Kerry Appears to Reject Iran’s Call for New Nuclear Proposal, But Iran’s Leaders Were Unlikely Frazzled by That

In an October 7, 2013 Washington Post article entitled “Kerry Appears to Reject Iran’s Call for New Nuclear Proposal,” Anne Gearan reported US Secretary of State John Kerry feels that warming relations between the US and Iran do not mean that the US will back off its demands about Iran’s nuclear program or roll back missile defenses in Europe aimed at intercepting an Iranian attack.  Back in September, Gearan notes, Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN General Assembly in New York and US President Barack Obama telephoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the end of the event.  Kerry reportedly stated on October 7th that “We’re waiting for the fullness of the Iranian difference in their approach now.”  He further explained, “But we’re encouraged by the statements that were made in New York, and we’re encouraged by the outreach.”  However, included in the article was a quote from Zarif, also Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, extracted from Iran’s state media.  Zarif stated the US should bring new proposals to a multi-party nuclear bargaining session in Geneva next week.  According to Gearan, Kerry appeared to reject that idea.  He explained Iran still has not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia and others, in February.

Such increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and any effort to shift nuclear away bilateral engagement with the US talks to a broader negotiation with the Europeans and Russia may create the impression that an effort to stall the negotiations could be underway.  That would come as a huge disappointment in Washington given expectations created by the eloquent case Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his election as president.  Zarif is astute enough to know that Kerry will shut the talks down if he discerns an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through negotiations.  It might be expected this would be viewed as disastrous in Iran, but the reality is that achieving nothing through the nuclear talks might be acceptable within Iran’s power elite.  Indeed, in Iran, the talks are not nuclear talks as much as talks on the economic sanctions.  If there is not an outcome on economic sanctions acceptable in Tehran, then an agreement may not be reached.  The US would need to prepare to act with either further coercive diplomacy or military action, or simply wait for Tehran’s next step, which may be the acquisition of the capability to build a nuclear device.

Does Tehran Want an Agreement on Its Nuclear Program?

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been supportive of Rouhani and has given him the authority to act in negotiations with the US.  However, the goal of the negotiations from Iran’s view is not as much to find compromise on its nuclear program as it is to gain some compromise from the US on economic sanctions.  The nuclear program is seen by Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and senior clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity has made Iran much poorer.  Although for years, Khamenei and the Iranian leadership have rejected the idea of Iran wanting a nuclear weapon, US policy makers suspect that Iranian leaders actually believe nuclear weapons will make Iran stronger. This situation has placed both Rouhani and Iran’s negotiator, Zarif, in a difficult position.  They must try to end economic sanctions, but manage to hold on to Iran’s nuclear program, with all of its potential, knowing the US will not agree to those demands.. 

In Iran, there have been shrill responses by key players over the talks with the US and strong condemnations of the Obama administration threats over Iran’s nuclear program.  During a speech before Friday prayer in Tehran, the adviser to IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Jafari and Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, (and former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) discussed events in New York during the UN General Assembly.  As translated from the Iranian Students News Agency by Will Fulton and Amir Toumaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Harandi reportedly stated “Our president went to the UN to solve problems with all options open from the Supreme Leader and a framework of red lines. The American Secretary of State, in opposition to the commitments and statements he made, did not recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, said that none of the officials had agreed on Iran’s right to enrichment, and said that no changes had taken shape in this area when he spoke to news agencies and the media.”  His statement raised the ire of prayer attendees who began to shout “Death to America.” 

According to Fars News, Harandi also proffered the view in his address that the negotiations would unlikely succeed; therefore, there was no real possibility that economic sanctions would be lifted anytime soon.  What Harandi knew, but presumably did not reveal to prayer attendees was that beyond the demand that Iran not enrich uranium, US demands went much farther to require Iran to remove enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.  Meeting those demands would be tantamount to surrender and represent a humiliating defeat from the perspective of Iran’s leadership.  Harandi expressed this view by stating: “These days our people have hoped for the opening of a path under the title of ‘heroic flexibility’ that leads to the realization of their demands, but I am confident that in every respect the conduct of America will continue in this malicious direction of the past and failing to evaluate national rights, and certainly their slogans will echo more loudly.”  

As explained in the greatcharlie.com September 26, 2013 post entitled, “Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts”, “heroic flexibility,” particularly as understood by Harandi and his close compatriots in the IRGC allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  Indeed, the joint diplomatic campaign of the president’s office and the Foreign Ministry may actually be just one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, other elements of power in Iran, away from Rouhani’s purview, would continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. For Iranian leaders, turning back now, after getting so close, would be counterproductive and counterintuitive.

The notion that Iran’s goals regarding economic sanctions would unlikely be met was also heard from Mashhad Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda.  As translated from the Iranian Students News Agency by Will Fulton and Amir Tourmaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Alamolhoda explained, “The country’s officials at the management rank must use foreign policy capacities to resolve economic issues and no one must create obstacles against the administrative measures.”  However, Alamolhoda went on to state, “The reality is that the country is stricken with the enemy’s nefarious sanction and issue, but paying attention to these realities must not cause the neglect of revolutionary ideals and strategies.”  Going further regarding his mistrust of the US, Alamolhoda explained that “America’s intention will never change and that view is corroborated by the American president’s act of prohibiting nuclear weapons and calling the use of nuclear energy the Iranian nation’s right. According to [US National Security Adviser, Ambassador Susan] Rice’s statement, Obama acted knowingly in speaking, because he has given the right to use nuclear energy to Iran and not its enrichment.” 

Most important in Alamolhoda’s speech, was his statement that “In the span of two days, America’s strategy changed against Iran, therefore [settling with] a government that destroyed and annihilated an Iranian aircraft on the Persian Gulf has no meaning.”  His rejection of forthright negotiations with the US gives one a sense of the rationale behind a possible dual-track effort regarding its nuclear program.  The echo of mistrust of the US could also be heard from Expediency Discernment Council and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami when discussing US-Iran relations and Obama’s comments on military options against Iran.  As translated from Fars News by Will Fulton and Amir Tourmaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Khatami stated: “From the beginning, America had problems with us, and if the nuclear story ends they will introduce human rights [as a new issue].  Therefore, America’s issue is the issue of dominance.”  He asserted, “Americans lie when they say they do not seek the overthrow of Iran’s government, rather they wanted to do so but could not. Therefore, relying on the smiles of Westerners and of this nation’s enemies is an error.”  He explained “There are rumors that some have said to abandon the death to America slogan, but they must know that the death to America slogan is the slogan of Iran’s resistance.”  Khatami went on to state, “The most idiotic type of speaking with a nation is threatening a nation. With complete obscenity, Obama says that ‘we will put all options on the table’ and we also tell them we have all options on the table, which one of those choices is Eight Years of Sacred Defense.”  Khatami pointed to the fact that “Morsi called Shimon Perez a brother, consulted with Obama, and did something for America. Therefore, those who seek to back down should look closer at Morsi’s fate. Of course, we do not accept the current government that has come to power in Egypt and consider it corrupt.” Lastly, Khatami stated, “Today, the enemy is not trustworthy at all because we are facing an enemy that is not bound to any principles. Of course, we do not say that we should not have diplomatic negotiations.”

Assessment

Leaders in Tehran state that Iran has not sought to threaten the US or its interests.  Yet, they fully sense both pressure and a real threat from the US in the form of: draconian economic sanctions as part of a US policy of coercive diplomacy against Iran; the US desire to reign in Iran’s nuclear energy program and refusal to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium; the US condemnation of Iran for allegedly sponsoring terrorism worldwide; and, a powerful US naval and military presence in and around the Persian Gulf.  The previous US administration’s declaration of that Iran was a member of the “Axis of Evil”, its repetitive threats of regime change, and it threat to impose a US form of democracy on Iran, still rings in the ears of Iranian leaders.  They will not tolerate any further expressions of US views on what is best for the Iranian people.  Thoughts that Obama may lack the will to use force after his somewhat awkward effort to use force in Syria, are offset by deeply engrained feelings that Iran could be attacked.  The Iranians are not yet able to rely on promises from the US.  To that extent, Iranian leaders feel they must do whatever is necessary to ensure their nation’s security and interests.  

The long awaited diplomatic opening has occurred through the meeting between Kerry and Zarif in New York, and the phone conversation between Obama and Rouhani.  However, Kerry explains that it is too early to say whether the thaw begun at the UN in September will lead to a change in US policy.  For the US, time is certainly of the essence, as Iran’s nuclear capabilities are ever increasing.  Small diplomatic steps must continue.  Yet, Iran wants both countries step to each other at the same time.  That may have much to do with Zarif’s call for a US proposal.  It was noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski that enduring nuclear accords with the Soviet Union involved compromise, not demands for one-sided capitulation.  It may very well be that the nuclear issue will not be resolved with this new dialogue.  An agreement with Iran that halts its nuclear program may not be part of Obama’s legacy.  Legacy seems to be a very important consideration within the White House and among US pundits.  If the US were to refrain from military action against Iran even after any further nuclear developments by Iran were revealed, the US and Iran might still be able to slowly resolve issues though contact and communication.  Through cooperation with other countries, the US and Iran could possibly engage in efforts to establish greater security and stability in the Middle East.

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The Adviser to Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander-in-Chief Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari and Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi (center)

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