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Opinion | U.S. Demands Will Doom Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

11 Apr 2012 01:48Comments

Insisting on the impossible, when a clear path to a solution actually exists.

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Dr. Muhammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering, which was established by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1973 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
[ opinion ] A new round of negotiations between the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- and Iran will take place on Saturday in Istanbul. As observed here, the flow of leaks from U.S. government officials to the mainstream media has already begun in earnest. On Sunday, an article by David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger of the New York Times reported on the goals of the United States and its allies for the upcoming negotiations:
The Obama administration and its European allies plan to open new negotiations with Iran by demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling of a recently completed nuclear facility deep under a mountain, according to American and European diplomats.

They are also calling for a halt in the production of uranium fuel that is considered just a few steps from bomb grade, and the shipment of existing stockpiles of that fuel out of the country, the diplomats said.

Sanger has routinely referred to Iran's "nuclear weapon program" as if its existence is indisputable. In January, Erlanger wrote an article that made the brazen claim that a "recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency" had concluded that "Iran's nuclear program has a military objective" -- an assertion that the IAEA, despite being politicized by Director-General Yukiya Amano, did not make in its November 2011 report. Criticism of their reporting prompted the Times ombudsman Arthur S. Brisbane to intervene twice, first to say that the Times overstated the findings of the IAEA report, and then to express the view that the paper's coverage of Iran's nuclear program has generally been unbalanced.

The nature of Sunday's article, then, was hardly a surprise. Notably, the description of the "negotiation" plan attributed to "American and European diplomats" is essentially identical to Israel's set of demands regarding the Iranian nuclear program.

Indeed, echoing the Times article, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on the same day it was published that Iran must give up its stockpile of enriched uranium. And in an interview also held that day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said,

The way to confront this strategy of Iran's [stalling and exploiting divisions among its adversaries] is to demand explicit conditions calling for ceasing all uranium enrichment, removal of all enrich[ed] uranium from the country, and its exchange for material which cannot be [used to] develop nuclear weapons, and agreement to give up the underground facility in Qom [the Fordow site].

But assuming that the Times article accurately reflects the Obama administration's goals and demands, which Britain apparently strongly supports, they will be non-starters and will doom the negotiations before they even get under way. Let us take up the two primary demands in turn, to understand their implications.

Dismantling the Fordow site

Iran built the Fordow uranium enrichment site precisely to have a fallback facility if its other sites, such as those in Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak, are attacked and destroyed. The site is effectively indestructible at present. What most Western media reports fail to inform the public is that the site is also monitored and safeguarded by the IAEA, even though the prowar factions in the United States and elsewhere still refer to it as a "secret site." I cannot imagine any scenario under which Iran, and in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the state's most powerful organ, will agree to dismantle Fordow. As Paul Pillar, director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and an ex-CIA intelligence officer, put it,

The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it. In other words, we insist on holding Iranian nuclear facilities hostage to armed attack.

Halting the production of 19.75 percent-enriched uranium

For a long time, Iran actually demonstrated no interest in enriching uranium to 19.75 percent (commonly rounded to 20 percent, although the small difference is actually very important). It says it needs uranium enriched to that level as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which provides medical isotopes for 850,000 patients annually. It asked the IAEA to help it obtain the fuel. On September 30, 2009, Iran reached a preliminary agreement with the United States and its allies to ship out most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France in return for fuel for the TRR. The agreement ultimately broke down because Iran's hardliners set some modest conditions for the swap -- including doing it in Tehran and in installments, rather than all at once -- which were rejected by the Obama administration. Tehran then tried to revive the deal by signing a pact with Turkey and Brazil on May 17, 2010, which followed all the essential lines of the original agreement, but this was rejected out of hand by the United States.

During this entire period, Tehran declared that if it were not supplied with fuel for the TRR, it would be forced to produce it itself, but the pundits claimed that Iran was bluffing and did not have the requisite know-how. Now that Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium to 19.75 percent -- for which crucial calculations were carried out by Dr. Majid Shahriari, a professor of physics at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran who was assassinated on November 29, 2010 -- not only is the Western bloc demanding a halt to the production, but also the removal of the enriched uranium from Iran. Regardless of what we think of the Islamic Republic's leaders, who in his right mind would agree to such a demand -- especially at the open of negotiations, with no apparent reciprocal offer -- when the roughly 100 kilogram stockpile of 19.75 percent-enriched uranium is a winning card in Iran's hands?

Dr. Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that Iran may stop enriching uranium to19.75 percent after it amasses enough to fuel the TRR for the foreseeable future. "The job is being carried out based on need," said Abbasi. "When the need is met, we will decrease production and it is even possible to completely reverse to only 3.5 percent." This suggests that Iran is prepared to treat production of enriched uranium at 19.75 percent as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

The Sanger and Erlanger narrative

Sanger and Erlanger further state,

Mr. Obama and his allies are gambling that crushing sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action will bolster the arguments of those Iranians who say a negotiated settlement is far preferable to isolation and more financial hardship.

Yes, there are tens of millions of Iranians, including this author, who want a negotiated settlement to the dispute, so that the tough economic sanctions can be lifted and, most importantly, a disastrous war can be averted. But it appears that what will be demanded of the Islamic Republic -- regardless of what anyone might think of its leaders and its religio-military dictatorship -- is tantamount to capitulation, not a reasonable negotiated solution. Similar to the Western approach to Iraq in 2001-2003, it seems that if the United States and its allies cannot find a "smoking gun," or fabricate one convincing enough to persuade the public, they are set to demand the almost complete surrender of Iranian sovereignty. It is as if the goal is not to reach a negotiated solution, but to humiliate the Islamic Republic's leaders.

Outlines of a reasonable diplomatic solution

In fact, the outlines of a negotiated solution have been clear for quite some time: Iran must agree to ratify the Additional Protocol of its IAEA Safeguards Agreement and implement it again -- it did so voluntarily from October 2003 to January 2006 -- which would provide the agency with the authority to perform intrusive inspections of every confirmed and suspected nuclear site in the country. Iran would also have to agree to do the same with the Safeguards Agreement's modified Code 3.1 -- which, again, it never ratified but voluntarily observed until March 2007. Under the altered code, Iran would be obliged to inform the IAEA of any plans to build new nuclear infrastructure as soon as the decision is made, in contrast to the current agreement, which obliges Iran to inform the IAEA only 180 days before introducing any nuclear materials into a facility. Iran must also agree to end production of 19.75 percent-enriched uranium, after it has stockpiled enough fuel for the TRR for an extended period of time, or after the U.S. and its allies supply Iran with fuel rods for the TRR for an extended period of time. In return, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran must be lifted, and Iran's nuclear dossier must leave the Security Council's docket and be returned to the IAEA.

Double standards

In the Middle East, broadly construed, there are two states with substantial nuclear arsenals: Pakistan and Israel. Pakistan has about 100-110 nuclear warheads. It is an unstable nation whose Inter-Services Intelligence has supported the Taliban, whose military is filled with extremists, and which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Its record of repression and human rights violations is not much less dismal than the Islamic Republic's, and can any sincere, confident claim be made that is a less dangerous state actor? Israel has up to 400 nuclear warheads, has not signed the NPT, has evidently engineered a series of assassinations of Iran's nuclear scientists and other acts of state-sponsored terrorism, and has been threatening Iran with military attacks. What demands have the Western bloc made of Israel? None.

As Justin Raimondo wrote of Obama, "Limning the Wicked Witch of the West, who demanded of Oz that they 'Surrender Dorothy!', the 'peace' candidate of 2008 is steering us on a course that can only end in war." What is the alternative if the United States and its allies continue to insist on the impossible?

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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