Friday, 14 November 2014

Iran and the West - how big a gap?

         The signals are mixed.  As the November 24 deadline for reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program approaches, signs of premature triumphalism are emerging from Tehran.  At the same time expressions of caution, if not downright pessimism, emanate from Washington - but are they genuine?  There is a growing belief in the media that a dishonourable deal is in the making. 

This final round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, UK, Russia, China, France – plus Germany) is nearly upon us.  Last week Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, declared that the "Great Satan's" (ie the US's) attempt to bring Iran to its knees had failed.

“Only after the West consented to Iran’s enrichment program,” he said, “did we decide to negotiate with them, and in this battle of wills, the will of the Islamic Republic came out victorious.”

This ratcheting up of the war of words by Tehran is taken by some commentators to indicate growing Iranian confidence about the outcome.

Certain that the Obama administration has discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal of nuclear weapons capability, Iran’s leadership seems convinced that finally the P5+1 will accept a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat. Veteran US Middle East observer Eric Mandel believes that while the West has been lauding Iran for downgrading much of its 20% enriched uranium, Iran’s state-of-the-art centrifuges can convert 3% non-enriched uranium to 90% nuclear grade uranium in six to eight weeks. Right now, Mandel asserts, Iran has enough 3% uranium to produce between six to eight nuclear bombs.  And in return for simply talking, Iran has been rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions to the tune of $7 billion.

So the charm offensive instituted in June 2013 by Iran’s then newly-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has paid off.  Iran’s new strategy had three aims: to deflect the possibility of an armed strike against its nuclear facilities, to lift the burden of the crippling sanctions that had been imposed on the country, and above all to win as much time as possible to ensure that the centrifuges kept spinning and Iran was able to move ever closer to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. 

Rouhani, the self-styled “moderate”, took an early opportunity to indicate that he was willing to reopen discussions about Iran’s nuclear program.  Immediately a number of powerful voices in the West, entranced by Iran’s apparent change of direction, began pressing to readmit Iran into the comity of nations and start negotiating. 

A new Iranian team, led by its president, met the P5+1 in October 2013. The teams reached an interim agreement, which actually permitted Iran to continue enriching uranium, and agreed to meet again in January 2014.  In January the teams decided that they would reach an agreement by July.  There was, it goes without saying, no agreement by July, so the P5+1 agreed to extend the deadline until November 24. And all the time Iran was moving inexorably closer to nuclear weapons capability. So far it has won a precious additional 17 months, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the November 24 deadline will itself be extended.
Arab states across the Middle East have come to regard Iran, its obvious nuclear ambitions, and its long-term objective to become the dominant power in the region, both politically and religiously, as the major threat to their régimes.  Perhaps the fact that Washington has recruited many of them to its anti-Islamic State alliance explains why the US’s attitude has apparently hardened as the November 24 deadline approaches.

In a “Face the Nation” television interview for CBS last week, President Obama was asked about the strong rumours that he had recently sent a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, trying to engage Iran directly in the conflict against the Islamic State.  Obama refused to reply specifically, but he spelled out the US’s big interests in Iran.
“Our number one priority with respect to Iran,” he said, “is making sure they don't get nuclear weapons.”  He was, moreover, far from reassuring about the prospects of reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. “There's still a big gap,” he told interviewer Bob Schieffer. “We may not be able to get there.”

The second big interest, he acknowledged, was the fact that the US and Iran have a shared enemy in IS. “But I've been very clear, publicly and privately, we are not … coordinating with Iran on ISIL. There's … no coordination or common battle plan and there will not be because, and this brings me to the third issue, we still have big differences with Iran's behaviour vis-à-vis our allies… poking and prodding and creating unrest and sponsoring terrorism in the region, around the world, their anti-Israeli rhetoric and behavior, so that's a whole other set of issues which prevents us from ever being true allies…”

Last week Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, provided one explanation for the gap in the nuclear negotiations:  “The reports that we continue to get from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that Iran continues to lie and deceive the world with respect to its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Back in 2013 Iran had promised real cooperation with the IAEA, but has barely answered any of the key questions that could explain whether Iran’s program involves nuclear weapons development or not. Western governments have repeatedly warned Iran they need to see more progress in the IAEA talks to make a deal possible. That deal would involve major constraints on Iran’s future nuclear program in exchange for lifting most sanctions on Tehran.

The IAEA has just issued its quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program.  While acknowledging that Tehran had continued to stand by its pledges to the P5+1 to scale back some of its nuclear activities, the IAEA said that it had provided no real answers on aspects of its past nuclear work that it had promised to provide by August 25. “Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the outstanding issues.”

The IAEA also said that in October, a member of the IAEA technical team was refused a visa to enter Iran for the fourth time, and that technical talks with Iran are now on hold until after November 24. Middle East observer Kenneth Bandler fears that the P5+1 will bend over backwards to conclude an agreement by the deadline, and that the IAEA may not finally be able to fulfil its mandate on monitoring for a nuclear weapons capability.

The gap between Iran’s ultimate ambitions and what the West will tolerate are certainly out in the open. Will Iran’s tenacious defiance finally triumph over the pusillanimity of the US administration, apparently anxious to reach an accommodation with Iran but protesting right up to the wire that it is not?  It is far from certain that November 24 will provide an answer.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 November 2012:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 November 2013:

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