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Ahmadinejad Responsible for Failure of Nuclear Negotiations

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

26 Jan 2011 17:01Comments

Delusions of grandeur lead to derailment of talks.

4_8911031064_L600.jpg[ analysis ] Negotiations between Iran and P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany -- that were held in Istanbul on January 21-22 were a complete failure. While the first round of the negotiations held earlier in Geneva had resulted in the plans for the Istanbul meeting, the second round did not even yield that modest sort of agreement. The question is, Who is responsible for the failure?

The negotiations failed because the agendas of each side were too far apart. Led by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the P5+1 attended the negotiations with two goals: discussing a swap of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which provides medical isotopes for 850,000 patients annually, using that as a basis for further negotiations, and talking about practical ways that Iran can take to reassure the group of the peaceful nature of its nuclear program.

Let me first emphasize that, in my opinion, the perceived threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the United States and its allies has been vastly exaggerated. The fact remains that, up to now, there has never been a shred of credible evidence that the nuclear program has been anything but peaceful. In report after report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified that there has been no diversion of Iran's nuclear materials and facilities from peaceful to non-peaceful use. Although unlike his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA Director General Yukia Amano has politicized the agency's reports by speculating about the possible existence of "undeclared nuclear materials" in Iran for which he has presented no evidence, the fact remains that no "smoking gun" has ever been discovered.

This has been confirmed by ElBaradei. In an interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in September 2009, ElBaradei stated that there was no concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program. "But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran's nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world. In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped." ElBaradei said there was concern about Iran's future nuclear intentions and that the Islamic Republic needs to be more transparent with the IAEA. "But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far." In an interview this January 18, ElBaradei reiterated his belief that Iran's perceived nuclear threat has been exaggerated. "There is a lot of hype in this debate," he said. "This assessment [of September 2009] is still accurate today."

Despite the lack of evidence, the fact remains that the West is still concerned about Iran's nuclear program, and it is here that the responsibility for the concerns falls squarely on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's shoulders. So long as Mohammad Khatami and his administration led the negotiations with the European Union, Iran's nuclear dossier remained with the IAEA, no sanctions were approved by the UNSC against Iran, and Khatami never used any incendiary rhetoric against Israel and the United States that could be exploited by the Israel lobby in America.

But Ahmadinejad has routinely used virulent rhetoric against Israel, not realizing that while his rhetoric has no practical consequences for Israeli security as Iran presents no credible danger to Israel that it cannot handle, it is used by Israel's lobby in the United States and Western Europe to provoke sanctions against Iran and pressure the United States to make military threats. It is Ahmadinejad who has repeatedly denied that the Holocaust ever happened and held a denialist Holocaust conference in Tehran in the fall of 2006. And it is Ahmadinejad who does not recognize that his loose tongue creates problems for Iran. He recently said, referring to the United States, "A country that has stored thousands of fourth- and fifth-generation nuclear bombs should not be afraid of one nuclear bomb that they say Iran will produce." What does this mean? That Iran will produce one nuclear bomb? It is this type of rhetoric that creates concerns in the West, and is then blown out of proportion by the Israel lobby, the neoconservatives, and the hawks who want to attack Iran.

Concerning the P5+1's desire to discuss a swap of Iran's LEU with fuel for the TRR, in October 2009, Iran did reach a preliminary agreement with the IAEA, which was backed by the Obama administration, for swapping 70 percent of its LEU stockpile at the time. But when the draft of the agreement was taken to Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others opposed it. They wanted the swap to take place in Tehran and in several installments, and receive the fuel for the TRR immediately. Those conditions were rejected by the United States. Then, in May 2010, Iran reached an agreement with Brazil and Turkey for the swap, giving up on all of its conditions. But, the United States rejected the agreement and pressed ahead with a new round of sanctions. Once those sanctions were approved, the United States and its allies began expressing interest in a new fuel swap agreement.

Ahmadinejad's agenda for the Istanbul negotiations had nothing in common with that of the P5+1. Saeed Jalili, who led the Islamic Republic's negotiating team, made two demands: cancellation of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UNSC, and recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium to the 19.75 percent level necessary for fuel for the TRR. In addition, Jalili wanted to discuss global disarmament, and Iran's participation in what Ahmadinejad has called "world management." The agenda was totally unrealistic, and thus it was obvious that the negotiations would fail.

Although I have always opposed sanctions on Iran because I believe that they hurt only the common people and the Green Movement, give a convenient excuse to the regime as it tries to justify its utter incompetence in economic management, and enrich the Mafia-like groups that are linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and control the country's underground economy, it is unrealistic to expect that the P5+1 will lift sanctions without any major concession by Iran. Contrary to Ahmadinejad's claim that the sanctions have not troubled Iran and have only made it stronger, the sanctions have done great damage to the national economy. Commerce with Europe has become much more difficult and expensive, Iran has not been able to import many vital spare parts and raw materials for its domestic industries, it has had difficulties selling its oil (at least 20 Iranian oil supertankers are floating in international waters with no buyers for their cargo), and foreign investment in Iran has fallen precipitously -- a problem exacerbated by the unstable political environment. The annual rate of growth has been so low -- less than 1 percent -- that it is being treated as a state secret, with no official willing to talk about it. By comparison, even Tunisia's growth rate in 2010, where a revolution just took place over poor economic conditions (and political repression), was 3.8 percent. The West is keenly aware of these facts.

Demanding that the P5+1 recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent --the level used by the TRR -- is also both unrealistic and unnecessary. Fuel for the TRR can be obtained from France if nuclear negotiations make progress, and was in fact foreseen in the original 2009 fuel swap agreement. Iran does not need to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent, as Bushehr's light-water nuclear reactor (and similar reactors that Iran may construct in the future) uses only LEU, and fuel for its first ten years of operation will be supplied by Russia. At the same time, as the level of enrichment rises, it becomes progressively easier to enrich the uranium to still higher levels. In other words, while it is very difficult to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent -- the level for the Bushehr reactor -- it is a bit easier to enrich the LEU to 19.75 percent, and still easier to enrich it to levels higher than 19.75 percent. Therefore, bringing the LEU to 19.75 percent will teach Iran's experts a great deal about how to enrich uranium to high levels. Clearly, the West will not recognize Iran's right to enrich to such a high level under present conditions, in which a hardline fundamentalist group rules the country. Demanding recognition of this right as a basis for negotiations was thus tantamount to guaranteeing that they would fail.

As for the other items on Iran's agenda, talking about world nuclear disarmament is not an issue that should be part of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, particularly when Iran has its own problems with the West regarding its nuclear program. Iran does not represent the rest of the world, even if Ahmadinejad has illusions otherwise.

Similarly, while there are many nations that are bitter about the double standards that the United States and its allies have for themselves and for the rest of the world, demanding to participate in "world management," supposedly to eliminate such double standards, has no place in negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. As diplomacy, this is aimless at best, delusional at worst, and destructive either way. Ahmadinejad and his team have wrecked havoc on Iran's economy with their utter incompetence, vast corruption, and lawlessness, but still fantasize about managing the world. Ahmadinejad is clearly more interested in creating buzz for himself than protecting Iran's true national interests.

In addition, even if such issues are to be discussed, Istanbul was not the place for it.

When Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh went to the United Nations in 1951 to defend Iran's right to nationalize its oil industry, he too was keenly aware of what the West, particularly colonial powers such as Britain, France, and Portugal, had done to the third world countries and their natural resources. But instead of making grand, hollow statements about colonial powers, Mosaddegh focused on Iran's national rights. In exiquisite language that represented his land's rich culture and history, he made a strong case for Iran, which is why his trip to the U.N. and the United States was so successful.

Likewise, if Ahmadinejad is really serious about such issues, he can talk about them in concrete terms at the U.N. General Assembly, which he attends every year, in the conference of non-aligned nations, and in the Islamic Conference to develop a powerful and unified bloc in support of his views. But due to his delusions of personal grandeur and his hunger to be at the forefront of the news, Ahmadinejad has taken it upon himself to enter into negotiations nominally about nuclear issues, but talk instead about managing the world.

At the same time, the refusal to discuss again the possibility of swapping Iran's LEU with fuel for the TRR is ignoring another glaring problem. The hexafluoride that Iran produces in the Isfahan Conversion Facility and uses as feedstock for enriching uranium is contaminated with molybdenum. Enrichment in the Natanz facility does not eliminate the contaminant. Unless it is cleaned up, the LEU will not be useful as fuel, at the very least creating problems for any light-water reactor. France is the only nation that has the technology to remove molybdenum from Iran's LEU. Iran needs access to this technology, and clearly France will not provide it without a major concession from Iran.

The failure of the negotiations is also puzzling from another perspective. In the Geneva meetings, Jalili met for 45 minutes with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, who led the U.S. team, but refused to meet with him in Istanbul. Between the two meetings, the United States seemed ready to agree that Iran has the right to enrich uranium on its soil. In an interview with the BBC in December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "They can enrich uranium at some future date, once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," implying that the United States has finally accepted the inevitability of this development.

Clinton's new position, in fact, angered America's European allies. But instead of taking advantage of the fissure that had been created, authorizing Jalili to meet with Burns again, and negotiating a way out of the impasse, Ahmadinejad and his team set loftier and totally unrealistic goals that will not be achieved. The result is that the United States and its allies are again united, and Russia and China -- who are not happy with Iran's diplomacy approach -- are going along. This is puzzling because Ahmadinejad and his team have indicated time and again that they want to reach a compromise with the United States.

The fact is that in the negotiations with Iran, the Western powers will try to achieve their goals and do what they believe protects their national interests. Good diplomacy on Iran's part would try to do the same by redirecting the negotiations in a direction that addresses Iran's true vital interests, namely, preventing another round of sanctions, protecting Iran's rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also reassuring the P5+1 through practical means -- such as ratifying the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, implementing its provisions, and agreeing to the fuel swap -- that the nature of Iran's nuclear program will remain peaceful, as it has been so far. But the Istanbul negotiations demonstrated once again that Ahmadinejad is not, in fact, interested in such an outcome.

The net result is that, instead of preventing a situation that allows the West to press for more sanctions, Ahmadinejad's diplomacy -- if it can be called that -- has done the opposite. The United States and its allies will pursue another round of increasingly harsh sanctions against Iran. In the meantime, Iran's stockpile of LEU will grow. The two factors together will make the possibility of any agreement in the future less likely and, thus, the vicious circle will continue. Who will pay for all of this? The people of Iran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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