In a November 18, 2013 Reuters article entitled “Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Peaceful,” Lesley Wroughton reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to lower expectations for the next round of talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry’s comments, which were made at a press conference in Washington DC, ran counter to the optimism expressed after the previous round of talks one week before. Currently, the talks seek to reach an interim agreement to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would end a ten year impasse and provide assurances to the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China that Iran’s nuclear program will not produce weapons. Wroughton quoted Kerry as stating “I have no specific expectations with respect to the negotiation in Geneva except that we will negotiate in good faith and we will try to get a first-step agreement.” Wroughton reported Kerry hoped “Iran will understand the importance of coming there prepared to create a document that can prove to the world this is a peaceful program.” Kerry declined to discuss details of the proposal under discussion. Kerry was also reported as stating: “I am not going to negotiate that in public. We all need to be respectful of each others’ processes here and positions—and so it’s best to leave that negotiation to the negotiating table.”
The restraint Kerry wisely displayed by refusing to discuss the substance of upcoming talks contrasted greatly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s public discussion of the talks. On November 17, 2013, Zarif presented his idea for overcoming the stumbling block of enrichment in the upcoming round of negotiations. The US argues that Iran does not intrinsically have the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran claims that it retains that right. To get around this sticking point, Zarif reportedly explained to the ISNA news agency in Iran, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable [sic], but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right,’ because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.” In Zarif’s statement lies a major problem concerning trust among the negotiating parties. Unless the necessary work is done on uranium enrichment at the talks in Geneva to a concrete agreement, the negotiations may be in jeopardy. Moreover, unless the US takes a consistent course of assertive diplomacy toward Iran, it will most likely end up with an agreement it does not really want and may not be sustainable. Even if a nuclear agreement of some type is preferred by the Obama administration over military response or further economic sanctions, the best agreement possible within the interests of the US and its allies still must be sought.
Geneva: An Assertive Posture Morphs into Acquiescence
There was considerable expectation created in Washington over the potential of negotiations with Iran given the eloquent case Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration. There was also skepticism expressed in the US, mainly by Kerry. He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process. When Zarif suggested that the US should bring proposals to an October bargaining session, Kerry bristled and rejected the idea, stated at a press conference that the Islamic Republic still had not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia, and others in February. In some quarters of the US government, the increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and the effort to shift nuclear away from bilateral engagement with the US talks to broader negotiations with the Europeans and Russia was itself an Iranian effort to stall the negotiations.
However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position. US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program became a distant memory. Regarding the use of further economic sanctions, the Obama administration officials made it clear to the US Congress that they would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes. The White House wanted to reach a deal. Things proceeded in this way regardless of any further skepticism or even doubts Kerry might possess over Iran’s intentions and actions. Kerry, a discreet and honorable man, who is bound by a sense of loyalty to his president as a secretary of state and to Obama personally, was prepared to press forward as directed. The veil of skepticism that draped initial US efforts to establish dialogue with Iran was lifted. Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude. He was correct when he declared in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”
According to a November 18, 2013, New York Times article, weeks before the Geneva meeting at which hopes for an accord first soared and then sank, the US and Iran had opened a quiet two-way negotiation on a six-month interim deal. Officials close to Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, told the New York Times that those bilateral discussions had produced an agreed US-Iranian text (with caveats) by the time the Geneva talks opened. When French officials became cognizant of it they were distressed.
When the US delegation arrived in Geneva on November 7, 2013, they explained that they wanted to construct a deal that would freeze the Iranian nuclear program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambition deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium. In return, the Iranians would receive modest relief from sanctions, but not what they desperately desire, the ability to again sell oil around the world. That would come only later as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure. Talk at the bargaining table focused on those three areas: The heavy-water plant at Arak that the Iranians are building, where the outline agreement seemed to allow continued construction; language that appeared to concede prematurely an Iranian “right to enrich” or something close to it; and, what measures exactly Iran would take to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium. France, gravely concerned with all that had transpired, sought to close any loopholes. French changes to the proposed agreement proved unacceptable to the Iranian delegation
The Way Forward: US Allies Are Flummoxed
According to a November 19, 2013, New York Times article, based on what is known about the agreement, it neither froze the Iranian program nor rolled it back. Rather, only some elements are frozen, and the rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor. Iran would continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning uranium enriched to reactor grade or less than 5 percent purity. The US maintains that the overall size of Iran’s stockpile would not increase. The November 19th article also explained that the reason for that is Iran would agree to convert some of its medium enriched uranium—fuel enriched to 20 percent purity is bomb grade—into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel. Yet, that process can be easily reversed.
Based on the US effort, the French are convinced that the US seems a bit disinterested in the Middle East. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay in a recent speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” He suggested this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion. He was concerned that no state could replace the US on the world stage. Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”
In other Western capitals, the foreign policy of the Obama administration is driven by US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin. In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.
The Israelis are the most vocal critics of the proposed agreement and alarmed by its terms. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement has been reported by some Israeli analysts as being both substantive and political. Reportedly, he truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges would be a terrible mistake. Netanyahu speaks as if he had some type of “intimation” based on his “dominant knowledge” of the Middle East, that Iran was engaged in a major deception. Some Israeli security analysts disagree with Netanyahu’s views. Yet, the weight of maintaining the security of Israel falls on his shoulders. Perhaps it would behoove Netanyahu to consider that the US decision may have been impacted by his own uncongenial relationship with Obama despite the strong ties between the US and Israel. He should consider the possibility that difficulties the Obama administration has had getting Israel to agree on Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestine, the occupation, settlements and other issues has influenced US actions. Netanyahu must not be dismissive of the stinging memory of what some US analysts have described as a manipulation of the Bush administration policymakers by Israeli security officials on the Iraq issue. Israeli intelligence findings, claims and pleas regarding Iraq supported the invasion that led to a very difficult period in US foreign and defense policy and a national nightmare for the American people. There is also the somewhat expedient argument that Israel has “cried wolf” too often.
Divergence in Outlook
Two of the most imminent members of the foreign policy establishment, former US national security adviser in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former national security adviser in the administrations of Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush and US Air Force lieutenant general, Brent Scowcroft, issued a joint statement on November 18, 2013. They explained, “should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our nonproliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.” They repeated Obama’s central argument, “Additional sanctions now against Iran with the new the view to extracting even more concessions in the negotiations will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations.”
The joint statement was significant, given the knowledge and experience of Brzezinski and Scowcroft in international affairs. However, while they centered their argument on negotiating in support of nuclear nonproliferation and to avoid the need for war, in Iran the argument for negotiations centered on the economic harm resulting from US coercive diplomacy. The goal of the negotiations from Tehran’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 the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though it was the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity that has made Iran much poorer.
Assessment: A Lack of Confidence
There is a sense among US allies that negotiations with Iran have reached this point as result of the White House’s desire to seek political expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analysis. To date, no publicly released US government data has indicated that Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapon. Yet opinion among US allies who have assessed the situation falls mostly on the side that there are too many loopholes in the proposed agreement, and Iran could potentially run in the open field toward developing a nuclear device at will. Israel in particular has been very vocal about its concerns over US attitude and effort regarding the Geneva negotiation process. Iran is not pleased by Netanyahu’s statements regarding its negotiation efforts, but has left it to the US to manage its relationship with Israel on the matter. To Iran’s satisfaction, the US has essentially ignored Israel’s concerns, as well as resisted calls for caution from allies, and has pushed forward with the Geneva talks and the current proposed interim agreement.
In addition to his joint statement with Brent Scowcroft on the Obama administration’s efforts in Geneva, Zbigniew Brzezinski used Twitter o November 19, 2013, to proffer that Obama and Kerry were the best foreign policy team since President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker. However, to be forthright, there are differences. George H. W. Bush was elected to two terms as a Member of the US House of Representatives much as Obama was a elected to one term as a Member of the US Senate. Yet, Bush also served as a diplomat (US Ambassador to the UN), an intelligence expert (Director of the CIA), and, a US Navy aviator (a combat torpedo bomber pilot in World War II). Together with Secretary Baker, his chief diplomat, was amassed a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience that has not been matched since. This is in stark contrast with the understanding of world affairs in the abstract from intelligence and the first-hand reports of others which Obama has acquired. That may be the source of much concern in Paris, other European capitals, Tel Aviv and within the US Congress.
Indeed, there may very well be doubt whether Obama is able to fully synthesize the issues at hand concerning Iran’s nuclear program beyond the pure legalities of it. At this point, the French appear to have appraised the Obama administration as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians, themselves, may have also concluded that Obama was not predisposed toward declaring war regardless of how they might proceed. The Iranians essentially see Obama as lacking the will to fight. Given that perspective, eliminating sanctions, even if for six months would be preferred maintain the status quo. While its figures were debunked by the US State Department given sanctions relief would be in effect for only six months and not a year, Israel continues to state the proposed deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what was $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects. In the meantime, with whatever short-term concessions on sanctions that might be allowed, the hardliners in Iran, particularly IRGC commanders, who are unfortunately convinced Obama is timorous, given recent declarations, may see a golden opportunity to develop a nuclear device. Perhaps they believe what they would undoubtedly characterize as their “bold and decisive action,” could be reconciled with rest of the world through the negotiation powers of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. They would call it all a spectacular victory for the Islamic Republic. Whether the world truly faces that possibility remains to be seen.