Iran bullish ahead of nuclear talks
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
The United States and its Western allies may be talking tough about new
"crippling sanctions" on Iran, but the reality is that momentum toward zero
sanctions is gaining the upper hand, giving Iranian negotiators set to meet
representatives of the "Iran Six" nations in Istanbul in early October a
renewed sense of confidence.
There are several reasons for this, warranting the attention of policymakers in
the "Iran Six" countries - the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China
and Germany - who continue to accuse Iran of marching toward nuclear weapons.
First, Iran claims there is simply no evidence to corroborate this
allegation against Iran. Mohammad ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of
the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), confirmed this recently at the
agency's general meeting.
"We are not in a state of panic because we have not seen diversion of nuclear
material in Iran. We have not seen components of nuclear weapons," he said. "We
do not have information to that effect."
Second, in addition to agreeing to the IAEA's demands for additional safeguards
and surveillance measures at the uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz and the
inspection of the heavy water reactor in Arak, Iran has now reached a "new
framework for cooperation" with the IAEA. This, although its details have not
yet been fleshed out publicly, promises to further appease the agency's call on
Iran to "reengage" with the IAEA.
A third reason for Iran's relative optimism that it is going into the Istanbul
talks with a strong hand is that there is fresh cynicism in the international
community on the authenticity of documents regarding Iran's alleged
"weaponization studies" in the past. This is in light of ElBaradei's reference
to "fabrications" in this regard, as well as his comparison of the Iran nuclear
issue with the fiasco of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 "based on fiction" over
Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Unless the US and its allies come up with new evidence to substantiate their
allegations against Iran, their purported effort to pin on Iran the label of
clandestine proliferator is destined to fall short. This is particularly so
since there is as of yet no official US revision of the conclusions of its 2007
intelligence estimate. According to this, Iran halted its nuclear weapons
program in 2003, shortly after the downfall of Iran's chief nemesis, Saddam,
who was also said to be aggressively pursuing a nuclear program.
Fourth, Iran's confidence stems from Tehran's reliance on a multi-faceted
negotiation strategy, reflected in its recent "package" that states Iran's
preparedness to cooperate on the issues of "non-proliferation and disarmament"
as well as on regional security, energy security, cultural and economic issues.
The advantage of this comprehensive linked approach is that it connects any US
engagement with Iran to a host of issues that bind the two countries, such as
drug trafficking and security in the region. This belies the contention of some
US pundits that the "goal of engagement is not improved relations", to
paraphrase Chester Crocker, a former US diplomat, who in an opinion column in
the New York Times under the title "Terms of Engagement" forgets that the
Iranian side may also have its own ideas about engagement and that it takes two
to have a diplomatic tango.
Experts believe such recipes for negotiations with Iran may extend the nuclear
stalemate and diminish the likelihood of a breakthrough in the upcoming talks.
Fifth, it is increasingly clear that the US and its allies need to come up with
a new set of ideas about the nuclear issue. Fresh ideas would mitigate the
insistence on the "zero centrifuges" option - which has been called into
question by, among others, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who in his latest
I cannot see any deal that will not at some point trade
controlled Iranian enrichment on its soil against insistence that Iran accept
the vigorous inspections of the IAEA Additional Protocol and a 24/7 IAEA
presence. The time is approaching for the United States and its allies to
abandon "zero enrichment" as a goal - it's no longer feasible - and concentrate
on how to exclude weaponization, cap enrichment and ensure Iran believes the
price for breaking any accord will be heavy.
This advice that
corresponds with what this author has been arguing for a number of years,
albeit with a greater emphasis on the need for "good-faith" negotiation on the
part of Western nations. This is in light of repeated past episodes of bad
faith demonstrated on the part of US and European negotiators. These include
when a British diplomat, John Sawers, sent an e-mail to his colleagues urging
them to re-interpret Iran's "voluntary" suspension of its enrichment activities
as mandatory and permanent.
Such disclosures about the diplomacy of the West toward Iran proved
counter-productive. It turned out these moves fueled Iran's determination to
end its temporary suspension and resume enrichment activities, which have now
reached semi-industrial scale.
There is also the issue of the six United Nations resolutions on Iran that have
called for the suspension of its enrichment and reprocessing activities. Aside
from the fact that the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed the absence of any
reprocessing activities, the UN resolutions suffer from a lack of any
They do not specify what duration the "suspension" should be, as a result of
which, theoretically, Iran could suspend today and resume in a few weeks and
legally claim to be in good standing with the UN Security Council. The question
is: what is the purpose of temporary suspension, given the fact that under
articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is fully entitled
to possess a peaceful nuclear fuel cycle?
"There is no doubt that a rule-based negotiation will end in Iran's favor,"
said Ali Khorram, a foreign policy advisor in Tehran, alluding to IAEA
standards and NPT norms.
This is a nightmare scenario for Israel, whose representative at the IAEA's
recent meeting expressed "grave concern" about Iran and Syria and demanded that
their "breach [of] international commitments and obligations must be met with
concrete and immediate international measures".
It will be interesting, therefore, to see how Israel and its supporters in
Western capitals spin the upcoming Istanbul talks in favor of a united front
for tough sanctions in the event the talks fail. So far, some European nations
have "lowered their expectations" by anticipating a lack of compromise on
Iran's part on the thorny issue of uranium enrichment. In turn this raises the
question of why they continue to shun the option of outright revising their
demands and adopting a realistic option along the lines sounded by Cohen cited
Should the US and other "Iran Six" nations agree to respect Iran's right to
have a peaceful nuclear fuel cycle under stringent inspection regimes, then the
next logical move would be to erase the sanctions regime on Iran and to openly
entertain the "zero sanctions" option. Under this, both unilateral and
multilateral sanctions would be lifted as the end result of a constructive
dialogue with Iran tackling both nuclear and non-nuclear issues of concern to
At the moment, this option does not seem likely and the chances are pro-Israel
lobbyists in Washington will prevail over the administration's voices of
moderation vis-a-vis Iran. Nevertheless, toughening sanctions on Iran when Iran
is greatly increasing its cooperation with the IAEA and there is no tangible
sign of proliferation activities on Iran's part is an increasingly hard sell to
the international community.
And this is yet another area where Iran feels confident, in light of the
Non-Aligned Movement's solid support for Iran's nuclear activities at the
recent IAEA meeting.
There is no longer a global consensus on Iran's nuclear threat and perceptions
of double-standards and even hypocrisy have emerged concerning nuclear-weapon
states which are failing their own disarmament obligations. These same powers
are sounding alarms about non-proliferation by "rogue states".
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.