Anatomy of a Nuclear Breakthrough Gone Backwards

by Farideh Farhi | published December 8, 2009

According to the headline writers at the hardline daily Keyhan, October 2 saw “a great victory for Iran” in Geneva. That day, Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili had sat down with representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the contact group known as the “P5+1,” as well as the European Union, and the hardliners were in a mood for self-congratulation. Arch-conservative Keyhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari titled his commentary, “We Did Not Back Down; They Were Cut Down to Size.”

Shariatmadari wrote that in Geneva Jalili had cleverly diverted inquiry into Iran’s nuclear research program, managing to keep the participants focused on regional security, energy, trade and global nuclear non-proliferation. In fact, Jalili had discussed the nuclear topic in great depth, agreeing in principle that Iran would transfer approximately three quarters of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment, and then to France for processing into fuel rods to power the Tehran Research Reactor, which manufactures medical isotopes. But the Keyhan editor insisted this agreement was no impingement upon Iran’s rights. To the contrary, he argued, Jalili had gained an implicit acceptance of the enrichment program by the P5+1, including Iran’s nemesis, the United States, something the hardliners’ opponents within the Islamic Republic had failed to do over years of “concessions.”

Declarations in the West were less triumphal but nevertheless quite positive. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described the Geneva talks as a “constructive start.” A few commentators used the word “breakthrough.”

It was indeed a hopeful moment, for the preliminary agreement dangled a prize in front of both the West and Iran. The West would buy time: The Russian and French facilities would need roughly one year to render the Iranian LEU into 20 percent enriched uranium and then into usable fuel. In the interim, because the LEU would not be physically present in Iran, hawks could not accuse the Iranians of working to enrich it to weapons grade on the sly. The West, led by the US, could then move to negotiate a more extensive deal entailing guarantees that Iran will not try to acquire an atomic bomb. The fuel rods from France posed no threat because, in that processed form, uranium cannot be enriched to weapons grade. All this was accomplished without the West saying a word about dropping the long-standing demand -- enshrined in four UN resolutions -- that Iran halt all its enrichment-related activities. Iran, for its part, would win a reprieve from the US push for stiffer sanctions and the prospect of more talks that could end in international acceptance of Iranian enrichment under a comprehensive inspection regime. On October 22, the negotiating teams reconvened in Vienna and reached a draft technical agreement on transporting the LEU to Russia, which the Iranians took home for “thoughtful review.” If the drafts could be parlayed into a formal accord, commentators said, it would be a win-win situation.

One and a half months later, hopes of sealing the Geneva deal have dissipated. Tehran is again defiant and even more disparaging of US credibility than before. The Obama administration has few options for proceeding, none of them particularly promising, and all of them dangerous.

Tehran maintains that it has not rejected the principles underlying the Geneva agreement -- it remains willing to transfer a sizable chunk of its existing LEU. It would also undertake to enrich no more uranium beyond 5 percent (a level known as “slightly enriched,” adequate for power plants but not research reactors, let alone weapons programs), buying any additional LEU from abroad. Iranian negotiators do, however, want guarantees, such as simultaneity of exchange, that Russia and France will keep their side of the bargain. The US and its allies see this position as backsliding, not a request for clarification, and they pushed the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to censure Iran. They also demand closure of the uncompleted enrichment site at Fordo, uncovered in late September on the eve of the Geneva talks. On November 28, the UN’s nuclear watchdog published a resolution calling for Fordo to be closed and noting that Iran’s construction of the site in secret “does not build confidence.” The resolution predictably elicited a petulant reaction from Tehran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed to build ten more enrichment centers, move toward domestic production of 20 percent enriched uranium, allowing Iran to power the Tehran Research Reactor by itself, and reduce cooperation with the IAEA to the minimum required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s safeguards obligations.

In short, yet another attempt to engender trust between the US and Iran has instead led to more distrust. Now that he has occupied the White House, candidate Obama’s mantra about “talking to Iran” looks more and more like the Bush administration’s policy: all sticks and no carrots. The hoped-for transfer of Iran’s LEU abroad is on the verge of becoming a precondition for further substantive talks, placing the Obama administration exactly where the Bush administration was for years, insisting on the suspension of all enrichment-related activities before negotiations could begin. Iran rejoined that an agreement on the extent of enrichment should be the end point of negotiations, and not the starting point. This retort had some justification, since after all Iran does have a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to conduct nuclear research, as long as the purpose can be verified as peaceful by the IAEA.

The present impasse cannot last, and a risky confrontation could easily ensue. Cooler heads, of course, could prevail, leading both sides to set aside the rancor surrounding the suspended transfer deal and return to the negotiating table. If talks do resume, both sides should study their missteps closely for reminders of what not to do.

Miscalculation in Tehran

The first major misstep occurred in Tehran. Although Iran’s decision-making process is not entirely clear, it is a safe bet that neither the general agreement in Geneva nor the technical agreement in Vienna could have come about without the explicit consent of the highest authority in the Islamic Republic, namely Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as “Supreme Leader” of the revolution. It is often forgotten that on September 29, right before the Geneva meeting, Khamenei’s most visible lieutenant, Ahmadinejad, said publicly, “We have offered to whoever is prepared that we will buy the material from them. Of course, we are prepared to hand over 3.5 percent material, have them enrich it up to 19.75 or 20 percent and deliver it back to us.” [1] Thus it appears that P5+1 negotiators simply seized upon an opportunity offered by Tehran. If they were not tricked in Geneva and Vienna, it is clear that Khamenei and the hardliners reversed themselves later, and the question is why. Why did they agree to the terms of documents that they would eventually consider inadequate? And what led them to climb down from their promising initial position?

Some pundits, like Thomas Friedman, interpret this perplexing behavior with recourse to the evergreen metaphor of the bazaar: Like rug merchants, the Iranians want to lure the customer in, never say no to his offers, but never say yes, either, and always ask for more. “Let them chase us,” Friedman suggests the West do instead. [2] But no bazaari would act as the Iranian negotiators did, raising expectations of a cheap price and then dashing them. The goal of the merchant is for the customer to leave carrying a carpet, but happy at having secured a cheaper price than he thought the merchant wanted.

A much more credible answer is that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad underestimated the volatility of Iranian domestic politics pursuant to the fraudulent June 12 presidential election. Just as they dismissed the popular anger at the fraud itself, assuming the furor would pass at the protesters’ first sight of blood, so they miscalculated the intensity of elite reaction to the idea of transferring Iran’s LEU. That reaction came from all corners, and it was ferocious. Perhaps the fierceness is explained in part by the determination of rival factions that Ahmadinejad not don the mantle of peacemaker with the US after all he and his supporters have done to sabotage previous attempts to improve relations. But after four years of bluster averring Iran’s absolute rejection of any compromise on the issue of enrichment, the elite was naturally highly skeptical that a single quick meeting should bring about such a rapprochement. Those sections of the public that follow the nuclear issue closely were similarly quizzical. After the steep price in international isolation paid for provocative assertions of Iran’s sovereign prerogatives, what could account for the abrupt reversal? Agitated and rather sarcastic commentators on centrist to conservative news websites such as Tabnak, Ayande and Alef wondered whether Iran’s “absolute right to enrich” had suddenly morphed into an “absolute right to ship uranium out.”

There is evidence that the negotiators themselves were aware, at least partly, of how strong the objections might be. But they chose to deflect them with mendacity. In the initial news coverage of Geneva, spokesmen hence pretended that talks had only touched upon the nuclear program. An unidentified member of the negotiating team went so far as to tell one outlet that no agreement regarding LEU had been reached and that “the P5+1 were solely informed of Iran’s decision to participate in the October 18 meeting with the IAEA.” [3] This fib was consistent with Ahmadinejad’s line, throughout the election campaign, that the specifics of Iran’s nuclear program were no longer up for negotiation with the P5+1 and could only be addressed in technical discussions with the UN agency.

But the pretense could not be maintained for long. The stream of information from the international press and Persian-language media based in the West, particularly BBC Persian television, made it clear that Iran’s nuclear program had indeed been discussed in Geneva and, later, in Vienna. The hardliners could not very well claim that Vienna had simply hosted technical talks with the IAEA when American, Russian and French negotiators were pictured on the scene. A further attempt to suggest that Iran had demanded France’s exclusion from the talks went nowhere, because the widely reported agreement said the French would process the Russian-enriched material into fuel rods. The French foreign minister, meanwhile, went on record saying his country would only accept a deal that transferred Iran’s LEU in one batch.

Simply stated, the hardliners’ attempts at misinformation backfired and fueled suspicion that additional details of the agreement remained hidden. Questions abounded: Why were the public and the parliament being kept in the dark? Was there an agreement or just the prospect of one? Would the text go into detail or restrict itself to general principles? How much LEU was Iran expected to ship out before it received fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor? Why could not there be a simultaneous exchange? What guarantees were there that Iran would indeed be given the 20 percent enriched uranium after it let go of its “strategic asset”? How could the Russians be trusted after the numerous delays in the start of the Bushehr reactor, which they helped to rebuild? Was the transfer the first step toward the voiding of the UN Security Council resolutions demanding suspension of enrichment-related activities? What if Iran’s interlocutors persisted in asking for suspension after the transfer? And, if Iran could already produce 20 percent enriched uranium, as Ahmadinejad claimed, then what would Iran get that it did not have?

Speaking Up

Years ago, the Supreme National Security Council effectively banned criticism of Iran’s nuclear negotiating position in print. But this story was too big to be kept under wraps, and indeed it was a member of the Supreme National Security Council, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who fired the first salvo. Speaking on October 24, immediately after the Vienna draft was sent to Tehran for approval, Larijani, who served as chief nuclear negotiator from 2005 to 2007, blasted it as a “deception” and an “imposition.” Though it was Ahmadinejad who appointed him to the post of speaker, he is not aligned with the president’s faction. During the 2009 campaign, indeed, Ahmadinejad implied that the two previous nuclear negotiating teams -- Larijani’s and Hassan Rowhani’s -- had conceded so much to the West that they might be guilty of treason.

There may have been some payback, therefore, in the former negotiators’ assessments of the president’s handiwork. Larijani asked why Iran should get the 20 percent enriched uranium from Russia and France only if it hands over three quarters of its LEU. There is “no connection between the two issues,” he said, since the Non-Proliferation Treaty gives Iran the right to purchase enriched uranium for medical purposes. Perhaps the US was “wheeling and dealing behind the scenes,” yet again, to divest Iran of its painstakingly accumulated LEU stockpile and hence its treaty rights.

The continued ebullience of the hardliners notwithstanding, opposition swiftly overtook merriment as the dominant mood across Iran’s political spectrum. Hassan Rowhani, head nuclear negotiator under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami from 2002 to 2005, affirmed his more conservative successor’s remarks. He told an interviewer, “Sixteen years ago, we wanted fuel for our reactor in Tehran and the IAEA mediated. Argentina gave it to us. Today, before they give us fuel for the reactor, which is their legal obligation, they impose conditions upon us…. And anyone who wants to buy fuel can go and buy it on the market.” [4]

A statement released by the Moderation and Development Party, which is close to 2009 presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie, warned that “hasty and unbalanced” decisions by the government had imperiled the national interest. [5] Eventually, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the preferred candidate of many protesters in the post-June 12 Green Movement, also spoke up, calling the Geneva agreement “astounding.” Iran, he said, would have to either surrender the hard-earned fruits of its scientists’ labors or face additional sanctions. Even Akbar Etemad, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran during the time of the Shah, opposed the deal in an appearance on BBC Persian. No matter the motives of these harsh critics, they forced the hardliners to step back from the agreements bruited in Geneva and Vienna.

Ahmadinejad’s Spin

Ahmadinejad did push back against the criticism. In the provincial city of Mashhad on October 29, he mocked his detractors for saying that he, of all people, would put Iran’s interests in jeopardy. He pointed out again that no previous nuclear negotiator had been able to induce the West, effectively, to acknowledge Iran’s right to continue enrichment. The publications of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sobh-e Sadeq and Basirat, ventured arguments along these lines, even if Shariatmadari’s Keyhan now voiced a few qualms about the tentative deal.

But the remainder of the Islamic Republic’s elite simply was not ready for the agreement. It happened too fast, the details were murky and Ahmadinejad’s spin ran up against the reality that nothing in the agreement guaranteed the West would ever accept enrichment on Iranian territory. Foremost in many Iranian minds, moreover, was apprehension that Ahmadinejad, and maybe Khamenei as well, were “giving in” to the West in order to curry favor with the international community and proceed with their repression of the post-election dissent.

Mohammad Javad Bahonar, deputy speaker of Parliament, endeavored to quell these doubts with a statement to the effect that Khamenei was still opposed to direct negotiations with the US. [6] But this statement only deepened suspicions of the intent of the transfer agreement. If Iran would not use this agreement to narrow the chasm between Tehran and Washington, was it just buying time for the hardliners to reassert control of the domestic environment by force? Khamenei himself kept his own counsel, taking no public stance in support of the Geneva and Vienna agreements. His silence opened the way for a new line of attack -- the deals were “the Ahmadinejad plan” -- which in turn gave license to the critics to be even more raucous.

There is also evidence that the hardliners were rattled by the agreements’ reception in the international press, as well as certain foreign capitals. If the US was satisfied with the deal, and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (after he was sure it would fail) called it “a positive first step,” could it be good for Iran? A few weeks prior to the agreement, Khamenei had said at Friday prayers that anything that makes the US happy is a cause for Iranian alarm. In an interview on national television on December 1, Ahmadinejad acknowledged the confluence of foreign and domestic pressures: The West, he said, wanted to remove 1.18 tons of LEU so that Iran could not “make a bomb.” Though Iran has more LEU than that on hand, “unfortunately some people fell for the line that the agreement is a conspiracy and a deception…. These are the same people who were asking us to back down at the height of the nuclear pressures on us. Now they have become super-revolutionaries.”

The Wavering Leader

The latest episode in the nuclear drama has raised serious questions about the decision-making process in Iran, at the core of which stands Ayatollah Khamenei. It is often said with confidence both inside and outside Iran that he is the final decision-maker -- and this is correct. What has perhaps been glossed over is that he equivocates in response to domestic challenges.

Since the eruption of protest at the June 12 election shenanigans, Khamenei has been isolated from his age cohort among the early revolutionaries, particularly Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, formerly the president (1988-1997) and now chairman of two important clerical bodies, the Expediency Council and the Council of Experts. Khamenei parted ways with his contemporary Rafsanjani when he authorized a violent crackdown on the post-election demonstrations, and as a result his power rests upon an array of lower-ranking officials, including the commanders of various branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are at least one generation younger than he is. The age gap is similar to the one between Ayatollah Khomeini and junior revolutionaries such as Rafsanjani, Khatami, Mousavi and Khamenei himself.

But, prior to the June 12 election, Khamenei had never made a major decision without Rafsanjani on his side. Rafsanjani, often viewed in the West as cautious because his words are less ideologically charged than Khamenei’s, is actually the more decisive of the pair. Khamenei’s decision to crack down, which he has yet to reconsider, was the first one he made on his own and it has proven neither effective nor popular. On December 7, the authorities sent Basij militiamen wielding batons and tasers into the crowds of students and others demanding the rule of law in the Islamic Republic, arbitrarily arresting untold numbers. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, those arrested include 15 members of the Committee of Mourning Mothers, a group of women who have lost sons and daughters to regime violence after the election. “From now on, we will show no mercy” to the demonstrators, the state’s chief prosecutor intoned. But thousands of Iranian citizens have been detained without charge, and many beaten in jail or in the streets, since June 12, and the protesters have not gone away. At every instance of state violence, senior ayatollahs express their discontent, indicating, at least, that they are not convinced that head-cracking methods will corral the dissent.

On the second subject on the nuclear file, meanwhile, Khamenei wavered. Is he capable of deciding on matters of such magnitude without the input of Rafsanjani and others in his cohort? It is an open question, and a haunting one for a man who insists on the title “Supreme Leader.” Rafsanjani, for his part, remained eerily quiet about the tentative agreement, though on two occasions he blasted the P5+1 approach of talking while tightening the economic noose around the country.

Khamenei’s handling of the deal -- pre-approving it and then backtracking -- was not without costs, as the IAEA censure, with the backing of the normally reluctant Russian and Chinese, attests. He will pay for his miscalculation on the domestic front as well, as seen in the imputations of a “weak” nuclear team that have already surfaced in Iran. [7] Even at a moment in Iran when charges of treason and abetting the enemy are hurled without discretion, and so have been cheapened, the more damaging accusation aimed at him and Ahmadinejad’s administration may be that of incompetence. Other members of the elite may grumble that the Leader and his ward Ahmadinejad have devoted more attention to crushing the aspirations of young protesters than to assembling a proficient cadre of nuclear negotiators.

Endgame?

Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and company are, of course, the most to blame for the current stalemate. They failed to gauge Iran’s post-election climate accurately. They must also be considered naïve for thinking that the external players, particularly the Obama administration, would not portray the transfer of LEU as a viable, if temporary, means of checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Regardless of the Obama administration’s sensitivities to Iranian public opinion, which may indeed be greater than its predecessor’s, any US administration is primarily accountable to American public opinion. The Obama White House must show Americans that its tactic of face-to-face talks is “tough on Iran,” or at least sufficiently so to curtail the expansion of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. To expect any other approach is to ignore the history of US-Iran interaction and, indeed, rational analysis.

But neither is the Obama administration fault-free, if the US intent at Geneva was to strike a bargain limiting Iran’s enrichment program and instituting a robust inspection regime. (If the intent was to make pro forma overtures designed to be disdained, so that the US might garner support for further sanctions, then all bets are off.) When the agreements encountered opposition, the US could have counseled forbearance, allowing the P5+1 to wait for a counter-offer from Tehran. The White House could have reflected upon the fact that the hardliners themselves had floated the ideas of keeping Iran’s LEU stockpile small and enriching no more uranium beyond 5 percent. Instead, impatient with Iran’s messy domestic dynamics, the US chose a more familiar path: announcements of deadlines, patronizing speeches and ominous reminders that the clock was ticking. In effect, Washington’s insistence that the Geneva and Vienna drafts were the only offer on the table turned the tentative agreement into an ultimatum -- and the IAEA censure became a foregone conclusion. Already under fire for caving into Western pressure their political opponents likely imagined, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad could hardly bow to pressure that was real.

In the end, the hardliners were shocked at the Russian and Chinese acquiescence in the IAEA Board of Governors’ resolution demanding that Iran pause construction at Fordo. Though only 25 of the 35 board members voted for the resolution -- with important non-aligned countries such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey abstaining and Venezuela, Malaysia and Cuba voting no -- Tehran was nonetheless cornered. The hardliners responded with characteristic bombast, bragging about ten new enrichment facilities when Fordo is not even built. The rhetoric grabs headlines, but it reeks of bluff.

In striking such an outlandish pose, Tehran has the more mundane intent of reminding Obama of the cost of no agreement. It is true that the Obama administration looks more ready for an agreement than Iran does. But Iranian strategists, spanning the great post-election divide, operate on the premise that Obama can do little that is punitive, beyond securing toothless sanctions and making threats of war that will never be carried out.

Hence they believe that the Obama administration is faced with a choice. It can declare diplomacy dead after only one meeting among the principals and begin the arduous process of putting together a coalition behind sanctions that will actually bite, assuming, as the Bush administration did for many years, that Tehran will cry uncle before the US is compelled to. Or it can try genuine bargaining, at least for a few months, based on two key lessons learned in the course of the misadventures of the fall of 2009: First, to neglect Iran’s domestic arena is to strangle agreements in their infancy; and second, even the most intransigent arch-conservatives in the Islamic Republic are willing to entertain a compromise over Iran’s nuclear program.

Endnotes

Mehr News, September 29, 2009.
Thomas Friedman, “Sleepless in Tehran,” New York Times, October 28, 2008.
Mehr News, October 1, 2009.
Aftab, November 4, 2009.
Tabnak, November 17, 2009.
Iranian Labor News Agency, October 25, 2009.
See, for instance, the editorial in Aftab-e Yazd, November 29, 2009.

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