’s recent statement on the affair, denying that Zygier had been in contact with Australian security agencies prior to his arrest, as some reports have claimed. Australian Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has supported Netanyahu’s claims.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
Prof. Eytan Gilboa
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 198
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The United States and Iran are trading diplomatic fire, with each side demanding conditions for direct negotiations to discuss Iran’s nuclear crisis. Neither side seems willing to budge on these demands, which raises the possibility that Iran will continue its drive to the bomb, leaving Obama with no other choice but to take military action.
The United States and Iran are exchanging tough messages on possible negotiations towards a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis. Both sides are presenting conditions for direct negotiations, which would be the first of their kind. In international relations theory this phenomenon is called “pre-negotiation.” During this phase the sides calculate the benefits and drawbacks of the negotiating process itself and of a possible agreement. They present tough opening positions which they know the other side can’t accept, and they attempt to obtain concessions from the other side just for agreeing to negotiate. This has been the negotiating style of both the Palestinians and the Iranians. It seems that the West in general and the United States in particular don’t know how to effectively handle this style.
During a February 2013 international security conference in Munich, American Vice President Joe Biden said that there “is still time.[and] space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court.” He added that the discussions would be held on condition of a “real and tangible” Iranian offer. Biden hinted that the atmosphere surrounding previous negotiations was not serious, because Iran was not ready to make a single compromise; its sole purpose was to buy time and advance its drive to the nuclear bomb in the interim. His message was clear: the United States will not agree to such negotiations, and will not remove sanctions merely in exchange for Iran’s entrance into deliberations. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama called upon Iranian leaders to “recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations.” He concluded that the United States “will do what is necessary to prevent [Iran] from getting a nuclear weapon.”
The Iranian reply was immediate. The two Iranian leaders – the spiritual and more significant leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and the political leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – responded negatively and conditionally to Biden’s invitation. We are ready for negotiations, they said, but only if the United Sates and the West announce support for Iran’s right to a nuclear program, and on condition that the heavy sanctions against Iran are removed. It is obvious that the United States can’t accept these demands, because the sanctions’ removal would eliminate any chance, remote as they are, to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The sanctions and the heavy damage they have inflicted on the Iranian economy pushed the Iranian leaders to seek negotiations, and suspending them now will eliminate any incentive they may have to compromise.
It is very possible that the tough stance of the Iranian leadership stems from its perception of the new senior appointments of the Obama Administration in foreign and national security affairs: John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as the nominated Secretary of Defense. Both men are veterans of the Vietnam War and are almost fundamentally opposed to using any type of force to bring results. In the past, Hagel even opposed sanctions and claimed that it is impossible to halt the Iranian nuclear program. In his Senate testimony he also made an embarrassing statement by characterizing the Iranian regime as “legitimate.” The Iranian leaders interpreted these appointments, as well as Obama’s and Biden’s invitation to open talks, as signs of weakness to be exploited for advancing their nuclear weapons program and for setting tough conditions for negotiations. The Iranian leaders have also closely observed the North Korean defiance of the United States and the Western pressure to stop the testing of nuclear weapons and long range missiles, and could have concluded that the US warnings and intimidations are not credible and ineffective.
The current stalemate threatens to cripple Obama’s Iranian strategy. He planned heavy sanctions that he hoped would soften the Iranian position and bring them to negotiations and direct discussions with a good chance to stop the bomb. It is apparent that the goals of the two sides contradict each other: America wants Iran to stop enriching its uranium, while Iran wants to end the sanctions. The Iranians know how to conduct negotiations much better than the Americans; they have thousands of years of experience in bazaar-like bargaining. Thus, if the United States and Iran reach an agreement to begin direct negotiations, the ultimate results may be favorable to the Iranians. The American desire to avoid the military option almost at any cost may produce a vague agreement which will still enable Iran to clandestinely continue developing nuclear weapons. If no direct negotiations are held, or if they are held but fail to stop Iran from continuing to develop nuclear weapons, and if Obama stands by his commitments to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb – the Administration may have no choice but to use military force.
The diplomatic fire that both sides have recently exchanged does not close the door on talks. Pre-negotiations will continue in public channels, and possibly even in secret ones. During Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel he will have to clarify what he expects from direct negotiations with Iran, and what he plans to do should the sanctions and diplomacy fail to stop the Iranian bomb.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and Director of the Center for International Communication, both at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
By Patrick Clawson
Foreign Policy, February 20, 2013
At the moment, the Islamic Republic is just too dysfunctional to cut a nuclear deal.
During the chaotic days of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the country’s emerging “supreme leader,” assured Iranians that their supposed oppressor, the United States, would not be able to put the hated shah back on his throne. “America can’t do a damn thing against us,” he inveighed, a winning line that became the uprising’s unofficial slogan. It’s a catchphrase Iran has deployed time and again since, most recently in a taunting billboard along the Iran-Iraq border and in a banner hung in front of a captured American drone (though hilariously, in the latter case, the hapless banner-makers mistranslated the phrase as “America Can Do No Wrong”).
Khomeini’s slogan was true enough at the time: There wasn’t much U.S. President Jimmy Carter could do to intervene in one of the most stunning uprisings in history. But today, when it comes to Iran’s endless nuclear impasse with the West, one might turn the phrase back on the Iranians: The problem, in a nutshell, is that Iran can’t agree to a damn thing.
Indeed, the slow pace of nuclear negotiations with Iran are only the beginning of the reasons to be discouraged about resolution of the standoff. More worrying is that political infighting in Tehran is so bad that Iran might not be able to bring itself to accept unilateral U.S. unconditional surrender were it to be offered.
To be sure, eight months between negotiating sessions — June 18-19, 2012 in Moscow, followed by the upcoming session slated for Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan — is bad news enough. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hit the nail on the head when he warned last week, “We should not give much more time to the Iranians, and we should not waste time. We have seen what happened with [North Korea]. It ended up that they [were] secretly, quietly, without any obligations, without any pressure, making progress” on nuclear weapons.
But the pace of talks is only the beginning of the problem. More important is the political meltdown among the Islamic Republic’s leaders. Their problems should help put ours in perspective. Many Americans think Washington faces gridlock from hyperpartisan politics, though in fact Iran is an exception to that rule. Bills about Iran’s nuclear program typically enjoy stunning levels of support — 100 to 0 in the Senate in the December 2011 round of sanctions. In the November 2012 vote on another sanctions round, several senators were absent, so the vote was a cliffhanger 94 to 0.
By contrast, Iranian leaders fight about everything, even where vital national security interests are at stake. In many respects, a divided Iran is nothing new. The Islamic Republic has from its beginning been characterized by sharp internal divisions. And that has long influenced debate about policy toward the United States. For at least 20 years, the rule in Iran has been: Whoever is out of power wants talks with the United States, which they know would be popular, while whoever is in power moves haltingly if at all toward talks. Several times, those on the outs became the ins and then quickly shifted position on relations with Washington. When Mohammad Khatami was running for president in 1997, he was all in favor of talks with the Great Satan, but then once in power, he did little if anything and refused to speak clearly on the issue. And so too with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: When he was riding high, he only had disdain for the United States, but as he got into trouble at home, he called for talks with Washington.
But now, the situation is much worse than before. It used to be that once Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke, that ended the debate, but no longer. Khamenei no longer enjoys the respect nor commands the power to stop the infighting. No matter how often or bluntly he rejects the idea of negotiations with the United States, other important officials — most loudly and frequently, Ahmadinejad — call for such talks.
Khamenei couches his call for obedience as a need for unity and vigilance in the face of the enemy. A typical speech on January 29 warned, “Today the world of Islam is faced with the plot of enemies…We should not fuel the fire of discord by arousing shallow and vulgar feelings. This will burn the fate of nations. It will completely destroy them. It will help the enemies of Islam.” Consistent with his longstanding reluctance to publicly weigh in directly on political disputes, Khamenei has usually confined himself to elliptical criticisms, such as his warning in a Feb. 7 speech to Air Force commanders, “The improper conduct which is witnessed in certain areas from certain government officials — they should end this.” He concluded with another strong call for unity.
Admonished by the supreme leader to close ranks, Iranian leaders promptly put on a full display of their bitter enmity. The Majlis, Iran’s legislature, called in for questioning Labor Minister Reza Shaikholsislami, a close ally of Ahmadinejad. In response, the Iranian president went to the Majlis for the Feb. 3 debate and insisted on accusing Speaker Ali Larijani and his family (including his brother Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary) of corruption, playing a recording he claimed supported the charge. Ruled out of order, Ahmadinejad stormed out. The Majlis then voted Shaikholislami dismissed by a vote of 192 to 56; Ahmadinejad promptly added him to his official delegation leaving for Egypt. Five days after the Majlis brawl, 100 Ahmadinejad supporters pelted Ali Larijani with shoes, disrupting a speech he was trying to give in Qom.
Khamenei was clearly appalled that neither his public admonitions nor his reported firm private orders had been enough to stop the feuding. So he lit into the two sides in a Feb. 16 address, saying, “What is the reason behind impeaching a minister a few months before the end of the life of the government, for a reason that had nothing to do with that minister?…The head of one branch of power [Ahmadinejad] accused the two other branches of power based on a charge that was not raised or proved in a court…Such acts are against the sharia as well as the law and ethics.” Turning to the disputes about corruption, he added, “I expect the officials to enhance their friendship at this time that enemies have intensified their [hostile] behavior. Be together more than before. Control your wild sentiments.” He warned that if they did not follow his counsel, there would be grave consequences.
Khamenei was ignored again. Two days after this speech, the Supreme Court — largely controlled by Sadeq Larijani — upheld four death sentences against close Ahmadinejad allies in a high-profile corruption case. Neither the president nor his equally conservative, hard-line opponents seem to fear Khamenei or much respect his authority anymore.
By their actions, Iranian leaders are giving the strong impression that they are so preoccupied by their internal differences that they cannot agree on, well, a damn thing. Disunity helps the enemy, Khamenei frequently says. But the world powers negotiating with Iran would be glad to see more unity in Tehran, because a more unified Iranian government would be better able to reach a deal and then implement it. That seems less and less likely. The time is rapidly approaching when the big powers, or at least the United States, need to set out a stark choice for Iran’s leaders: Either accept a generous offer to resolve the nuclear impasse or be prepared for the consequences.
Patrick Clawson is director of research at The Washington Institute.
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by Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations, February 21, 2013
It’s a commonplace to say that sanctions against Iran are tighter than ever and are working. Here’s an example from White House spokesman Jay Carney last Fall: ”We have diplomatic isolation and international isolation that’s unprecedented in history and it’s having a profound impact on both the Iranian economy and the Iranian regime’s internal political structure.”
The problem is that sanctions appear to be having no impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which is after all their purpose. Impoverishing Iranians is not the goal.
The damage to Iran’s economy is visible: oil exports are down (though because oil prices are up, the impact of this is reduced); the currency has fallen in value by about two-thirds against the dollar; foreign exchange reserves are apparently down from about $100 billion to perhaps $75 billion.
But that is not economic collapse. A foreign ambassador stationed in Iran recently told me that the depressed value of the currency means, for example, that a middle class family used to an annual vacation in Turkey can no longer afford to take that trip. They now have to vacation inside Iran. But as he noted, that’s hardly the kind of thing that produces rioting and it isn’t going to produce a change in the Supreme Leader’s nuclear policy.
Reuters‘ Middle East economics editor recently wrote that sanctions “are not close to having the ‘crippling’ effect envisaged by Washington. The Iranian government has found ways to soften the impact, and Iran’s economy is large and diverse enough to absorb a lot of punishment.” He noted that “The International Monetary Fund estimated in October that Iran would post a general state budget deficit of 3.9 percent of gross domestic product this year – easily bearable for a government with gross debt of only about 9 percent of GDP.” Moreover, “government subsidies and handouts are expected to continue softening the impact of inflation on Iran’s poorer families by keeping staple foods such as bread, rice, sugar and edible oil affordable for them. Parliament agreed last month to allocate a further $2 billion to support low-income families.”
So sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, and are hurting many Iranians–though the richest can take care of themselves, and the poorest are protected by the government. But there is no crisis, and it seems to be wishful thinking that the ayatollahs will abandon their nuclear program because the economic pain, and the political risk it is producing, are too great. That could happen if sanctions–especially sanctions that reduce Iran’s oil exports a good deal more and interfere with its ability to import refined products–are strengthened. But that does not seem to be in the cards.