The latest extension to the Iranian nuclear talks
Dec 3, 2014
Update from AIJAC
December 3, 2014
Number 12/14 #01
This Update deals with the implications and background to the announcement last week of an extenstion to the Iranian nuclear talks, between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) for another seven month past the original Nov. 24 deadline established by an interim agreement late last year (and then extended in June).
The first entry comes from Reuel Marc Gerecht, an always insightful American writer and researcher on Iranian policy issues. Gerecht notes that US Secretary of State John Kerry explained the extension in terms of the technical “complexity” of the issues being tackled but argues that across a variety of areas – centrifuges, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, the Fordow plant, inspections – the P5+1’s negotiating stance has served to help create greater and unnecessary complexity. He suggests that Western concessions to the Iranians – a major source of this complexity – actually reflect the fact that the Iranians are refusing to offer a workable deal, but the P5+1 cannot admit this reality. Gerecht urges the US Congress to seek ways to increase sanction pressure on Iran. For Gerecht’s detailed look at many of the difficulties associated with the various elements of the nuclear deal being discussed, CLICK HERE. More on options for the US Congress comes from the Foreign Policy Initiative thinktank.
Next up, offering an Israeli point of view on the state of the Iranian nuclear file, is Amos Yadlin, once a senior general, now the head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. He canvasses the differing goals of the Iranians and the P5+1 – the Iranians seeking the ability to develop a bomb at short notice plus fast sanctions relief, the P5+1 trying to prevent the former – as well as the specific gaps on different issues such as what nuclear infrastructure Iran can keep, inspections regimes, duration of the deal and the pace of sanctions relief. He also has a good summary of Israeli concerns, preferences and options at the present time. For this important piece summarising the current reality from a leading strategic expert, CLICK HERE. More on why Israel prefers the extension of the talks than the likely alternatives from Michael Herzog and Jonathan Tobin.
Finally, Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy look at the complexities that are still likely to apply even if a nuclear deal is actually reached before the new deadline of next June. These include not only compliance questions, which were canvassed by Gerecht and Yadlin, but unrealistic Iranian expectations that their economy will experience a dramatic turn-around and Western expectations that relations will improve markedly, or that so-called regime “moderates” will be strengthened against hardliners by such a deal. They particularly warn that Supreme Leader Khamenei has vetoed apparently completed deals in the past, and will remain in charge, while his strongly anti-Western worldview is unlikely to change after a nuclear deal even if he approves it. For the rest of what Clawson and Khalaji have to say about post-nuclear deal scenarios, CLICK HERE. Plus some recommendations of where the US Administration should go from here from their Washington Institute colleague Michael Singh.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Some highly critical comments on where the Iran negotiations are at from non-proliferation specialist Jeffrey Lewis, American analyst and author Lee Smith, Israeli academic Eyal Zisser, and former Spanish President José María Aznar.
- Michael Rubin points out that Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei has essentially given an answer to US President Obama’s recent note to him offering cooperation against ISIS – by blaming the US and Israel for ISIS in a speech. Rubin also commented on what Iran seeks from the nuclear talks.
- Max Boot argues that worries about keeping the talks with Iran going are hampering the fight against ISIS.
- Jeffrey Goldberg speaks to a leading Congressional Democrat on why US Iran policy and the terms of a deal are worrying even members of President Obama’s own party.
Daniel Pipes offers some thoughts on the extension.
- Veteran Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller offers some points from his own experience of how negotiators can become dedicated to a diplomatic process even though it is actually hopeless, and points to four factors which militate against an Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, Elliot Abrams sees parallels between the Iran nuclear talks and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – in that both are continued with even after it becomes apparent that no final deal is achievable.
- Coalition problems in the Netanyahu Government means it looks likely that Israel will be heading for new elections, probably in March. More on this in the next Update.
- Isi Leibler commends an important speech by Israel’s UN Ambassador Ron Prosor (video here).
The ‘complex’ negotiations with Iran.
Predictably, President Barack Obama and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have decided to extend again the Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear deal they concluded in November 2013. Unlike the last extension, which was for four months, this one is for seven months; the “political” parts of the deal, Secretary of State John Kerry assures us, should be done by March, while further “technical and drafting” details may take until July.
This is an odd situation: Obama agreed to the first, shorter extension last July, when little progress on the big issues had been made. Yet after 10 rounds of negotiations and numerous side meetings, in which, per Secretary Kerry, “progress was indeed made on some of the most vexing challenges that we face,” we now need a longer extension? This is necessary, the secretary suggests, because the great progress made is just so “complex” that it requires, as he put it, an “incredible amount of rigorous technical analysis of concepts.”
Let us suggest a different narrative. More time is required for more complex negotiations because the Obama administration continues to make concessions to the Iranians that it attempts to justify with technical alchemy. Let us look at centrifuges, perhaps the hardest “technical” issue.
It really wouldn’t require long, rigorous negotiations if the American position were still the position the Obama administration inherited from the U.N. Security Council when it came into office: no enrichment of uranium. If Tehran could not maintain a single cascade of centrifuges to produce fissile material in bomb-grade quantity or stockpile enriched uranium, either as a gas or a reversible solid oxide, sufficient for a single nuclear weapon, matters would be relatively clear.
Constraining uranium enrichment becomes more complex when Washington starts conceding to the clerical regime thousands of centrifuges and a larger uranium stockpile. When Khamenei declines our offers—which it appears he’s done repeatedly since November 2013—President Obama’s response has been to allow Iran more centrifuges or SWUs (meas-ures of uranium enrichment). Both Western and Iranian media report a current American benchmark of around 4,500 machines; Revolutionary Guard-affiliated media have mentioned 6,000 centrifuges.
The recently leaked American plan to leave several thousand centrifuges spinning but disconnect the piping for most of the cascades at the Natanz enrichment sites and mothball these “excess” centrifuges was a pristine example of American technicians and diplomats trying to work around the supreme leader’s literalism. Since Khamenei had declared that not a single machine could be dismantled, then why not aim at the piping that makes a cascade? Such a plan could, of course, easily become a minefield of technical abuse. With the nuclear infrastructure of Natanz essentially intact, Iranian engineers could rapidly reconnect newer, much more efficient machines, thus presenting the United States with a shorter break-out time for a bomb.
Iranian press reports suggest that the piping proposal (fortunately) didn’t pass muster. It appears the supreme leader, who when it comes to all things American is neither curious nor forbearing, wasn’t sufficiently impressed. We hadn’t conceded enough. It’s a good guess that however many centrifuges we’d conceded as of November 24, the old deadline, the number will be increased in the next seven months, further complicating the challenge of devising a way to give Khamenei what he wants while maintaining a modicum of American integrity.
And what’s so complex and time-consuming about the heavy-water reactor at Arak? If it is converted to a light-water reactor, as the United States and Europe have requested, the extraction of plutonium becomes a very difficult task (though inspectors would still have to monitor closely the extremely hot, but extractable, spent fuel). Arak only becomes diplomatically complex and time-consuming when the Iranians refuse to accept this downgrade, thereby preserving the possibility of more easily producing a weapon. The plutonium path to an A-bomb has probably been a secondary concern for Iranian nuclear engineers since the clandestine facility was revealed in 2002, as a plutonium break-out is difficult to conceal. And yet the Iranians have proven decidedly obstreperous on Arak.
And is Fordow difficult to solve? Buried beneath a mountain, this site was clandestine until 2009. The president once insisted that it be shut down. Apparently, no longer. As a centrifuge research and development facility, Fordow is likely to become for inspectors a cavernous tarpit, where the Iranians constantly push the envelope of what is allowed and what is stoppable under any nuclear deal. The recent incident at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, when the Iranians loaded an advanced IR-5 centrifuge with uranium hexafluoride gas—almost certainly a violation of the Joint Plan of Action—was a small foretaste of what is coming. (Note: The administration has intentionally made it very difficult for Congress to review the classified annexes to the Joint Plan of Action, so it is challenging to know what is, and is not, a violation.) The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency discovered the action and lodged a protest, and the Iranians backed off. Secretary Kerry and his minions, by contrast, doggedly maintain that Tehran hasn’t violated the interim accord, while it’s pretty clear that it did. This is to be expected. The requisite sanctity and momentum of the process encourage good men to fib.
In all probability, Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, who is close to the supreme leader, meant to test the IAEA and the West. The IAEA passed; Washington failed. It’s quite likely that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, under whose amiable spell Secretary Kerry and the other American principals have all fallen, knew nothing of Salehi’s activities. For cause: Zarif, who has no power in the Iranian political system beyond what the supreme leader gives him, is irrelevant to, and probably mostly ignorant of, his country’s nuclear-weapons program. The IR-5 incident, like the recent illicit installation of an advanced IR-8 centrifuge, suggests Fordow’s future as an R&D site. Secretary Kerry is right to underscore the “complexity” of his diplomacy: He is birthing a nightmare.
And we haven’t even gotten to the Additional Protocol Plus, an inspections regime derived from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA practice that would allow IAEA inspectors to go anywhere, anytime without negotiating access with the clerical regime. Without such monitoring authority, any agreement isn’t worth its weight in wood pulp. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps oversees the nuclear program. It has been the primary organization responsible for concealing nuclear-weapons research since the 1980s. Salehi’s Atomic Energy Organization deserves honorable mention for its mendacity, especially with IAEA inspectors, who are often on precarious ground when they are inside Iran trying to ferret out the truth. But it’s the Corps that physically controls the sites. Parchin, where the IAEA and Western intelligence services are pretty sure that Tehran has experimented with nuclear triggers, is a Revolutionary Guard Corps base. Iran’s ballistic-missile programs are also under the control of the guards. The administration has already agreed not to bring up intercontinental ballistic-missile research and development in the nuclear negotiations, instead making the development of nuclear warheads its primary concern. The lead nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, hasn’t yet explained how Washington can verify that Iran isn’t developing a nuclear warhead—and no country has ever experimented with ICBMs and not developed an atomic warhead to put on them—without access to Revolutionary Guard sites, ballistic-missile engineers, and the piles of paperwork behind these projects. She should.
Olli Heinonen, the former number two at the IAEA and now at Harvard, is convinced Iran has illicitly imported enough carbon fiber to manufacture 5,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges, more than enough for a rapid, clandestine nuclear “sneak-out.” The IAEA doesn’t know where this carbon fiber is; the regime refuses to reveal verifiably its location and use. Without an Additional Protocol Plus married to full disclosure by Tehran of its research and development into the militarization of its nuclear work (the IAEA calls this the “PMDs,” or “possible military dimensions,” of the atomic program), the United States is simply incapable of ascertaining whether and how Tehran may be cheating. Yet Iran’s former foreign minister and current adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Velayati, and the deputy to foreign minister Zarif in the nuclear negotiations, Abbas Araghchi, have both made it crystal clear that Iran will not allow anytime, anywhere inspections. Needless to say, since Khamenei has said that the Islamic Republic isn’t developing a nuclear weapon, he’s unlikely to say now, “Oops, I forgot.”
All of this Iranian negativity, of course, makes the nuclear negotiations more “complex,” requiring considerable American ingenuity to explain how it’s possible to verify Iranian compliance. This is why the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, General Michael Hayden, is on record that he could not, if he were still in office, verify the intelligence integrity of a final agreement unless an Additional Protocol Plus and PMDs were included. The Iranians’ refusal to countenance effective verification all by itself would, if the administration were serious, collapse these talks.
Secretary Kerry offered an ingenious solution to this conundrum in his Vienna press conference: “We’re not telling.” The administration is attempting to maintain total secrecy about what has transpired in the negotiations, claiming that such secrecy is absolutely essential to the success of its diplomacy.
But how exactly is this true? On the Iranian side, the supreme leader and senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards know all. They hold Zarif’s leash. They, and they alone, determine the red lines. For them there are no nuclear surprises, no compromises that need to be hidden from a hostile, veto-rendering parliament. Secrecy in these negotiations is intended to hobble only one party: Congress.
And Congress so far has taken it. Hardly a word came out of the institution when the White House established CIA-like ground rules for the perusal of the Joint Plan of Action, which prohibit congressmen from having their own copies of the classified annexes, where the juicy details are buried. This may change when the Republicans assume control of both houses in January. It should. A thorough public debate can only help clarify the good and the bad of what has transpired.
It’s pretty clear now that the administration would like to extend the interim accord to the end of Obama’s presidency—if it can figure out a way to do so. So let us publicly, on the floors of Congress, debate whether that’s a good idea. No matter what happens, a united American front is surely preferable tactically for dealing with Tehran. The Iranians have been adamant throughout the talks that they want sanctions lifted quickly. The president has so far wisely resisted these demands, knowing full well that sanctions are the only real leverage he has. The president may fear that, if he denies Congress a say on one of the most important national-security questions confronting the country, he won’t hold the Democrats necessary to override a veto. His discretionary authority to waive sanctions in these negotiations might get clipped. An ugly Iran debate could actually break what’s left of the president’s reputation and power overseas. If the president can win on the Hill, however, he and the country will be a lot better off.
President Hassan Rouhani, in whose “moderation” the administration has placed all its hopes, does offer a way out. In his nuclear memoirs and in his many speeches defending his time as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, Rouhani tells us clearly that the Western threat of sanctions and the Iranian fear of war with the United States spooked Tehran, rendering the clerical regime amenable to negotiations and a pause in its push for nuclear weapons. Congress and the president need to follow Rouhani’s advice. Increase the pressure. Don’t be scared of Ali Khamenei. We still hold the high ground. Use it—or lose it. Iranian research and development continue to advance.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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Kicking the Can Down the Road
Another Extension of the P5+1 Talks
Despite the strong desire of both sides to reach an agreement, the gaps between them were clearly too large to be bridged. Underlying the failure to reach an agreement is the skepticism of the Western powers regarding Iran’s claim that it has abandoned its strategic goal of attaining military nuclear capability. This distrust of Iran has prevented formulation a detailed agreement that would eliminate any possibility of an Iranian breakout to the bomb. Similar distrust of the West prevails among the conservatives in Iran, headed by Supreme Leader Khamenei, who fear that an agreement blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear military option is a slippery slope, implying surrender to the West and jeopardizing the regime’s future.
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WHAT DIFFERENCE WOULD AN IRAN DEAL MAKE?
By Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji
November 25, 2014
Implementing a nuclear agreement will be no easier than reaching one, and Washington will have little influence over what Iran decides to do over time about the deal.
Reaching a nuclear deal with Iran is proving to be tough, as evidenced by the seven-month extension of talks agreed to on Monday. But negotiating an agreement will only be the first part of resolving the nuclear impasse. At least as important will be persuading Iran to abide by the deal over time, and the regime’s track record suggests that will not be easy. In 2003-2004, Tehran reached two nuclear agreements with the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) and then walked away from them. And in 2009, the regime reached a deal with the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States), but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vetoed it before it could go into effect. Today, a variety of economic and political factors stand to threaten the durability of any new accord.
To the extent that a deal is seen as bringing real benefits at modest cost, then Iran has good reason to follow through fully. By contrast, if a deal is seen as not bringing much to Iran, the regime may be tempted to skimp on implementation or withdraw entirely, perhaps blaming the West for not living up to its end of the bargain. Put more bluntly: if Iran’s economy improves after a deal, the agreement will look good; if the economy stagnates, the deal will look bad.
As in most countries, including the United States, such a straightforward economic evaluation will have more political traction in Iran than a complicated explanation about what actually happened versus what would have happened had there not been a deal at all. Indeed, the Iranian public may make up its mind quickly based on short-term economic changes. That is not good news — while the economy may perform better after a deal, it will not experience the type of immediate boom many Iranians are likely expecting.
Because the short-term economic effects will be mixed at best, they will be subject to varying interpretations. Some Iranians will focus on the paucity of immediate positive effects. In the aftermath of a deal, most U.S. and many international sanctions will remain in place. The nuclear-related sanctions will be phased out over a period of years, and only after Iran follows through on the deal’s provisions, while the many sanctions related to terrorism and human rights will remain indefinitely. Moreover, Iran’s longstanding economic problems are so extensive that any improvement from lifting sanctions may not be politically impressive. Furthermore, the very people who benefit from the current economic distortions can be counted on to deplore the changes if Iran opens up to freer trade and investment.
In contrast, some Iranians will capitalize on the immediate changes resulting from a deal. Restoring the country’s access to more of its frozen foreign exchange reserves held abroad would allow for a substantial injection into the economy, particularly in the first few years before the full impact of relieving trade sanctions is felt.
So perhaps Iranians will see a deal as a good thing, but that is by no means assured. The most likely situation is that some politicians will champion the deal’s positive effects while others will blame the continuing economic problems on the West. The latter camp would no doubt argue that Western governments have not lived up to their obligations, and that rather than pursuing economic cooperation with the West, Iran would be better advised to follow the path of “resistance economy” long advocated by the Supreme Leader.
A nuclear deal might also strengthen President Hassan Rouhani and lead to improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations. But that is not guaranteed. If the economy does not improve apace with public expectations, disappointment with Rouhani — already a common sentiment in Iran — may grow. If the public believes the deal has brought little, then the accord could eventually collapse, with Washington and Tehran blaming one another for the breakdown.
The structure of the Iranian system works against Rouhani becoming more powerful. Khamenei’s interest in amassing greater authority for the Office of the Supreme Leader inclines him toward undercutting other institutions, be it the Majlis or the presidency. Indeed, Iran’s last three presidents suffered this fate after their first two years in office, and Khamenei has been less than vigorous in supporting Rouhani. The Supreme Leader is increasingly vocal about his view that the West is not to be trusted and that resistance works much better than compromise. In many speeches, he has denounced the very negotiations he authorized. For instance, on August 13 he stated:
“Relations with America and negotiations with this country, except in specific cases, not only have no benefit for the Islamic Republic but also are harmful…It was decided that contacts, meetings, and negotiation should take place at the level of foreign ministers, but this was futile, and the rhetoric of Americans became more aggressive and offensive; they have increased their unreasonable expectations in the negotiation meetings and public announcements…This is valuable experience for all of us to learn that sitting and talking to Americans would not have any influence in diminishing their animosity and is futile.”
Despite that skepticism, Khamenei may allow a nuclear deal to proceed. He is not as powerful or charismatic as his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, so he cannot speak his mind as freely on some issues or expect officials to follow him unquestioningly. This explains his tactic of temporarily accepting certain policies, leadership appointments, or election outcomes that command much public support, only to criticize or subvert them later. Khamenei could use that same strategy with a nuclear deal, particularly given his deep suspicion of the negotiations. He may calculate that if implementation of the deal turns out better than he expects, it will work well for the Islamic Republic, and if the effects prove to be as bad as he fears, then the elite and the populace will realize that he was correct in calling the talks futile. In other words, if a deal works, Khamenei takes credit; if it fails, Rouhani gets the blame. In neither scenario does Rouhani become more powerful.
THEORY OF THE CASE?
Even if a nuclear deal does somehow strengthen Rouhani, it is by no means clear that he would press for change in other objectionable Iranian policies. In the White House, one popular “theory of the case” is that a nuclear accord would strengthen Rouhani’s hand and, over time, give him more authority on issues over which he now has little say, such as Syria and Iraq. The presumption is that, much like his handling of the nuclear file, he will want to find ways to normalize Iran’s relations with the rest of the world.
Perhaps so, but thus far Rouhani has been a man of the system. He may see little reason to modify the regime’s support for terrorism and destabilization of neighbors, much less its human rights stance at home. His public speeches have certainly provided no indication that he would change Tehran’s problematic nonnuclear policies.
In any case, Washington can do little to influence which post-deal scenario comes to pass inside Iran, optimistic or pessimistic. So much depends on Iran’s internal political dynamics, in which the United States is at most only a minor player. Since there are no guarantees that an agreement will lead to change in Iranian policies outside the nuclear realm, any deal should be evaluated based on its impact on the nuclear impasse, not on its putative benefits on other issues. In short, it would be inappropriate for Washington to enter into a nuclear deal because of its expected impact on overall bilateral relations.
Patrick Clawson is director of research at The Washington Institute. Mehdi Khalaji left the Institute this summer after nine years to direct the Idea Center for Arts and Culture. They recently wrote the Institute Policy Focus “How Iranians Might React to a Nuclear Deal” (http://washin.st/1ycp6NF).