hard line in Iran talks driven by
Israel By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Negotiations between Iran and
the United States and other members of the P5+1
group in Baghdad ended in fundamental disagreement
over the position of the P5+1 offering no relief
from sanctions against Iran.
The two sides
agreed to meet again in Moscow on June 18 and 19,
but only after Iran had threatened not to schedule
another meeting, because the P5+1 - the United
States, Russia, China, France and Britain plus
Germany - had originally failed to respond
properly to its five-point plan.
prospects for agreement are not likely to improve
before that meeting, however, mainly because of an
inflexible US diplomatic posture that reflects
President Barack Obama's need to bow to
the demands of Israel
and the US Congress on Iran policy.
hard line in the Baghdad talks and the failure to
set the stage for an early agreement with Iran
means that Iran will not only increase but
accelerate its accumulation of 20% enriched
uranium, which has been the ostensible reason for
wanting to get Iran to the negotiating table
Iran's enrichment to 20%, which
Tehran has justified over the past two years as
needed by its Tehran Research Reactor to produce
medical isotopes, can be turned into high enriched
uranium more quickly than the 3.5% enriched
uranium for Iran's nuclear power program.
But although Iran has let it be known that
it is open to making a deal to end its 20%
enrichment and even to let go of its stockpile if
offered the right incentive, the Obama
administration has opted not to go for such a deal
by refusing to offer any corresponding reduction
The US demand for the
closure of the Fordow facility, which is now under
surveillance by the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA), was a direct response to pressure
from Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
declared that demand one of his "benchmarks" for
the talks on March 2.
In discussions with
the US in late March, Defense Minister Ehud Barak
insisted on the closure of Fordow as one of the
Israeli demands, as he revealed on April 4. That
was a quid pro quo for Israeli acceptance of a
focus in the first stage on halting Iran's uranium
enrichment to 20% rather than demanding an end to
all uranium enrichment, as Reuters reported on
That agreement clearly implied
that the Obama administration would do nothing to
dismantle any sanctions against Iran unless Iran
ended all uranium enrichment.
administration's refusal to entertain any removal
of sanctions as part of its diplomatic strategy
with Iran also recognized the fact that it would
have to pay a steep political price merely to
request any change in sanctions legislation and
would be unlikely to prevail over the deeply
entrenched interests of Israel in both houses.
After being lobbied by 12,000 activists
attending the conference of the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, the
House of Representatives passed a resolution
demanding a policy of preventing Iran from having
a "nuclear weapons capability" by a vote of
The US understandings with Israel
were sharply at odds with a deal with Iran based
on a "step by step" approach which had been
proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey
Lavrov. Under that approach, each move by Iran to
satisfy Western concerns about its nuclear program
should be rewarded by a relaxation of sanctions.
As Michael Adler revealed in The Daily
Beast on March 7, however, the Obama
administration was unwilling to reduce sanctions
gradually as the Russians wanted. Adler's account
implied that it could only come at the end of the
process in response to a complete suspension of
all uranium enrichment by Iran as a "confidence
For Iran, 20%
enrichment has been largely an exercise in
increasing its bargaining leverage with the United
States by creating a level of enrichment that the
US has said is threatening.
Iran has made
a series of policy statements since it began that
enrichment suggesting that the objective has been
to trade those bargaining chips for negotiating
concessions that would benefit Iran - mainly moves
to reduce sanctions and the recognition of its
right to enrich.
The demand that the 20%
enrichment be ended and that Fordow facility be
closed without any easing of economic sanctions
would represent a double diplomatic defeat which
Iran has strenuously rejected.
20% enrichment levels in return for plane spare
parts is a joke," Iranian analyst Hasan Abadini
was quoted as saying.
There was some
discussion before the Baghdad meeting, initiated
by Europeans, of at least offering to suspend a
European ban on insuring oil tankers, which
threatens some of Iran's oil trade with Asian
countries, in conjunction with a deal, according
to the New York Times on May 18. But that was
evidently rejected by Washington.
rejection of the "step by step" approach in favor
of a stance that leans heavily toward Israeli
preferences leads to apparent contradictions in US
That stance is sharply at odds
with the official US position suggesting ending
Iran's 20% enrichment is an urgent requirement. A
senior US official was quoted by the Associated
Press (AP) on Thursday as saying, "We are urgent
about this, because every day we don't figure this
out, they keep going forward with a nuclear
The contradiction was further
highlighted by reports that Iran is further
increasing its capability for 20% enrichment at
the Fordow facility. A Reuters story from Vienna
on Thursday said that Iran may have already put
350 more centrifuges into Fordow since February,
on top of the almost 700 already operating there.
The AP reported a senior US official in
Baghdad explaining that sanctions were likely to
increase the pressure on Iran to agree to US terms
in the next round of talks. "Maximum pressure is
not yet being felt by Iran," the official was
quoted as saying.
But few diplomatic
observers believe that Iran's Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes the crucial
decisions, could afford to bow to the US demands
as presented in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the US
strategy of drawing out the talks to wait for the
impact of sanctions to work on the Iranians allows
Iran to continue adding "facts on the ground".
Ironically, US strategists have argued
publicly in the past that Iran was using
negotiations to "play for time" while it increased
its nuclear capabilities.
seeming contradiction between US diplomatic
posture and its declared interest in ensuring that
Iran prove the non-military character of its
nuclear program, US officials dismissed as
irrelevant the news that Iran and IAEA director
general Yukia Amano were close to an agreement on
the terms of Iranian cooperation in clarifying
allegations of past nuclear weapons work. A
"senior US official" said the United States
welcomed the signs of progress, but then carefully
differentiated the purpose of the P5+1
negotiations and those of the IAEA, according to
Al-monitor on May 22.
"The IAEA is about
accounting for the past and for naming what is,"
the official explained. "It is not about what is
the nature of Iran's nuclear program and what will
Iran's nuclear program look like going forward,
and will it be peaceful."
abruptly reversed previous US insistence that
Iran's cooperation with the IAEA represented a
central element in a diplomatic settlement of the
conflict over Iran's nuclear program. The idea
that US negotiations with Iran would not be
affected by whatever it did to prove allegations
of past nuclear weapons work wrong implies that
Washington is firmly committed to its present
diplomatic course mainly in order to placate
Israel and the US Congress.
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