Iran, Powers Make Limited Progress at Nuclear Talks; Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Remains Focus, But Lasers May Bring Iran the Bomb

The construction of new facilities at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center, once an undeclared laser uranium enrichment site, has allowed Iran to engage in more advanced laser work. The notated Google Earth photo of Lashkar Ab’ad, above, is from the Institute for Science and International Security. Laser uranium enrichment is a subtle aspect of the nuclear talks. Iran has pledged to forgo laser enrichment activity, but if it is still engaged in that work secretly, detecting it will be difficult.

According to a January 18, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Iran, Powers Make ‘Limited’ Progress at Nuclear Talks, To Meet in February”, five days of diplomacy in Geneva and Paris between the P5+1 (US, United Kingdom, France, Russia China, and Germany) and Iran ended without an agreement. It included meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Hope remains among diplomats that a political understanding can be reached by the end of March and a comprehensive deal can be reached by June 30, 2015. Reuters quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and negotiator Abbas Araqchi stated the discussions were “good” and “extensive.” French negotiator Nicholas de la Riviere was quoted as saying “the mood was good,” but he also said, “I do not think we made a lot of progress.”

The later view expressed by de la Riviere perhaps best described the situation. The January meeting’s outcome was disappointing given hopes raised in December 2014 that the talks would progress faster and more smoothly. In December, negotiators even created a catalog outlining areas of potential accord and differing approaches to remaining disputes. Among the catalog’s requirements, much of Iran’s enriched uranium would be shipped out of the country. The administration of US President Barack Obama wanted to reduce Tehran’s ability to make nuclear arms by committing it to ship to Russia much of the enriched uranium needed for weapons. However, diplomats are now debating how much enriched uranium to leave Iran. Iran has a stockpile for several bombs, and the US wants cuts well below that level. Other issues being debated apparently include the size of Iran’s future enrichment output. The US wants it cut in half, leaving Tehran with about 4,500 of its existing uranium enrichment centrifuges, or less if it replaces them with advanced models. Tehran is ready for a reduction of around 20%, or about 8,000 machines. Issues remaining to be resolved include action on Iran’s underground Fordow (Shahid Alimohammadi) Fuel Enrichment Plant and its incomplete Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor (IR-40). The P5+1 wants Fordow repurposed to a non-enrichment function. Fordow is allegedly impervious to airstrikes. The P5+1 wants Arak re-engineered from a model by which it could yearly produce plutonium for several nuclear bombs to a less proliferation-prone one.

In the meantime, Iran is still complying with restrictions on research and development required under the November 24, 2014 extension. According to documents outlining the extension, these provisions are designed to resolve ambiguities regarding permitted and prohibited research activities, and especially “limit research and development on advanced centrifuges that move the machines to the next level of development.” Iran agreed not to test the IR-5 centrifuge with uranium hexafluoride gas. Iran also agreed not to pursue testing of the IR-6 centrifuge on a cascade level with uranium gas, or semi-industrial scale testing of the IR-2M. Iran also agreed not to complete installation of the IR-8 centrifuge, which is only partially installed at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. The IAEA will also have greater access to Iran’s centrifuge production sites under the extension. According to the terms, the agency’s inspections visits will double and be conducted with very little notice. The goal of limiting research and development and creating regular access to monitor centrifuge production facilities was to prevent Iran from refining and mass-producing efficient machines that would allow it to rapidly enrich material for bombs.

Discussing the November 24, 2014 extension, US Secretary of State John Kerry said “We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time [for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon] has already been expanded rather than narrowed and the world is safer because the program is in place.” He noted skeptics who predicted the interim agreement [Joint Plan of Action] would collapse and Iran would break its promises were proven wrong. He further stated “Guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated, Iran has held up its end of the bargain, and the sanctions regime has remained intact.” Through the nuclear negotiation process, the US and its P5+1 partners have focused most on centrifuge uranium enrichment. However, Iran’s nuclear program does not fit into a single, very clear and well defined picture of centrifuge enrichment. Iran has the technological know-how and the human resources to take its nuclear program in many different directions. It puts into the question the choice not to give added attention to other paths to uranium enrichment. Iran has a proven capability to engage in uranium enrichment using laser isotope separation. If Iran’s work with lasers is not properly addressed before the end of the negotiation process, the world may soon face a very advanced, nuclear capable Iran.

On Centrifugal Uranium Enrichment, Iran Is Compliant

What best supports the argument proffered by Kerry and others that Tehran’s intentions on the nuclear issue may be positive is the significant effort Iran has made to comply with its agreements on centrifugal uranium enrichment. Reviewing that compliance, one would discover that the January 20, 2014 IAEA Report stated Iran halted production of near-20% enriched uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) and ceased operating its interconnected centrifuges that were enriching to 20% UF6. The February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said Iran was using the four cascades at Fordow to enrich uranium to only 5%. Regarding its stockpile of enriched uranium, in the July 20, 2014 IAEA Report, it was explained Iran completed the process of converting half of its stockpile of 20% enriched UF6 gas (~104 kg) to uranium oxide powder. Iran’s dilution of half of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium was confirmed in the April 2014 IAEA Report.

With respect to research and development, in the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report, it was verified that Iran was continuing its safeguarded research and development practices at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant and was not using the research to accumulate uranium as it tested advanced models. Iran submitted details on site selection for 16 nuclear power plants to the IAEA, its initial plans for 10 future enrichment sites, and a light water reactor. Those plans included: descriptions of buildings located on nuclear sites, the scale of operations for each location, and information on uranium mines and mills.

On source materials, a May 23, 2014 IAEA Report explained that Iran granted the agency access to the Gchine Mine, the Saghand Mine and the Ardakan Uranium Production Plant. Iran provided the IAEA with information about source material on April 20, according to the May 23, 2014 IAEA Report. Iran also submitted an updated Design Information Questionnaire for the reactor at Arak (IR-40) on February 12, 2014, according to the IAEA’s February 20, 2014 Report. On May 5, 2014, IAEA and Iranian officials met to discuss a safeguards approach with the IAEA for the Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor, and according to the IAEA’s June 20, 2014 Report, Iran reached an agreement with the agency on the safeguards.

Regarding IAEA access and monitoring, the requirement for Iran was to allow daily IAEA inspector access at Fordow and Natanz, including scheduled and unannounced inspections and access to surveillance information daily. As of its February 20, 2014 Report, the IAEA installed surveillance measures at Natanz and Fordow to facilitate daily monitoring and reached an agreement on facilitating daily access. (Prior to the Joint Plan of Action, the IAEA had visited Fordow on a weekly basis, and Natanz on a biweekly basis.) The February 20, 2014 Report noted the IAEA made its first monthly visit to the Arak Heavy Water Reactor on February 12, 2014. It visited Arak between February 3, 2014 and February 7, 2014, to inspect the centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production and workshops, and storage facilities.

Issues concerning mines and mills were covered by May 23, 2014 IAEA Report. It explained that Iran granted the IAEA access to the Gchine and Saghand Uranium Mines and the Arkadan Milling Facility. While Iran was required to provide figures that would allow the IAEA to verify that centrifuge production will be dedicated to the replacement of damaged machines, the IAEA was granted access to Iran’s centrifuge workshops and facilities, allowing it to collect such data firsthand. Regarding the capping of Iran’s 5% enriched UF6 stockpile, the November 24, 2014 IAEA Report on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action indicated that Iran’s stockpile of UF6 gas was 7,400 kg, below January’s level of 7,560 kg.

Iran has complied with agreements to refrain from certain actions with its program. In a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Iran pledged not to engage in reprocessing or build a reprocessing facility over the six months of the deal. Then, the January 20, 2014 IAEA Report confirmed reprocessing was not taking place at the Tehran Research Reactor or the Iodine and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility (MIX Facility). The January 20, 2014 IAEA Report confirmed Iran also has not installed a reconversion line to reconvert uranium oxide powder to 20% UF6.

With regard to Natanz, Iran has refrained from making any further advances of its activities there. According to a February 20, 2014 IAEA Report, Iran had not installed any new centrifuges and was not feeding UF6 into the roughly half the centrifuges at Natanz that were already installed but were not engaged in uranium enrichment.

Concerning Fordow, Iran has also refrained from further advancing the plant’s activities. The February 20, 2014 IAEA verified that Iran has not installed any new centrifuges, and is not feeding UF6 into the three quarters at Fordow that have also been installed but not engaged in uranium enrichment. Additionally, the cascades have not been interconnected. To the extent Iran has replaced centrifuges, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report indicated that Iran limited itself to replacing existing centrifuges with centrifuges of the same type. The report made clear that surveillance has been set up to monitor any changes.

On Arak, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said Iran had not commissioned the reactor and had not conducted any activities to further it. Iran, as promised, according to the report, has refrained from transferring fuel or heavy water to the Arak reactor. Iran has also refrained from testing additional fuel or producing more fuel. Indeed, the February 20, 2014 IAEA Report said that Iran had not manufactured or tested any reactor fuel, and the number of fuel rods produced remains at 11. Iran has refrained from installing any additional reactor components at the Arak site. Centrifuge production has been limited to those needed to replace damaged machines. That has been confirmed by the IAEA’s regular managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops.

Regarding the construction of any new locations for enrichment, in a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Tehran said it would not pursue any new uranium enrichment sites during the six months of the agreement which has now been extended. Iran also agreed to forgo uranium enrichment using other methods, including laser enrichment. While it is unlikely that Iran could move quickly to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels using these alternative methods, the commitment to refrain from testing any of these methods is positive and should mitigate concerns about covert enrichment activities involving such technologies. Iran is known to have experimented with laser enrichment in the past, and as part of its agreement to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation into inconsistencies with its nuclear declaration and alleged activities with past military dimensions, Iran provided the agency with information about its laser enrichment activities. Iran also gave the IAEA access to the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center on March 12, 2014.

Laser Uranium Enrichment: A Genuine Concern

A number of laser enrichment processes have been developed. One process is molecular laser isotope separation, conceived at Los Alamos Laboratories in 1971. Under that process, carefully formed photons, from an infra-red laser system, operating near the 16mm wavelength, irradiate UF6. The lasers selectively excite the molecules of 235 UF6, not the molecules of 238 UF6. The molecules of the excited 235 UF6 then become easier to differentiate from those of the 238 UF6. Photons from a second laser system selectively dissociates the excited 235 UF6 to form 235 UF5 and free fluorine atoms. The 235 UF5 formed from the dissociation precipitates from the gas as a powder that can be filtered from the gas stream. An advanced laser enrichment technology known as separation of isotopes by laser excitation (SILEX) was developed in Australia by Michael Goldsworthy and Horst Struve. Details of SILEX are classified under the US Atomic Energy Act. In 2006, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed an agreement with Silex Systems Ltd. Of Australia and eventually built a SILEX demonstration loop. In September 2012, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board granted GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) a license to build a first-of-its-kind laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. The license allows GLE to produce up to 6 million single work units per year. Silex has completed the Phase 1 Test Loop Program the facility. GLE promotes laser enrichment as a less costly, less energy-intensive enrichment process.

Nonproliferation analysts and specialists for year have expressed concern over the proliferation threat posed by laser enrichment. If properly engineered, it has the potential to dramatically advance the capabilities of countries to secretly enrich uranium. Princeton University atomic expert Scott Kemp noted that a number of countries already have a workforce specialized in laser technologies. He stated further, “That expertise does not exist for centrifuges, which are a bit esoteric.” Although enriching uranium with lasers on a production-scale appears extremely complicated, laser uranium enrichment is as a potential way for a country to acquire significant quantities of highly enriched uranium. A covert laser uranium enrichment facility might escape detection by the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies because of the relatively small size and few external indicators of such plants. Further, several required research and development activities of laser uranium enrichment can be conducted under a non-nuclear cover.

While visiting an exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology in February 2010, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center) made a public statement about Iran’s laser uranium enrichment capability that troubled the international community. Ahmadinejad indicated that Iran possessed an advanced and effective laser uranium enrichment capability. Since then, the IAEA has sought data on Iran’s laser work.

Iran has far more than a pilot laser enrichment program. It has developed advanced lasers suitable for isotope separation and highly enriched uranium production. In February 2010, then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a public statement about Iran’s laser uranium enrichment capability. At an exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology, Ahmadinejad stated “Today, we are capable of enriching uranium with lasers. It is now possible to do this using the same devices which are on display here at the exhibition” and that “using the laser technology for enriching uranium would lead to carrying out the enrichment process with higher quality, accuracy, and speed.” He further stated “Iranian scientists have acquired the laser-operating, uranium enrichment know-how, but would put the technology on the shelf for now.” New facilities recently constructed at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center, once undeclared as a laser enrichment site, have supported Iran’s advanced laser efforts.

The IAEA, itself, has displayed concern over Iran’s laser enrichment capability. On February 8 and 9, 2014, the IAEA and Iran held technical meetings under the terms of the November 2013 Framework for Cooperation. As a result, Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement on seven practical measures that Iran had to implement by May 15, 2014, including one provision where Iran agreed to provide “mutually agreed relevant information and arranging for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center.” That agreement reinforced the terms of the Framework for Cooperation in November 2013. Iran agreed to further clarify Ahmadinejad’s 2010 statement on laser enrichment also, but the February 2014 IAEA Report stated Iran only partially explained it.

Would Iran Seek Breakout Capacity Through Laser Enrichment?

Many US allies still fear Iran’s diplomatic initiative is a delaying tactic designed to allow other Iranian government elements to bring the nuclear program to breakout capacity, which means acquiring the knowledge and means to develop a nuclear weapon without actually doing so.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the idea that Iran’s diplomatic efforts were legitimate, and rebuffed Obama for even entertaining Iranian overtures.  When the talks began, the Wall Street Journal quoted Israel’s Minister of Intelligence and International Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, as saying, “Israel is interested in a diplomatic solution, like anyone else. But we don’t want to cheat ourselves.” Steinitz went on to state, “Some people are willing to be cheated.”

To put into perspective the possibility that Iran might be conducting an effective laser enrichment program in secret, consider strides made by Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities presently and into the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.  The application of those new technologies was evident in the reverse engineering of a US stealth drone, the advent of a new anti-ship system and other naval technologies, and Iran’s greatly enhanced cyber capabilities. Per aspera ad astra! (Through difficulties to the stars!)

Dehghan is an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Air Force brigadier general (Sartip). He is fearless, devout, dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and sworn to defend the Islamic Republic. His efforts on the Expediency Council helped it best advise Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on conventional and unconventional ways Iran could use its military to accomplish political goals in the face of US and Western opposition. Dehghan’s descent to Rouhani’s cabinet, after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council, did not occur because his administrative skills were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was selected in order to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone as capable and reliable as him could be counted on to direct.

On January 7, 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made it clear he was no longer concerned about ending sanctions through the nuclear talks, and warned the government that “efforts must be made to immunize Iran against the sanctions” so that “the people will not be hurt.”

Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the requirement Khamenei gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei saw the negotiation process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology. While occasionally supportive of government efforts in the nuclear talks, he often expressed some skepticism about them. On January 7, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he was no longer as concerned about ending sanctions through the nuclear talks, and warned the government that “efforts must be made to immunize Iran against the sanctions” so that “the people will not be hurt.”  He went on to state: “No one should imagine that the enemy may stop its enmity and maliciousness.” He then said, “Once you forget and trust the enemy, then the enemy finds the chance to pursue his goals in the country. But if you identify the enemy and you are strong, ready, arrogance [US] will inevitably stop its enmity.”

The Way Forward

The first successful attempt at gas centrifuge process of uranium enrichment, over which the P5+1 and Iran have primarily been negotiating, was performed in 1934 at the University of Virginia. The work was based on a 1919 proposal. Two chlorine isotopes were separated through a vacuum ultracentrifuge. It was the first process utilized in the renowned Manhattan Project of World War II, but abandoned because the process would unlikely allow for the production of material for a bomb rapidly enough. Electromagnetic separation, initiated at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility and eventually, gaseous diffusion, were pursued instead. The Soviet Union successfully used the gas centrifuge process in its nuclear program and during the Cold War, it was the most effective supplier of enriched uranium. Since those years, the gas centrifuge has been considered an economical means for separating uranium-235 from uranium-238 compared to gaseous diffusion. To achieve high degrees of separation of these isotopes, several individual centrifuges must be arranged in cascade to achieve higher concentrations.

Although little is said about it publicly, it sounds exotic, and details on it are relatively obscure, laser enrichment is certainly real. The details are not embellished here. Over eighty years after the first successful attempt gas separation by centrifuge, laser separation has become a viable means for countries to engage in uranium enrichment. It is also a less costly and less energy-intensive process for enriching uranium to fuel atomic energy reactors and making nuclear bombs. Iran’s scientific and technological prowess makes cogent the idea that Iran might be engaged in an advanced laser enrichment effort while negotiating over centrifuges. When decision was made to keep Iran away from nuclear weapons, the international community believed that it would monitor and eventually halt Iran’s centrifugal uranium enrichment, the path taken by countries that had already acquired a nuclear capability. It now appears that line of thinking is driven more by nostalgia than realism. While none of the current nuclear powers may have reached their nuclear capability with lasers, Iran certainly could. Visionaries might be able to provide hints about what Iran is doing. Only divine vision knows for sure.

US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War, But If Talks Fail, Iran Will Be Attacked, Eventually!

Pictured above are two of Iran’s most senior leaders, President Hassan Rouhani (right) and IRGC Commander (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (left), in an impromptu discussion of security issues.

According to a February 26, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Kerry: US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War,” by Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed, US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.  Kerry further explained, “We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if before we go to war there actually might be a peaceful solution.”  On November 12, 2013, Iran reached a landmark preliminary agreement with the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) to halt what were alleged to be its most sensitive nuclear operations in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.  The interim deal was completed on January 12th, and the parties set forth to continue negotiations for six months after which, it is hoped, a final accord will be signed.  However, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.  The Reuters article’s authors explained that when he states all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama is using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.  His predecessors and a long line of US officials have held out that same threat.  Yet, when Kerry spoke to the reporters, he apparently left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks breakdown.

Kerry’s public comments concerning the Geneva talks were uncharacteristic of him. Kerry is an extremely capable Secretary of State, and he has a genuine interest in improving relations with Iran.  He is a discreet person who would hardly want to do anything to derail the Geneva process.  The Reuters article’s authors asserted that Kerry’s statements were in reaction to pressure placed on the Obama administration by Congressional Republicans who threatened to revive a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran.  The Obama administration has cautioned Congress that such action could interfere with delicate nuclear talks to find a lasting agreement.  The article’s authors also assert that pressure from Republican lawmakers will likely increase with signs that the easing of sanctions is allowing for the boost in Iran’s oil exports.  However, Kerry’s comments on going to war with Iran were doubtlessly also heard in Tehran.  As Iranian Foreign Minister and lead Iranian negotiator for the Geneva talks, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated in December 2013, “When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.”  Kerry’s comments were very threatening in nature.  Yet, at this point, it is that the leadership in Tehran probably did not become too concerned about US military action.  Indeed, they feel that such action is unlikely.

Among the key power centers in Iran, to include the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, there was an understanding that Iran would be negotiating in Geneva from a position of strength as a military power.  Such power was in part the basis of their belief that the US needed to negotiate with Iran as an equal.  Iranian leaders likely reached this conclusion as a result of an assessment of the “capabilities and possibilities” for likely US military action.  Certainly, Iranian leaders regularly receive a wealth of detailed reports from official and unofficial sources, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, on information such as US approaches to the nuclear negotiations, policy and decision making and statements made by senior US political, diplomatic, and military officials on Iran.  Yet, the consideration of capabilities and possibilities is a standard procedure and favored methodology for foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations in Iran to assess, in the abstract, capability to effectively perform a proposed action and the real possibility for success.  It also allows for an assessment of an opponent’s capability to respond to that action and possible decision making and reaction to it.  By wrongly giving higher meaning to certain facts and assumptions and incorrectly weighing relative strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s military power versus the US, it becomes clear how Iranian policy analysts and decision makers would reach the conclusion that they would not face a military response if talks failed or if they took the step to develop a nuclear weapon.  Based on one member’s experience working with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue, a truncated assessment of capabilities and possibilities, comparable to those done in Tehran, is presented here by in order to demonstrate how the Iranian leaders most likely acquired certain views, and why they have taken certain approaches toward the US.  If Iranian leaders decide to drop the Geneva talks and actually develop a nuclear weapon, its decision will be based on a flawed understanding of US capabilities.  There is a real possibility the US will attack Iran.  However, there is also the possibility that as the Geneva talks advance, and greater contacts occur among US and Iranian officials and diplomats, some prevailing views in Tehran on US military capabilities may be modified.  Those contacts may also create interest among Iranian leaders to seek a sustainable final agreement on economic sanctions and their nuclear program, if a final decision on how to proceed on the nuclear issue has not already been made.


The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces have declared their willingness to defend Iranian territory with military power, and are convinced that they have such capabilities.  IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has explained: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.”  Regular displays of military strength through exercises and parades, along with hubristic declarations regarding Iran’s power, serve to assure the Iranian people that their government has the capability to defend them, and are also intended to serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Although the impact of US directed international sanctions on Iran’s economy has been considerable, Iranian leaders have vowed not to allow US sanctions prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear program.  Concerning sanctions, Jafari explained: “Today, Americans and Westerners have understood that pressure on Iran not only does not lead to the advancement of their desires but also has the opposite effect.  Iran has progressed day by day.”  Jafari’s statement is indeed accurate.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, advances would continue to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iranian leaders have also appreciated the deterrent effect created by Western intelligence assessments that Iran is close to breakout capacity with its nuclear program; some estimates are that Iran is only six months away from having the technology to develop a bomb.

Iranian leaders feel Rouhani can capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise.  Regarding negotiations, there is a sense among Iranian leaders that Zarif has capabilities as a diplomat and advocate that are superior to his Western counterparts and is capable of driving them toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering nuclear rights.  While rifts between hard-line elements in Iran with Rouhani and Zarif over the Geneva talks have been highlighted in the West, there is actually an understanding among Iranian leaders of the need to support the negotiations team.  Indeed, concerning Zarif and the negotiations team, Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.”

On regime change, a threat posed by the administration of US President George W. Bush against Iran, Iranian leaders are certain their security apparatus is too strong for the US to ever defeat and the US has backed away from that effort.  Addressing the issue of regime change, IRGC Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani stated: “the important side of your [US] attempts today have been to confront the Islamic Republic.  Your [Obama] statement [at the UN] that ‘We are not seeking the Islamic system’s overthrow’ is not a statement of kindness, but rather an announcement of incapability.  You have been and will remain unable to be successful in overthrowing the Republic’s system.”

There is a sense among Iranian leaders that Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan’s efforts to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities at the present and in the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.   Iran has successfully used a base in Venezuela as a test bed for new technologies.  Regarding application of those new technologies, in the Gulf, Iran believes it can establish dominance with the advent of new anti-ship system and naval technologies.  Ali Shamkani, the new Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council directed the IRGC attempts to realize Iranian dominance in the Gulf while serving as IRGC Commander.  He retains a strong interest in that effort.

On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western policy analysts suggest that the US use as a means to weaken the government in Tehran.  In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime.  Iran has trained and equipped Syria’s shabiha (militiamen), and organized them into the National Defense Front.  It is known that Iran has sent at least 330 truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups back in the 1990s.  Calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement, some have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini rebels are operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders, but typically trained in Iran.  Iranian leaders feel they could utilize these diverse forces against the interests of the US and its friends and allies in retaliation for US military action.

As events and issues in the Middle East do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest, some Iranian leaders feel the US has become disinterested in the region.  Most also recite the global mantra that the US has been traumatized by its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan both in which Iran supported opponents of the US.  Obama, himself, appears to Iranian leaders as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than actions where participation by US personnel is very limited in scope as in Libya.  Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving them somewhat less able to project robust power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies.  They have also observed Obama administration effort to make steep reductions in its nuclear forces, the crown jewels of its military power, only to be thwarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin refused to negotiate on the matter concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.  Additionally, they were amused over the way in which the Obama administration buckled under pressure from academics, policy scholars, and activists over drone use.

Iranian leaders have noted the Obama administration’s insistence on deploying a European based missile defense system to defeat an imagined Iranian nuclear-tipped missile attack.  To Iranian leaders, the deployment of the missile defense system indicates that there is a willingness within the US to rely on defense and deterrence rather than offensive military action to cope with Iran’s nuclear program.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s behavior has been perceived by Iranian leaders as being very awkward.  Regarding those military operations, Suleimani stated: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace.  The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.”  In the view of some Iranian leaders, the Obama administration withdrew from Iraq as a result of a promise made during Obama’s first presidential campaign rather than strategic considerations.  Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq.  However, the door was also opened for a growth of al-Qaeda’s presence there.  The initial increase in force in Afghanistan after a long, agonizing decision by Obama in 2009 was made with the goal to create the opportunity for the US and NATO to succeed there.  Iranian leaders have observed how that approach transformed into a decision to withdraw.  Indeed, the US has now declared its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014 without a security agreement with the Afghan government.  Iranian leaders have been presented with an opportunity to further Iran’s dominance in the region, but recognize the US withdrawal may open the door to a growth in al-Qaeda’s presence there.

Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the popular view espoused was that the Obama administration was forced into an aggressive stance against Iran with manipulation from Israel.  Senior Military Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Former IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi stated, “It is sad that the US President is under the influence of [Netanyahu’s] pressure and lies about Iran to such an extent, that he changed his tune and stance towards the Iranian issue. This leads to the US President’s weakness of independent thought and policy and has shown the power and influence of the Zionist lobby . . . .”  Jafari stated in September 2013, “We hope that the Americans let go of their intransigence with Iran and become less affected by the Zionist lobby.”  However, Iranian leaders now believe the US has retreated from its aggressive stance toward Iran fearing further military engagement in the Middle East.  Iranian leaders want to believe that the Obama administration has very negative relations with Israel, and has pursued the Geneva negotiation process, despite Israel’s objections.  They are convinced that uncongenial relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has served to stymie Israeli plans to take any action against Iran.

In Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s efforts to establish itself as the state with predominant military force on the ground and the complete capability to shape events, with the financial support from Russia and China.  Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration hesitated and backed away from military action after very publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons.  Iranian leaders’ views of Obama’s unwillingness to take military action anywhere were confirmed when the Obama administration expressed “fears” over placing troops on the ground and was indecisive in choosing targets in Syria for military strikes before eventually declining to act altogether.  That actually compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands.  Suleimani made the following statement about the US: “There was day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

Iranian leaders watched as Democratic and Republican Members of the US Congress failed to support Obama’ s plan to take military action in Syria.  They recognized that as being indicative of a greater problem between Obama and Congress.  Iranian leaders feel the Congress would likely deny Obama support for military action elsewhere.  The willingness of opponents in Congress to inflict harm on the US military, the security apparatus, and the US public, through sequestration and a government shutdown, convinced to Iranian leaders that there is outright hostility from Congress toward the Obama administration akin to an animus toward an enemy.  The Iranian view of the Obama administration were supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his now infamous September 12, 2013, New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “A Plea for Caution from Russia.”  Putin’s negative perceptions of Obama’s motives and the US have very likely found their way into Russia’s dialogue with Iran and have had an impact. Russia’s most recent military action in Ukraine demonstrates to Iranian leaders that there is little reason to be concerned or intimidated by a possible response from the Obama administration.  Iranian leaders’ views on the role of the US in the world as a predominant power were also supported by China.  Chinese views were represented in an editorial by the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, calling for a “de-Americanized” world.


On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich were the main requirements that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when releasing him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  Jafari has stated: “The people expect their officials to demand the complete nuclear rights of the nation of Iran, including the nuclear fuel cycle, complete and official recognition of the right to enrich, and the elimination of all unjust sanctions.”

Given the nature of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, Iranian leaders felt it was unlikely the US would agree to Israeli demands for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment and to remove all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its Fordow 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.  They know that the US has engaged in an effort to quell very audible concerns expressed by Israel and other Middle East allies over concessions made to Iran, particularly on sanctions.  Iranian leaders truly believe Zarif is the best diplomat possible to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions.  The popular notion, that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was initially driven in great part by the White House’s desire to establish Obama’s legacy, signaled to Iranian leaders that the US may be willing to make concessions in talks to reach an agreement.  Zarif could deliver success at Geneva on Iran’s terms, exploiting the US desire to make a deal.

It may very well be that Iranian leaders want to use the Geneva talks to gain time to make greater advances in the nuclear program.  Continued progress in the program has been a feature of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the US and its Western partners since such talks`began with the Bush administration despite the ferocity of threats of military intervention and the imposition of sanctions.  From a darker perspective, true conservatives among Iranian leaders may wish to use the diplomatic efforts of Rouhani and Zarif simply to misdirect the US and its European partners, enabling other elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Iran has the possibility to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the US while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements take a path toward accomplishing the military goals of the nuclear program.

Whether through the current course of research or a covert program, Iranian leaders are aware that once a significant level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle and a new situation will immediately exist. Iranian leaders believe that threats of further sanctions or military action against Iran would unlikely be viewed as constructive internationally, other than by Israel.  Iranian leaders believe particularly that it would less likely face any consequences if it achieves nuclear weapons technology when US mid-term Congressional elections occur in 2014.  Democrats in the US Senate and House of Representatives, especially those seeking re-election, would not want to have to explain a new war in the Middle East declared by a president from their party.

What Has Occurred So Far

Under the agreed pause of its nuclear activities, Iran has suspended its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran already produced more than 20,000 pounds of enriched uranium gas that is three quarters of the way to weapons grade material.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, or start up any that were not already operating. Between 2009 and 2013, Iran’s inventory of installed centrifuges increased from 5,500 to 19,000.  Iran agreed not to build any new enrichment facilities.  An undeclared enrichment facility at Fordow, buried inside of a mountain and outfitted with centrifuges over the last several years, was exposed by US and allied intelligence efforts prior to the negotiations.  Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Arachi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.  The entire feed stock for producing nuclear weapons fuel and infrastructure remains intact.  Additionally, the Iranians were able to retain achievements made through their development of a heavy water reactor in Arak which provides a plutonium pathway to producing nuclear weapons fuel.

However, the agreement, more importantly, has reversed the momentum of sanctions and provided some relief from the threat created by the notion of impenetrable sanctions.  Some US policy analysts may believe that Iran may be buying time in order to advance its nuclear program while giving key concessions on the sanctions front.   Yet, what may really be happening is that Iranian leaders are giving new consideration to the Geneva process.  Considering how to proceed against the US and its European partners in the abstract, is quite different from engaging with US officials in actual negotiations.  Information gleaned from US officials and diplomats should provide fresh information about US actions and intentions.  It is difficult to say whether such information from the talks might have an impact on thinking among Iranian leaders.  Nonetheless, while enduring Kerry threats of war, Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24th agreement by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry, himself, told reporters that “Generally speaking, they have done I think everything that they were required to do with respect to the reductions.”  Kerry further explained that “There’s no centrifuge challenge. They haven’t put any in. They … have reduced their 5 percent. They have reduced the 20 (percent),” he added. “They are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

The Way Forward

Khamenei and other Iranian leaders believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests, particularly on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear rights, would be rapidly constructed.  As the negotiation process dragged on, they were recognized as a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which is uncertain.  Khamenei began expressing doubts that an agreement acceptable to Iran could be constructed.  Nevertheless, once an interim deal was reached, and Khamenei and Iran so far have adhered to it.  There is real hope among negotiators that a final agreement can be reached.  However, the talks could also fail, and that would not be a simple matter at all.  Iranian leaders may conclude the US will not attack, given the predilection of the Obama administration to shy away from military action, and speculation on the US included in some analysis of “capabilities and possibilities” developed in the abstract by policy experts in Tehran.  Yet, the US military, in reality, possesses the capability to successfully execute a decisive blow against the Iranian nuclear program and effectively deal with Iran in the aftermath of any strikes.

US military planners develop concepts for operations using their expertise based on a long career in their respective branches of the armed forces that includes continuous military education and training and considerable experience warfighting.  They would be the ones responsible for developing plans for military action against Iran for the Obama administration.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  All tools, both conventional and nuclear, would be available to them.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior US military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.  A plan to put the full panoply of security measures in place not just in the region but in the US and territories of friends and allies to thwart retaliation would also be produced and implemented.  The worst way for Iranian leaders to discover the US military’s capabilities would be through an attack.

Iranian leaders must realize that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  To the extent that the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Another realization that must be reached is that rather than focus on comments that are meant for domestic political consumption in the US, Iranian leaders must stay focused on what is best for Iran and what can truly be achieved through the nuclear negotiations.  Relations between the US and Iran are at a new stage as are the nuclear negotiations. The P5+1 Talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Jafari has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  However, Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with such slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement.  Adhering to the interim deal, as Kerry himself has confirmed, is a good first step and serves as recognition by Iranian leaders that a peace agreement has promise.  Although it has been dogma among US policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program, it may very well be that a final decision on how to proceed has not been made in Tehran.  Recall that Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.  If Iran were trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the effort could only be justified by Iranian leaders as a matter of absolute necessity for Iran’s security.  Evidence does not exist that the nuclear program has been militarized.  Whether Iranian leaders truly believe a nuclear weapon would make them more secure is not certain.  With great expenditure, Iranian leaders may be both creating a nuclear energy program, and simply creating the option to weaponize if it became necessary.

If a final decision truly has not been made on developing a nuclear weapon, it may still be possible, in Geneva and through back channel discussions, to convince Iranian leaders that pursuing a weapon would not be necessary.  Zarif, Kerry, and all parties to the negotiations may very well be able to deliver a deal that satisfies Tehran and all parties to the negotiations.  It is certainly worth the try.  If they fail, then a war will likely be declared, if not immediately, in the near future.

Negotiators Put Final Touches on Interim Iran Accord, But Ayatollah Khamenei Is Expressing Concern over Perceptions Created by Talks

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is frustrated by the popular perception that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program as a result of Western economic sanctions.

According to a January 13, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Negotiators Put Final Touches On Iran Accord,” Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) completed a deal on January 12th that would temporarily suspend much of Iran’s nuclear program as of January 20th.  That would be done in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.  The interim agreement had already been announced in November 2013, however, its implementation was delayed until after negotiators and experts worked out technical details.  Reportedly, Iran will suspend its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that had were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities.

While Western officials touted the degree to which Iran’s nuclear program had be temporarily curtailed, as reported in the January 13thNew York Times article, Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the main requirement that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  However, as the process advanced, Khamenei began to publicly express concerns and some disappointment over its results.  Despite an initial sense inside Iran’s leadership that the negotiations would rapidly bring forth favorable results, it instead has been a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which remains uncertain.  Moreover, Iranian authorities became concerned by the fact that following their decision to engage in the negotiations with Western powers, a perception took hold that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program to stave off economic ruin.

In Iran, Khamenei is known as the leader of the Islamic Ummah and Oppressed People and the person in which the spiritual guidance and functional power Islamic republic resides.  For him, the notion that Iran was submitting to Western pressure is absolutely abhorrent.  Khamenei accused the US of engaging in strenuous efforts to promote this view of Iranian weakness.  He stated:  “The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam, and Muslims.”  Nevertheless, the view that Iran was forced to negotiate in reaction to economic sanctions is not only accepted among most experts in the US.  It is the prevailing view worldwide.  Khamenei has held out hope that, through the Geneva process, Iran would reach an agreement that fits within the ideals of Islamic Revolution as well as achieve success over what he has referred to often as “the economic pressures and propaganda campaigns of the West.”  However, perceptions of Iran’s standing in the talks could very well impact Khamenei’s final decision regarding Geneva.  At this juncture, it is not necessary for Khamenei to decide whether to proceed to halt negotiations as a final agreement has not even been outlined.  In the interim, perhaps Khamenei and Iranian foreign and defense policymakers might consider how Iran’s own efforts to influence the global policy debate on the Geneva process in its favor, how in reality, it did more to propagate perceptions on why it entered into negotiations.  Interestingly, a few changes in Iran’s approach may ameliorate the situation and may very well make the situation tolerable enough to allow reaching an agreement to become the main focus of all parties.

Image of Iran’s Power to Khamenei

Khamenei’s frustration over worldwide perceptions that Iran was forced into the Geneva process is almost palpable.  Khamenei saw Iran’s decision to enter the Geneva process purely from a position of strength as a regional power.  Such power was the basis of equality.  Viewing its entry into the Geneva process from a perceived position of strength Khamenei has made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  When it began the talks, Khamenei and Iranian policymakers believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests would be rapidly constructed.  Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the accepted view was that US had become disinterested in the Middle East as events and issues in the region do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they viewed US President Barack Obama as analytical and frail, lacking the will to fight.  They asserted that Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed appears to have become dogma among political and religious hardliners and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  It has compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands at Geneva.

Khamenei and Iranian officials saw Iran moving in the opposite direction of the US, gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East.  Khamenei stated:  “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.”  He further stated that “this major power [Iran] has influenced regional nations.”  Iran’s recent record indeed includes a number of bold and decisive actions in the region.  According to the January 13th, New York Times article, Iran has been sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region.  In Syria, Iran has deployed significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces.  It has sent an estimated 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syrian through Iraq to support the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Iran has also facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shiite militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, the New York Times reports Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  Iran smuggles weapons into Yemen on small boats which are difficult for Yemeni authority to track.  It is estimated that only 1 out of 10 Iranian boats that illegally come into Yemen among the thousands of commercial and fishing boats in the Persian Gulf.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shiite groups back in the 1990s, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini operatives are typically trained in Iran and operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders there.

Understanding US Power in Tehran

Despite Khamenei’s own perceptions of Iran’s power relative to that of the US and its Western partners, the US has proved not to be as relaxed on matters as his foreign and defense policy experts and advisers led him to believe.  Advice coming as a result of the “group-think” displayed in Tehran on the capabilities and possibilities of the US did not serve Khamenei well.  As a nation, the US is certainly not a push over.  It remains a nuclear armed superpower, regardless of any perceptions about its leadership.  It has become very apparent that for Iran, acquiring significant sanctions relief through the talks would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without significant change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Additionally, the focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process was not what Iran was doing away from its nuclear program regionally.  That has been put aside.  The focus of Geneva is specifically Iran’s nuclear program and potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.

Distress caused by coming to this understanding of the situation has increased Khamenei’s frustration over hearing economic causation theories on Iran’s decision to negotiation in the global media.  Clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Iran’s oil revenue has been reduced and its other trade has been disrupted.  Nevertheless, Khamenei still publicly rejects this perception of weakness.  He recently declared, “Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation.  They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations.  No, it is a wrong.”

Iran has made an effort promote its own positions and arguments on the Geneva negotiations as part of the worldwide policy debate on its nuclear program and the Geneva talks.  This activity has been especially noticeable online, in the social media.  (See September 3, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks: Is Twitter Part of Rouhani’s Approach to the West?”)  Indeed, just as many other nations, Iran has sought to adapt to emerging trends on the social media with the hope they can way global opinion and improve the nation’s public image as well.  However, perhaps its was not fully understood at the time the decision to engage in such activity was made that use of this type of eDiplomacy (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the blogishere, and other means) can create difficulties.  The real threat to national governments with an online presence or even in print, radio, and television media is the foreign and defense policy pundit.  Iran fell prey to endless numbers of pundits worldwide.

Iran’s Lost Cause Against the Pundits

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pundit as an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give views about it to the public.  In the US, they are typically former government officials, political leaders and political operatives, think tank scholars, and academics allegedly with official access, particularly in Washington, DC.  Pundits respond to issues as they arise.  The serious foreign and defense policy observers among them will typically focusing on their areas of expertise.  Ideally, pundits will fill in information gaps to help an audience better understand an issue, policies, decisions, and actions taking place.  They may provide constructive criticism, “reality therapy,” and perhaps thinking that is outside of the box based on good judgment.  In this manner, pundits can make very valuable contributions to the foreign and defense policy debate.  (It is hoped visitors feel falls into that honorable category of punditry.)  However, there are also those pundits whose responses come in the form of trenchant criticisms of policies and decisions, pointing more to what is wrong than explaining how things could be improved.  Pundits are not journalists.  While they operate in the same sphere, they do so using different “standards.”  Some paraphrase and misquote to the extent that they occasionally create false impressions within the media of what was stated by an official.  This is made easier by use of sound bites and clips of official presentations.

Pundits respond to official statements on all issues that may arise.  Pundits, great and small, popular and unknown, are commenting on official statements and reports on such a rapid and immeasurable scale that even when corrections and misquotes are acknowledged such efforts to repair mistakes are obviated by new urgent and important issues.  Moreover, whenever official provide statements or attempts are made at leaking information through “trial balloons” and unofficial statements, in the end they are made in the pundits’ court: the media.  How those presentations eventually reach the public will be shaped by pundits responses, which some pundits often allege are gleaned from their own official sources.  The media is the pundits’ court, and within it, they cannot be defeated.  Whenever officials attempt to set the record straight by offering rebuttals or rebuffing such commentaries by pundits, their statements may drown among the thousands of commentaries on the blogisphere or may be met by an additional roundla of harsh remarks.  Interestingly, an effort by officials to engage a pundit in a debate in the media over a commentary, the pundit’s visibility and standing is elevated.

Grabbing the attention of an audience is most important in all media.  As a blog,, itself, is very interested in the number of visitors and views it receives on a given day, week, or month on its site.  While it would be better if blogs were sought out for their veracity and insights they present, attention is generally given to the ones that are more interesting or intriguing.  More often, those commentaries lack depth, and will more likely be unfriendly.  The more acceptable a negative view might be regarding a particular issue, the more likely this will be the case.  This has been one of Iran’s problems.  While Iran sought to promote its positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with popular pundits, who feel they should be hostile to its official statements, has proven to be a failed exercise.  Khamenei once expressed the hope that what he perceived to be an anti-Iran publicity campaign by the US would backfire and lead to its own global isolation.  However, that will unlikely be the case.  Among those people interested in foreign and defense policy worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Iran was equal or stronger than the US and its Western partners.  Far more people worldwide might accept more negative perspectives of Iran, due to security and economic concerns or ethno-religious and nationalist reasons.  The fact that the Geneva process is primarily referred to worldwide as the Geneva nuclear talks, which is how the US and its Western partners view the process, and not the Geneva talks on economic sanctions, as Khamenei and Iranian officials might view it, is an indicator of the perspective from which the global media has viewed the situation.


As the supreme leader, it is understandable that worldwide perceptions of Iran would matter greatly to Khamenei.  Further, he was correct when he stated an enmity exists between Iran and the US.  Until the talks began, relations were uncongenial.  Yet, what is most important regarding the Geneva nuclear talks is what is said at the negotiation table and not what is stated in the media.  Boasts and declarations, the strong suit of the pundit, are of no value in the process.  Pragmatic thinking is required of all parties to the negotiation on this matter.

The quality of the agreement reached naturally should far outweigh concerns over what pundits far away from the negotiating table might argue.  An agreement, negotiated with the idea of equality among the parties at the table, that is respectful of the interests of all parties, that all feel is sustainable, and will preclude all from considering military solutions to the matters in discussion, will ensure peace.  This is the concept that should drive forward the Geneva process among all parties.

Officials Highlight the Positive after Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program, But Reality Will Eventually Strike

According to an October 17, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Officials Highlight the Positive After Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” negotiators from Iran and the EU, in a rare joint statement, explained that talks on Iran’s nuclear program were “substantive” and “forward looking.”  They indicated that the representatives of the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council: US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran were planning to meet again in Geneva on November 7th and 8th.  While optimism was expressed following the meeting, the New York Times  article explained a number of thorny issues still needed to be resolved and would require considerable work from all sides.

Initially, the Russians were not very positive about the October talks in Geneva.  Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister who participated in the talks was more skeptical.  He told the Russian news agency Interfax that the two sides were still “kilometers apart” and that the talks here had been “difficult, at times tense, at times unpredictable.”  Yet, the reality is that Russia has been very supportive of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and quite willing to lend its support to finding a solution.  In previous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia was also supportive.  After Iran dropped a suspension agreement by enriching uranium and its negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany broke down in 2005, Russia proposed that Iran share ownership of a uranium enrichment plant in Russia and relocate its enrichment activities there.  When Western negotiators proposed that Iran agree to stockpile its enriched uranium abroad as a confidence building measure, Russia had offered in 2009 to provide a storage site on its territory.  However, unlike the past, in current negotiations, Russia is directly supporting the positions and demands of its ally, Iran; very likely to the detriment of both countries.

Russia’s support of Iran, particularly on the nuclear negotiations, is understandable given its considerable stake in its “positive” outcome.  The Russians hope an internationally accepted agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would obviate the need for the US missile defense in Europe.  With the threat of an Iranian attack eliminated by the agreement, the defense system would be dismantled.  Russia hopes to benefit from the rather substantial contracts it would receive from Iran for the maintenance and construction of an internationally approved nuclear program.  The lifting of economic sanctions on Iran would enable Tehran to pay the Russians for work on its nuclear program.  The negotiations provide Russia with one more opportunity to demonstrate to the world what stalwart ally it can be, even against the US.

However, US Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected the idea of altering the US policy on missile defenses in Europe due to any perceived thaw in the long US-Iranian enmity.  Further, although Russia has called for the removal of all economic sanctions on Iran, the US has made it clear, at least publicly, that major economic sanctions will not be lifted until all of the US demands have been met.

Russian support of Iran’s positions may be creating false hope in Tehran that they are attainable, leading Iranian negotiators to stubbornly insist on their demands, which in the end may cause the talks to fail.  By all accounts, Iranian negotiators came to the Geneva negotiations eerily confident in their positions.  They have rejected previous proposals to relocate uranium.  Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi explained on Iranian State Television, “We will negotiate regarding form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of [enriched] materials out of the country is our red line.”  In turn, the Iranians stated, just as the Russians, the West should relax economic sanctions on Tehran as a goodwill gesture.  Iran’s chief negotiator, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is already under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and hardline political leaders and clerics to secure an agreement that recognizes Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium.

Zarif has done his best, attempting to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions through very elegant, well-considered power-point presentations, research documents, and proposals, in what nevertheless amounts to a “Das Best oder nichts” (The best or nothing) approach to the talks.  Zarif must deliver success on Tehran’s terms.  In the Iranian media, Zarif has gone as far as to claim, “There are indicators that [US Secretary of State] John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” Yet, that perspective represents a suspension of reality.

White House officials and US political pundits have spoken and written considerably about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled that the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin ostensibly observed big concessions being volunteered in US proposals in order to entreat a dramatic nuclear arms reduction agreement between the US and Russia.  Putin ignored the proposal due to significant danger such huge cuts in Russia’s nuclear arsenal would pose to its national security.  That in part led to Obama dropping his summit meeting with Putin in August.  Most likely from Putin’s perspective, it was Obama’s uncertainty over how taking military action in Syria might affect his legacy that caused him to waver.  Putin welcomed the chance to intervene as a peacemaker.  Russia proposed, and brokered with the US, a solution to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.  Obama’s concept that US policy is “what makes America different, It’s what makes us exceptional,” presented during his televised speech on Syria on September 10, 2013, was attacked by Putin in his now infamous September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, explaining that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin.  As Andrei Piontovsky, who is executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow, was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  Piontovsky also told the New York Times that “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”

In his New York Times Op-Ed, Putin also explained “The world reacts [to US military intervention] by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security.  Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.”  However, providing a rationale for nuclear proliferation publicly is counterintuitive and rather extreme.  Putin’s perceptions of Obama’s motives have very likely found their way into Russia’s interactions with Iran such as the meeting between a delegation of senior Russian military officials and Iranian military leaders on October 20, 2013, and have had an impact.  If a misplaced, underlying effort exists to foil Obama’s alleged legacy quest, it certainly will not lead to any positive results for Russia or Iran.  Rather, such behavior in the end may make the maintenance of global peace and security far more difficult.

When dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time; they concern the country. In the US, the people’s representatives are also invested in what the country does abroad.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s demands were met, it is somewhat unlikely an agreement with substantial concessions, particularly those sought by Iran, would ever be approved by Congress.  The Congress is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions.  US diplomats appeared before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.

Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama from serving a third term.  If Obama decides to accept the terms and secure the removal of sanctions, his predecessor may not choose to do the same.  She might find his agreement unacceptable.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the cessation of nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  As the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, she might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include the cessation of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Stating the US and Iran are negotiating as equals is a truly humanistic view of their dialogue.   As Putin expressed in his New York Times Op-Ed, “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.”  However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals.  Despite US economic woes and political divisions, which are indeed real but more often hyped in the news media, the US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily.  Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear program, a potential mission for US armed forces, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new defense systems and military tactics.  Iran would not be able to deter a US military response by having a few rudimentary nuclear devices in its arsenal.  Threatening to attack US interests internationally or domestically using conventional forces or clandestine operatives would serve as an even lesser deterrent.

While the US, itself, is not existentially threatened by Iran, the US seeks to negotiate a settlement to protect its overseas interests and interests of its allies. The Russians should be astute enough to know that if the US is driven into a bad settlement on Iran’s nuclear program, inevitably Russia’s interests would not be served through the negotiations, and US military might very well take action against Iran.  Over the past decade, more surprising actions have been taken by the US on the Middle East and on anti-ballistic missile defense.  If Russia truly wants to be helpful to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, it must take a more pragmatic diplomatic approach to create a sustainable agreement for its ally Iran.  Russia must supplant what amounts to an unseemly underlying “vendetta” against Obama, driven by Putin’s impressions of him, with an effort to convince Iran that its current approach to the nuclear negotiations is fraught with danger.

Despite the dazzle of Zarif’s presentations, current Iranian proposals will unlikely satisfy the US government that its demands that Iran ensure its nuclear program will not become militarized.  An agreement with considerable US concessions, if reached with the Obama administration, will not be sustainable.  Negotiating a road map that would, at the end of the day, provide certainty that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful and place Iran’s program under the full control of international nuclear monitors, is the desired and required outcome. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, worked well together to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue and brought the strength of their relationship to bear on efforts to rekindle an international peace conference on Syria, calling the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition together in Geneva to establish a transitional government in Damascus.  Perhaps before the next meetings on the Iranian nuclear issue, they could meet again to consider how to inject realism into Iran’s approach to the talks.