US-Israel deal threatens
progress By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama
administration has adopted a demand in the
negotiations with Iran beginning on Saturday in
Istanbul that its Fordow enrichment facility must
be shut down and eventually dismantled based on an
understanding with Israel that risks the collapse
of the negotiations.
It is unclear,
however, whether the administration intends to
press that demand regardless of Iran's rejection
or will withdraw it later
in the talks. Washington is
believed to be interested in obtaining at least an
agreement that would keep the talks going through
the electoral campaign and beyond.
government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
on the other hand, has been extremely anxious
about the possibility of an agreement that would
allow the Iranian enrichment programme to
continue. So it hopes the demand for closure and
dismantling of Fordow will be a "poison pill"
whose introduction could cause the breakdown of
the talks with Iran.
In an interview with
Inter Press Service (IPS), Reza Marashi, who
worked in the State Department's Office of Iranian
Affairs from 2006 to 2010, said, "If the demand
for Fordow's closure is non-negotiable, the talks
will likely fail."
Iran has already
rejected the demand. Responding to the reported
demands for halting of 20 percent enrichment and
the closure of the Fordow facility, Fereydoun
Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy
Organization, said, "We see no justification for
such a request from the P5+1." The P5+1, also
known as the "Iran Six" refers to the five
permanent members of the United Nations Security
Council - the US, Great Britain, France, Russia
and China, plus Germany - which are involved in
negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
The Obama administration apparently
accepted Israel's demand for inclusion of the
closure of Fordow in the US-European position in
return for Israel going along with a focus in the
first stage of the talks only on Iran's 20%
It is widely believed that a
limited agreement could be reached to end Iran's
20% enrichment and to replace existing Iranian
stocks of 20% enriched uranium with
foreign-fabricated fuel rods for the Tehran
Research Reactor if Iran believed it would get
some additional substantive benefit from the deal.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak
revealed on April 4 that he had held talks with US
and European officials in late March with the aim
of getting them to accept Israeli demands for the
closure of Fordow, transfer of all 20% enrichment
out of Iran, and transfer of most of the low
enrichment uranium out of country as well.
Barak did not reveal the results of those
talks, but three days later, the New York Times
reported US and European officials as saying they
would demand the "immediate closure and ultimate
dismantling" of the Fordow facility as an "urgent
priority", along with the shipment out of the
country of its stockpile of uranium enriched to
Reuters reported on April 8 that a
"senior US official" said the suspension of 20%
enrichment and closing the Fordow facility were
"near term priorities" for the US and its allies.
Reuters also reported that same day that
Israel had agreed in March to a "staged approach"
in the nuclear talks that would focus in the first
stage on halting Iran's uranium enrichment to 20%.
Nothing has been said by either Israel or
Western states about shipping low enrichment
uranium out of the country, suggesting that the
issue remains unresolved.
talks and obvious linkage between the positions
leaked to the media by US, European and Israeli
officials leaves little doubt that such an
understanding had been reached.
to an IPS query, Erin Pelton, assistant press
secretary at the National Security Council, said
she was not aware of any explicit US agreement
with the Israelis on the US position in the
nuclear talks. But she added, "We have very close
consultations with them on Iran policy. We don't
have to have an explicit agreement."
Israel's main leverage over US and
European policy was the continuing threat of an
attack on Iran. Only the day before Barak revealed
his consultation with US and European officials on
negotiating strategy, the Jerusalem Post reported
that "senior defense officials" had said the
possible attack on Iran "may be postponed until
2013", because the "defense establishment" was
waiting for the outcome of the nuclear talks.
Barak has long pointed to Iran's ability
to move centrifuges into Fordow, which was
constructed in a tunnel facility deep in the side
of a mountain, as denying Israel's ability to
destroy most of the country's enrichment
capabilities in an airstrike. That has been the
sole justification offered in recent months for
threatening an Israeli military strike.
a blog post in The National Interest, Paul Pillar,
former national intelligence officer for the Near
East and South Asia, wrote that the "Western
message to Tehran" seems to be, "[W]e 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."
Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control
Association," said in an interview with IPS,
"There are Americans who believe it is important
to keep all Iranian facilities at risk in case
Tehran decided to build a nuclear weapon."
But Thielmann, former director of the
Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs
Office in the Department of State's Bureau of
Intelligence and Research, said the reported
demand for the closure and dismantling of the
Fordow site "is more an interest of the Israelis
than of the United States".
the former State Department specialist on Iran and
now research director at the National
Iranian-American Council, said US officials have
been concerned about Fordow, but that it is the
Israelis who have "turned their inability to
destroy Fordow into a major issue".
Thielmann said he hopes the administration
is "doing this for the Israelis and that it
wouldn't push it once it is rejected."
While the demand on Fordow clearly
responds to a US need to accommodate Israel, it is
also in line with Obama administration efforts to
intimidate Iran by emphasizing that it has only a
limited time "window" in which to solve the issue
diplomatically. The administration has implied in
recent weeks that Israel would strike Iran's
nuclear facilities in the absence of progress
toward an agreement guaranteeing Iran would not go
That emphasis on threat
corresponds to the approach championed by
hardliners since the beginning of the Obama
administration. Former Obama adviser Dennis Ross,
who is still believed to maintain personal contact
with Obama, was quoted in the New York Times on
March 29 as saying, "For diplomacy to work there
has to be a coercive side. If the Iranians think
this is a bluff, you can't be as effective."
In a recent article, Ross makes clear that
what he calls "coercive diplomacy" would not
involve the promise of lifting sanctions, because
the US would continue to demand change in Iran's
"behavior toward terrorism, its neighbors and its
If such a "coercive
diplomacy" underlies the administration's
negotiating strategy, it would explain the absence
of any leaks to the press about what it plans to
offer the Iranians in return for the concessions
being demanded. Reza Marashi noted that
administration officials have been "holding their
cards very close to their chest" in regard to what
they intend to offer Iran.
The absence of
any groundwork for significant incentives leads
Marashi to believe the administration plans to
rely on threats rather than incentives to get Iran
to agree to its demands.
administration appears to be counting heavily on
the one incentive it is prepared to offer in the
talks: the recognition of Iran's right to enrich
uranium on Iranian soil. The US and Europeans will
certainly demand strict limits on the number of
centrifuges and the level of enriched uranium Iran
Iranian agreement to such
limits would require major changes in US policy
toward Iran, including dismantling sanctions and
accepting a major Iranian political-diplomatic
role in the region as legitimate.
Gareth Porter is an
investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.