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Comment | West's Demands, Iran's Unrealistic Goals Sink Nuclear Talks


26 Jun 2012 01:08Comments

An analysis of the failure in Moscow, and the framework for a solution.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
[ comment ] The latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- in Moscow was a failure. Nothing significant was achieved, except for an agreement to have a low-level "experts" group meet on July 3 in Istanbul. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief who heads the P5+1 negotiating team, did not even agree to a request by Saeed Jaili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council, to meet again after the experts' meeting. New E.U. sanctions are supposed to go into effect on July 1, which will surely worsen the economic plight of the Iranian people, but probably make no difference in the Islamic Republic's defense of its nuclear program. Why did the negotiations, which began so promisingly in Istanbul on April 14, fail?

As I had predicted, the negotiations failed mainly because the United States and its allies made demands that would have been practically impossible for any government to accept, let alone the Islamic Republic, which has not been willing to retreat from its stance regarding the nuclear program after nearly a decade of Western threats and sanctions. It seemd as if the United States is interested only in dragging out the negotiations until after the November presidential election, at which time either an Obama or Romney administration will have to decide what to do if Iran has not changed its position. In the following, I discuss those demands as well as other factors that contributed to the failure of the negotiations.

The West's demands and "concessions"

What were the West's demands?

(1) Iran must immediately cease production of enriched uranium at 19.75 percent -- a figure routinely rounded up by the mainstream media to 20 percent. The seemingly minor difference is actually very important, as any uranium enriched below 20 percent is known in the field as low-enriched uranium, associated with nuclear-reactor fuel, whereas any uranium enriched at 20 percent or higher is known as high-enriched uranium, associated with nuclear arms.

(2) Iran must ship the current stock of its 19.75 percent enriched uranium abroad. The stock, as of mid-May, was estimated to be about 146 kilograms (320 pounds).

(3) Iran must stop enrichment activities at the Fordow site near Qom. Though the Fordow facility is safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the West is particularly concerned about because its underground, hardened design would make it very difficult, if not effectively impossible, to destroy in a military attack.

In addition, the United States and its allies have been insisting that Iran must abide by all United Nations Security Council resolutions, which by the letter would mean that Iran must suspend its nuclear program in its entirety. Iran contends that the resolutions are illegal and, thus, it has no obligation to abide by them. These demands are identical to the ones Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made right before the Istanbul negotiations in April.

After the April 11 publication of my analysis of the then impending first round of talks, a commentator here wrote, "Do you not understand how negotiations work? Both sides start high until they reach a mutually acceptable solution in the middle. The line about demanding Iran shut down the Fordow Plant is the high starting point for the P5+1. I doubt anybody in the P5+1 actually expects Iran to shut it down. I doubt the West is seeking to torpedo the talks the way Iran did last time by making a last minute precondition that the West drop all sanctions." As it turned out, the West persisted in its "high starting point."

As I put it in my April analysis, what is being 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 2001-03, by now it should be clear that because the United States and its allies cannot find a "smoking gun," or fabricate one convincing enough to persuade the public, they are demanding the almost complete surrender of Iranian sovereignty. As a close friend who lives in Tehran and worked in senior positions in the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations put it in an e-mail to me, "They want [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and Sepaah [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] to surrender." When I asked another friend, who used to work at a Tehran think tank and is close to former Rafsanjani administration officials, about the demand to close the Fordow site, the response was, "If Khamenei agrees to it at this point in time, I will scream at him." These two friends of mine are no fans of the Supreme Leader and the hardliners who surround him.

And, what are the "concessions" that the United States and its allies are prepared to make in return for their demands?

(1) Give Iran spare parts for the old civilian aircraft that Iran has purchased from the United State and European Union.

(2) Supply Iran with medical radioisotopes of the sort that the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) produces for over 850,000 Iranian patients every year, using the domestically produced 19.75 percent enriched uranium as fuel. Some reports indicated that the United States and its allies were also prepared to discuss supplying fuel for the TRR.

(3) Cooperate with Iran on nuclear safety issues.

All three "concessions" are actually mandatory obligations of the United States, its allies, and the IAEA. International agreements governing civil aviation obligate a country that sells civilian aircraft to another nation to supply it with parts for the planes as long as they are in service. The IAEA has a legal obligation to supply Iran fuel for the TRR -- as requested by Iran in 2009 -- and help it with nuclear safety training. Many of Iran's outdated passenger aircraft have crashed as a result of the U.S. and E.U. refusal to supply needed parts, killing over 1,000 people. Under pressure by the United States and its allies, the IAEA has terminated most of its cooperation with Iran regarding its civilian nuclear program. In other words, the United States, its allies, and the IAEA have violated their obligations, but present abiding by the obligations as "major concessions." The Islamic Republic's leaders may be almost anything we imagine them to be, but they surely are not idiots.

Iran's unrealistic goals

Iran's view of the negotiations was also unrealistic. First and foremost, the hardliners within the military believed that Iran has advanced far enough in its uranium enrichment program that the United States and its allies would be forced to seek a compromise, because the alternative would be much worse. But this naïve view underestimates the influence of the hawks and the Israel lobby in the United States. It takes a truly strong and determined U.S. president, unlike Barack Obama, to stand up to the pressure from these groups.

The main goals that Iran wanted to achieve in the nuclear negotiations were also unrealistic and even unnecessary. These were (1) recognition by the West of Iran's right to enrich uranium; (2) relief from most, if not all of the economic sanctions; and (3) negotiating over issues such as the uprisings in Bahrain and Syria in which Iran has a stake. The first goal should not even be pursued. In an article in 2007, I argued, based on international treaties, that Iran already has the right to enrich uranium. Whether the West is willing to reaffirm the right is immaterial, but no recognition by the West is necessary. Listen to the speech by Professor Daniel Joyner this March 12 at the University of Cambridge. Joyner, a highly regarded professor of international law, states precisely this -- that Iran already has the right.

The second goal was unrealistic. Clearly, the Obama administration and its European allies believe that the tough sanctions that they have imposed on Iran unilaterally -- that is, outside the Security Council -- have been working and will eventually force Iran to capitulate. They will not, therefore, be willing to suspend most of the sanctions, especially those that are already in place. Jalili's terrible mistake during preliminary talks in Istanbul only reaffirmed the Western view: reports indicate that Jalili repeatedly asked Ashton and others when and under what circumstances the United States and its allies would suspend their sanctions, which put him and Iran in a very weak position.

The third goal should also not be pursued. If the West truly wants to help resolve the crisis in Syria through diplomatic means, it could not do so without Iran, Bashar al-Assad's most important ally. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that there will be no place for Iran at the Syrian crisis negotiation table, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan, and the Arab League have all rejected this position. In other words, the Islamic Republic must wait patiently to be invited to the negotiation table, as there is no other way for the West to resolve the crisis in Syria. By mixing regional problems with the standoff over its nuclear program, the Islamic Republic only muddied the water and contributed to the failure of the talks.

A better strategy would have been to pursue more modest goals. Not only would they have been more plausible to achieve, but such a strategy would also have demonstrated to the world the intransigence of the United States and its allies and the fact that they want negotiations only for appearances' sake. One such modest goal could have been to ask the E.U. to suspend its sanctions against Iran's Central Bank and its ban on insuring oil tankers that carry Iranian oil to South and East Asia, scheduled to go into effect on July 1. Iran may lose from 400,000 to 500,000 barrels per day in exports due to the insurance ban. In return, Iran could have offered to allow the IAEA to visit the Parchin munitions site, and temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment at 19.75 percent for a fixed period, to which it has already agreed in principle. The Parchin site has been used for decades to produce conventional ammunition and explosives for the Iranian military, but the IAEA suspects that Iran has carried out experiments there with high explosives that are relevant to triggering a nuclear reaction. Iran has refused to allow inspectors to visit Parchin and it is under no obligation to do so under its current Safeguards Agreement with the agency.

Weak diplomacy

Weak diplomacy, coupled with the Iranian hardliners' typical arrogance and self-righteousness, also contributed to the failure. What else could have been expected from a negotiation team that suddenly included Mehdi Mohammadi, until a short time ago the political editor for the hardline newspaper Kayhan? His presence was "justified" because he now works for the Supreme National Security Council, but what about any expertise in nuclear issues or experience in diplomacy?

In addition, on the Moscow talks' second day, Jalili, true to form, lectured the P5+1 and lamented about what the West has done to Iran over the past several decades. He has done this practically every time that he has met with the P5+1 collectively or Ashton one on one. Should this issue -- as valid as it is -- not be set aside? Should Jalili not concentrate on the current issues facing the nation in the nuclear negotiations? But, similar to other Iranian hardliners, Jalili is first and foremost an ideologue, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for an ideologue to set aside such thinking.

Most absurdly, Iran's negotiation team insisted that Khamenei's fatwa banning the production of weapons of mass destruction is all that the West needs for peace of mind regarding the nature of Iran's nuclear program. Apparently, the negotiation team had the illusion that the Western leaders are Khamenei's moghalled (those who follow his religious instructions), when he has hardly any moghalled in Iran itself.

Mutual distrust

Another factor that contributed to the failure of the negotiations is the two sides' mutual distrust. Part of the Iranian opposition in the diaspora that was happy, even gleeful, that the Moscow negotiations had failed, claimed that the West is right about not trusting the Islamic Republic. The reason? Any leadership that lies to its own people, violates their rights, suppresses, jails, and kills them, and tries to crush the aspirations of its youth, cannot be trusted by anyone, the opposition said, let alone by Western leaders. That the leadership of the Islamic Republic has done all of that is indisputable. But the West too has demonstrated amply that it cannot be easily trusted, unless solid facts are created on the ground. Let me give just one example.

The Khatami administration signed the Sa'dabad Agreement of October 2003 and the Paris Agreement of November 2004, according to which Iran committed itself to (1) suspend its nuclear program completely; (2) carry out on a volunteer basis the provisions of the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, which give the IAEA the authority to intrusively inspect Iran's nuclear and nonnuclear facilities; and (3) abide, again voluntarily, by the modified Code 3.1 of its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, according to which Iran is supposed to inform the agency about any new nuclear site as soon as the decision to construct it is reached, rather than 180 days prior to the introduction of any nuclear materials into the site, which is Iran's only obligation under its existing Safeguards Agreement. The Khatami administration did all of that from October 2003 to August 2005. In return, the E.U. was supposed to provide Iran with major economic incentives and security guarantees. But when the E.U. proposal was formally submitted to Iran, it promised practically nothing, prompting the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stop carrying out the first two commitments right after he took office in August 2005 (the third was ended in March 2007). This history, coupled with the many other lies that the United States and its allies have propagated, ranging from their purported reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 to their so-called "humanitarian intervention" in Libya last year, would make them untrustworthy in the eyes of any government involved in a standoff with them over issues involving national security and sovereign rights. Thus, the distrust is mutual.

Iran's internal dynamics

Some pro-Obama administration analysts have argued that the Congress and Israel lobby have tied the president's hands, preventing him from reaching any diplomatic solution with Iran. While there is no doubt that pro-Israeli forces, both within and outside Congress, want a war with Iran -- a war that they want to be fought by American youth and paid for with American money and blood -- a strong president could still reach an agreement, if he truly had the interests of the United States at heart. It would certainly be far less of a challenge than the one faced by Richard M. Nixon in opening up relations with Communist China in 1972 after decades of deep hostility.

At the same time, as I explained elsewhere, what the United States and its allies do not seem to recognize is that there are also powerful forces within Iran who do not want to make any concessions to the United States. Kayhan, the mouthpiece for a faction of the security and intelligence forces, has repeatedly called on the government to exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Many top Revolutionary Guard commanders have taken extremely hard positions regarding Iran's nuclear program and the negotiations with the West. Many editorials in the Iranian media have questioned the wisdom of taking part in negotiations while sanctions are still in place (see, for instance, here, here, here, and here). Even the relatively moderate former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been critical of the West, saying, "They are after creating opportunity for their future objectives through bullying."

Thus, if the West is truly interested in a negotiated solution, it must take steps that strengthen the hands of those in Iran who also seek such a solution.

The framework for a diplomatic solution

The fact is, as I described elsewhere, if there is political will on both sides, the framework for a diplomatic solution and the road map to arrive at it are clear. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Peace, have presented the principles of a possible compromise over Iran's nuclear program, which are as follows (the text's references to "the I.R. of Iran" have been simplified to "Iran"; square brackets indicate alternative or optional provisions in the original text; the reference to "20% enriched uranium," of course, means 19.75 percent):

(1) Iran assures that the nuclear activities inside Iran are aimed exclusively at the exploitation of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The other parties take notice of this declaration by Iran and welcome it.

(2) All the parties reiterate the validity of the NPT in all its parts. Particularly the principle of non- proliferation, the principle of nuclear disarmament and the principle of cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. All parties reaffirm the right of State Parties to the NPT to develop peaceful nuclear activities, in keeping with the non-proliferation and safeguards principles of the NPT. In this framework it is understood that Iran has the right to develop and use techniques for uranium enrichment and other nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes as well has its responsibilities in promoting the goals of the NPT and in respecting all its obligations.

(3) All the parties affirm that the IAEA is the competent authority responsible for verifying and assuring, in accordance with the Statute of IAEA and the IAEA safeguards system, the compliance with the NPT safeguards agreements of NPT State Parties, undertaken in fulfillment of their obligations under article III, paragraph 1, of the NPT to verify the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. All the parties reaffirm that nothing should be done to undermine the authority of IAEA in this regard.

(4) All parties agree that the IAEA Model Additional Protocol of 1997 is a fundamental tool to promote the effectiveness and efficiency of IAEA safeguards and thus to provide assurance of absence of undeclared nuclear activities and material. The parties acknowledge that Iran has signed an additional protocol in 2003. Pending ratification by the Majlis of the I.R of Iran, the Government of Iran is committing itself to implement the additional protocol and to facilitate the ratification by the Majlis as part of a final agreement with the other countries that will include the removal of all the sanctions and the normalization of relations.

(5) According to what stated by Iran, the nuclear activities of Iran are exclusively aimed at the production of electricity in nuclear power plants, at producing isotopes for medical purposes and at developing scientific research. The parties acknowledge the positive role of international cooperation in the field of nuclear activities and will work for creating in the future an environment where this international cooperation will be possible among all the parties of this agreed framework.

(6) The parties agree to cooperate in guaranteeing the safety and security and the integrity of the nuclear facilities inside Iran.

(7) The parties agree to cooperate in the field of preventing illegal nuclear activities, theft of nuclear material and in developing jointly measures to strengthen the protection of nuclear material through the implementation of the IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) as amended, of the relevant Resolutions of the UN and other similar measures and in the spirit of strengthening the NPT. The parties also agree to facilitate the exchange of scientists and other technical personnel in order to cooperate more effectively in the fight against nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism and to work to remove the obstacles that may prevent such exchange.

(8) Iran agrees to extend its full cooperation to the IAEA, by furnishing all the necessary information about the totality of its nuclear activities strictly following the existing safeguards agreement between Iran and the IAEA (INFCIRC/214 of 13 December 1974) and related safeguards strengthening measures [(such as the implementation of modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements General Part to Iran's Safeguards Agreement on the early provision of design information)] and respecting the confidence building measures as specified below.

(9) This agreed framework has to be respected in full by all parties. A violation of any of its parts will render the entire agreed framework null and void and the country responsible for the violation will be held responsible in front of the international community.

(10) As confidence building measures and in order to progress towards a final agreement, the parties agree to the immediate steps described below. All the parties will suspend for a period of 6 months [1 year] the sanctions against Iran whose full implementation is due after the date of June 18th, 2012. If the suspension of the above sanctions will begin at a certain date, Iran will suspend at the same date and for the same period of time, the enrichment of uranium above the 5% limit, [the deployment of new centrifuges in the Fordow facility,] the construction of new enrichment facilities and will refrain from any reprocessing of plutonium. Furthermore Iran will agree to swap the 20% enriched uranium it has already produced with equivalent amount of ready-made fuel for its research reactors, as soon as this fuel will be available.

(11) Furthermore with immediate effects the parties of this agreed framework agree to drop all the limitations that affect the availability of spare parts and fuel for civilian aircrafts inside Iran.

(12) Finally, in order to dispel the concern of possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear activities, Iran will agree with the IAEA on modalities for managed access to the non-nuclear sites and facilities not covered by the IAEA safeguards, as determined jointly by the IAEA and Iran. This commitment on the side of Iran will entry into force on the same date and for the same period of time as specified in art. 10. It is understood that the IAEA will provide strict assurances to Iran on maintaining confidentiality regarding all information about Iran nuclear and non-nuclear activities.

(13) The parties agree to work for a final solution of the present controversy about the nuclear activities of Iran that will include inter alia the total elimination of the sanctions against Iran and the full monitoring of all the nuclear activities in Iran by the IAEA, including the implementation of a model additional protocol.

The Pugwash principles were summarized independently in an article by the author:

(1) Iran must suspend enrichment at 19.75 percent for a fixed, mutually agreed period of time. In return, the E.U. must allow oil tankers that carry Iran's oil to non-European nations to be insured by European companies, and suspend sanctions on Iran's central bank.

(2) Iran must ship out its stock of 19.75 percent enriched uranium to Russia and France for conversion to fuel rods. This arrangement was agreed to in October 2009, but the agreement ultimately failed due to objections by both sides. In return, the P5+1 must supply fuel for the TRR -- the same 19.75 percent enriched uranium converted to fuel rods. Fuel rods cannot be used in making nuclear weapons. In return, some sanctions will be suspended simultaneously.

(3) Iran must then reactivate the provisions of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. That will give the IAEA intrusive authority to inspect any suspected site in Iran, including Parchin. In return, the West must lift some sanctions, simultaneously with Iran's actions under (2) and (3).

(4) In addition, Iran must agree to adhere to the modified Code 3.1 of its Safeguards Agreement. In return, the P5+1 and, in particular, the E.U. must cancel oil sanctions.

(5) Finally, Iran must agree to zero stock of 19.75 percent enriched uranium on its soil, implying that it must ship abroad the enriched uranium, both the current stock and in the future, and limit the number of enrichment sites and centrifuges to a mutually agreed upon number. In return, the P5+1 must lift the remaining economic sanctions.

Political will, resistance to those who want a war, and the understanding that a peaceful resolution of the crisis over Iran's nuclear program will deprive the hardliners of their ability to exploit the threat to Iranian national security to excuse their repressive behavior, aid democratization efforts, and benefit the entire region: these are the ingredients for a diplomatic solution, whose general framework is clear to everyone.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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