While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!

Legendary Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, is directly responsible for Iran’s security in the Middle East beyond its borders. Events have conspired to put Suleimani in position to lead Iran in a struggle that could confirm it as the region’s dominant power.

According to a June 17, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Is Exploring Talks with Iran on Crisis in Iraq,” a senior US diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on June 16th to explore whether the US and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from an Islamic militant insurgency. More than a decade after the US invasion, fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and other insurgent groups, have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. Iraq appears to be collapsing. ISIS is the same group that helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Under US policy, the hope was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. However, the FSA has not been truly successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while also fighting the Assad regime.

The reported meeting between the US and Iran on the Iraq matter took place after US Secretary of State John Kerry signaled in an interview on Yahoo! Newsthat the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq. The partnership seemed unlikely from the start given the US has called Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and alleged it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, the Obama administration recognized that Iran’s involvement in Iraq was inevitable. The Obama administration’s approach to the ISIS crisis includes exploiting the situation to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a more intercommunal government, to include Sunnis and Kurds, in an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. Indeed, Obama has insisted that no American military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, made headway on the issue. It was agreed a session will be held in the Parliament in Baghdad to discuss establishing a new government, more representative of ethno-religious groups in Iraq. That seems risky given the situation. Certainly, an arrangement could be cobbled together quickly. Yet, a rushed effort may not serve Iraq’s long-term interests. It could be overcome by a decision by Iran to back hard-line Shi’a leaders. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders. Reportedly, Quds Force fighters recently went into Iraq, joining comrades already operating in country. There are concerns Suleimani has mobilized Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’a militia groups.

While Kerry, in his Yahoo! News interview, left the door open for military cooperation with Iran, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stepped the US back from it. Psaki stated that while there may be discussions about the political situation in Iraq, “We’re not talking about coordinating any military action with Iran.” She also said the Vienna meetings with Iran would not discuss “military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” Less than three hours later, the Pentagon ruled out military coordination.

As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required. The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now over Iraq. US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from groups such as ISIS, want to be assured that the US can still be relied upon. Force must be used to deal with ISIS. The Obama administration pledged that it will stand with the Iraqi people, much as it pledged to stand with the Syrian opposition, but it is unclear as to what will be seen from the US. It might act cautiously enough in response to ISIS as not to be truly effective at all in the endeavor. Perhaps an additional 21st century reality might emerge from this situation. When the US does not act, it may need to accept that other states with sufficient and effective capabilities will. Without reservations, Iran will act to secure its interests in Iraq. Conceivably, tacit cooperation with the US, as in Bosnia in 1995, and Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, might be acceptable among more moderate elements of the Iranian regime, However, going it alone would undoubtedly be the preferred option by the majority of Iran’s military and security officials and hardline political and religious leaders. If that occurs, the outcome in Iraq may not be shaped to the desires of the US in the long-run. If the US ever decides on military action, it may not need to consider how it might coordinate with Iran, but rather, whether it could act effectively militarily in the midst of unilateral a intervention by Iran.

Iran’s Response as a Regional Power

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already believed that Iran was 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.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated on September 20, 2013, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” Through bold and decisive actions, Iran has sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region. 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 state wile over using 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 pro-Assad Syrian militiamen, and organized them into the National Defense Front. It has sent 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 calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement. Trained mostly in Iran, some groups have carried out small-scale attacks on police.

Iranian leaders view Obama as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than in actions in which US participation would be very limited as in Libya. Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving the US less able to project 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. To their surprise, Obama withdrew from Iraq as a result of a campaign promise rather than strategic considerations. The whole enterprise appeared wasteful. Suleimani on September 27, 2013 remarked: “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.” Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq, but the door was also left open for the growth of Al-Qaeda there.

Saudi Arabia would be very displeased to see Iran take control over the situation in Iraq. Yet, if the US is hesitant on Iraq, in the midst of the Islamic militant thrust toward Baghdad, Saudi Arabia will likely be as well. The type of military commitment Saudi Arabia would need to make in Iraq would very likely require various forms of US support to maintain. Saudi Arabia has already had a hand in the matter regarding the supplying, arming, and training of Islamic militants running through the country.

Tehran likely heard Obama recently explain that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter. Accordingly, Obama explained the US has a stake in that. On June 12, 2014, Obama proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. He believes part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. In his view, over the last several years, trust and cooperation has not developed between moderate Sunni and Shi’a leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts in part for some of the weakness of the state. That weakeness, and then carries over into their military capacity. Accordingly, while support would be provided to the Iraqi military following consultations with the Iraqis, political change would also be sought. Obama stated, “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shi’a who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists. And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shi’a and Sunni that we haven’t seen so far.” As leaders in Tehran would know that the talent to captivate through speeches is not the same as the talent to lead internationally. Public statements on Iraq have been satisfying enough for those who would not look more deeply, perhaps seeking simple answers. Yet, they conceal the reality that forcing together a sustainable, cooperative political arrangement in Iraq will prove difficult.

Tehran likely chuckled after hearing Obama emphasize multilateral action during his commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York on May 28, 2014. Obama explained “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.” He would later clarify this statement with reporters by explaining the US must take a more robust regional approach to partnering and training, partner countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He further explained, “We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.”  Given the troubles of the US-led actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizing multinational operations in the future will be extremely difficult, especially during crises. Great Britain has already announced that it is not planning military intervention of any kind in Iraq. Indeed, unless there was some type of coordination with Iran, the US would have to act alone.

Tehran is probably not convinced of Obama’s capability to solve the crisis in Iraq given what they witnessed on Syria. On Syria, Obama appeared paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of decisive and assertive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. After accusing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the renowned decision not to take military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

How Iran Might Proceed in Iraq

Iraq will be a real test for Iran’s military and security services. It would be an opportunity to confirm Iran’s dominance in the region. Suleimani, who oversees Iran’s security interests in Iraq, is a legend among Shi’a in the region. On September 25, 2013, Baghdad Shi’a Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat al-Eslam Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Qassir praised Suleimani. He stated, “If there is any fear in the Israelis’ hearts, Qassem Suleimani is its cause. If America has faced problems in the region, know that Qassem Suleimani is the cause; if any problems have been created for the House of Saud, know that Qassem Suleimani has had a hand in it. Therefore, know why they have implemented this war against Qassem Suleimani. Know that Qassem Suleimani is a spear that lands in Israel’s hearts and we are proud that there is a leader like him among the current global Shi’a leaders.” Khamenei based his vision for Iran’s role as the premier power in the Middle East on the capabilities of IRGC commanders as Suleimani given their virtue, faith, and obedience to him and respective capabilities to formulate and implement successful action plans.

National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission Spokesman and Member of the Iranian Parliament, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, on June 24, 2014, neither confirmed nor denied the presence of IRGC Quds Force in Iraq, stating, “I do not deny this matter and of course do not confirm it, because I am not in a position to do so. But we are implementing [existing] agreements between Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq [that are] within the legal international framework.” He further stated, “If the Iraqi government formally requests aid from us, we will not hesitate and will aid our neighboring country within the legal international framework.” However, it would be logical for Iran’s intervention in Iraq to initially involve the Quds Force, and small numbers of IRGC combat units. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops, would increase intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.   By moving throughout Iraq, particularly ISIS held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links would be sought with Iraqi Army commanders and troops in the field to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Intelligence collected concerning ISIS that would be utilized in the development of an operational plan. Those MOIS and Quds Force personnel, along with other IRGC units, would also engage in direct combat with ISIS fighters, gaining a detailed knowledge of the battle lines. Iran would further train and equip Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, and deploy some in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq.   Others will be deployed directly against ISIS. They would receive truckloads of arms and equipment. Supplies and other weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades would be flown into the Iraqi Army. Iran could possibly deploy Lebanese Hezbollah to join the fight.

Iran might soon after opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “If the legal government of Iraq and Mr. Maleki, as the primary representative of this government, (formally) request aid from Iran, as a neighboring and friendly country, we will aid him without any limitations.”  He went on to state, “For example, we can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi army that we have been able to provide the Syrian army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That might mean having great numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there. Aspects of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts. Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent. They would provide Iraqi and Iranian units with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by ISIS. Iran might deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units. Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support military movements and control of recaptured territory. Basij volunteers in Iran may be mobilized to serve in Iraq.

Tacit US-Iran Cooperation “a la Bosnia” Is Unlikely

In Bosnia, IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel operated successfully, working in concert the US and other states to airlift of arms supplies to the Muslim-Croat Federation’s Armija. Regarding the actions of ISIS in Iraq, Velayati, explained on June 19, 2014, explained: “Iran opposes extremism and America also opposes extremism. Thus, these two countries move in a parallel ‘direction’ but this does not mean cooperation between these countries.” He concluded, however, “I do not see an outlook for cooperation between these countries, because, in our assessments, they seek a sort of dominance in Iraq and in some other important and oil rich countries in the region.” Again speaking on behalf of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini rejected cooperation with the US stating, “The Americans want to be in Iraq next to Iran at any cost. As Iran is aware of the White House’s behind-the-scene plan, it will never be placed next to America.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani kept the matter alive on the Iranian side, explaining Iran has not ruled out working with the US against ISIS in Iraq. On June 15th, he was quoted as saying, “We can think about it if we see America confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.” However, conspiracies abound in Iran on whether the US wants to stop ISIS. Khamenei has stated, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.”

Tehran has undoubtedly observed that the Obama administration already has increased intelligence-gathering flights by drone aircraft over Iraq. It has been alleged to be the beginning of a phased approach. The US might also initially seek to shore up Iraqi forces with security assistance. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops. However, what resonates with Tehran is degree of uncertainty apparent in the administration’s reported reaction in Washington. Indeed, despite what has been done so far in Iraq, Obama’s White House advisers are now engrossed in a policy debate on airstrikes. National security officials have raised concerns over the ability to target roving bands of insurgents and degrade their fighting capabilities. Airstrikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could worsen the crisis. Another big concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people. Obama’s insisted on June 13th that if he decides to act, military action would be “targeted” and “precise,” reflecting his desire for a cautious path that avoids civilian casualties and prevents the US from being dragged back into Iraq. Obama has promised to “consult with Congress,” stopping short of saying he would put the issue to a vote. Congressional opposition to airstrikes in Syria contributed to Obama’s decision not attack.

By engaging in a lengthy discourse and considering gradual response in Iraq, US authorities appear relatively relaxed about events in Iraq compared to their counterparts in Iran. Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to include Suleimani, and hard-line political and religious leaders, realize that waiting could lead to tragic consequences. ISIS has begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives. Syria provides a template to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory. On June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.  Iranian military and security official know that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to prevent attacks against them. If attacks were launched, ISIS would follow through without hesitation with such threats. That is the sort of thing ISIS as terrorist group does. If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk. ISIS would certainly initiate attacks on Iran. They know ISIS will attempt to establish an Islamic state in captured territory whether it is sustainable or not.

Tehran knows US efforts to reform the Iraqi government will weaken Iran’s influence over Baghdad. On June 23, 2014, Khamenei explained, “In the Iraq situation Western dominance-seeking powers, specifically the regime of the United States of America, are seeking to take advantage of the ignorance and prejudice of powerless masses.” He added, “The main goal from the recent events in Iraq is prohibiting this country’s people from the achievements that they have gained despite America’s lack of presence and interference. [Iraq’s] most important achievement is the rule of a democratic system.” He further explained, “America is discontent about the present trends in Iraq, meaning the holding of elections with the good participation of and the determination of trustworthy choices by the people. America is seeking Iraq’s domination and the rule of individuals obedient to America.”

For the Obama administration to believe that Iran would allow the reduction of its interests in Iraq without some response would be counterintuitive. Iran knows that the type of representative government that the US seeks cannot be designed on the fly and is an enormous request under the circumstances. The fact that Maliki ever came to power evinces the US inability to manage events politically in Iraq. As Velayati, on June 19, 2014, explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.”

The Way Forward?

Officials and advisers in the Obama administration likely came to terms before this crisis in Iraq that proposals for military action in Iraq would be the most difficult documents to put before the president. Any military action would need to be minimal, yet effective enough to achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, which is not easy plan. For this reason, Obama’s advisers had difficulty getting their president to rapidly come to terms with any proposals offered on Syria or Ukraine, consequently creating uncertainty globally over how the US would proceed.

Iraq seems to be unraveling and time is of the essence. Right across the border from Iraq, however, Iranian leaders see a great danger, and they are attending to it. The Iranians are not going to wait and see what the US does next. They want to stop ISIS. Yet, they want to protect their interests in Iraq by shaping the political situation in Baghdad in their favor. If they manage to do so, they can further Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region. Military and security officials may also gain a louder voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on the nuclear negotiations and other issues. Moreover, the failure of the US to act decisively and effectively in Iraq would eliminate fears within all quarters in Tehran that the US might take military action against Iran, a far greater enterprise than fighting ISIS. In the US, White House advisers are once again agonizing over a foreign policy decision. They, however, have wiled the idea that from the chaos, they can eke out the opportunity to put Tehran’s man out of power in Baghdad and create a new government. By attempting to absolve itself of the “unpleasantries” of exercising military power while claiming the title as the world’s leader, the Obama administration could cause the US to face another negative turn of fortune on foreign policy. Something significant militarily must be done immediately, even before the US induced process of reform is completed. If not, the Obama administration must be ready to accept the bitter scenario of the field in Iraq eventually being fully turned over to Iran.

Iran Readies Plant Needed to Fulfill Nuclear Pact with Powers; Despite All That Has Been Achieved, a Final Deal Remains Uncertain

Above are Basiji (paramilitary volunteer militia) attending a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in November 2013.  Devoted to Shi’a Islam, dedicated to the Islamic Revolution, and adoring of Khamanei, the Basij are among hard line elements in Iran who have little interest in a nuclear deal.  Khamanei will have the final say.

According to a May 27, 2014 Reuters article entitled “Iran Readies Plant Needed to Fulfill Nuclear Pact with Powers,” a report from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows Iran appears to be finalizing a plant to convert a large amount of low-enriched uranium gas into an oxide form following months of delays. In oxide form, the low enriched uranium gas would be less suitable for processing into nuclear bomb material.  Under the interim deal it with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany), Iran needs to take action to limit its stockpile of uranium gas refined to a fissile concentration of up to 5 percent by late July.  To be able to meet this particular term of the interim deal, Iran has been building a facility, named Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP), near the central city of Isfahan for turning the gas into powder.  The IAEA report explained the facility’s commissioning had now begun. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had transferred 4.3 tons of low-grade uranium gas to the site from its Natanz enrichment plant.  The report did not say when conversion into oxide would get under way. While it was expected that Iran would have completed this process by late last year, satisfaction is found among world powers that the IAEA is reporting that Iran is meeting this requirement, and has also met all other requirements under the interim agreement.  Ostensibly, the P5+1 negotiated the six-month deal with Iran to garner more time for talks on a final settlement that would remove the risk of a new Middle East war over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.  Those talks began in February. The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna from June 16th to 20th.

However, there have been a few snags.  The IAEA also reports that the conversion facility’s delay, the low-grade uranium stockpile has grown to nearly 8.5 tons in May from 7.6 tons in February.  The longer it takes to launch EUPP, the more Iran will have to process to meet the target by the deadline in less than two months’ time.  The P5+1 wants to significantly scale back Iran’s capacity to produce low-enriched uranium in order to further lengthen the time required to produce enough material for a bomb.  Iran has fired back saying it needs to expand its enrichment capacity to make fuel for future atomic energy plants.  Experts believe Iran potentially has enough uranium gas for a few nuclear weapons if refined much further.  Limiting Iran’s overall enrichment capacity is expected be one of the thorniest issues in the negotiations for a long-term deal.  Other issues include gaining an agreement from Iran to scale back other proliferation-prone nuclear activity and to accept tougher UN inspections to deny it any capability of quickly producing atomic bombs, in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.

During the process, there have been expressions of disagreement and disappointment by parties to the negotiations in the news media and certain parties seemingly insisted on negotiating publicly, but until recently the process has been characterized as fruitful.  Compromises have been made and deals have been reached at the negotiating table and through backchannel talks by officials.  However, the process has reached a new stage.    What is negotiated now matters most. In the capitals of the negotiating parties, commitments must be made that will result in a sustainable, satisfactory agreement or possibly war.  New issues have surfaced that warrant thorough deliberation by negotiators.  Those issues could become real impediments to the talks’ completion. Mutual suspicions have risen again.  The leader of each country has the free will to choose continued negotiation or withdrawal.  The final choice will be determined by the way in which they govern that free will.

Terms Iran Might Not Be Able To Live With

Recently, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokeman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee—a right-wing body that has taken a hard line on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1—discussed the progress of the latest nuclear talks with the Tasmin News Agency.  He explained that there were several points of contention concerning the talks.  Among those enumerated by Hosseini included the following: 1) the West discussed our defense systems and our missiles, while from the beginning we said that this is not negotiable, but they are still insisting on this point; 2) the West has “issues with the number and quality of our centrifuges and even has issues with the number of centrifuges at each site. . . .;” 3) the West even has problems with our research and development; 4) the West did not want to immediately lift the sanctions but wanted to do so gradually after the final agreement was signed. (Hosseini said, “They say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one. Their position is that if their demands are guaranteed, and the Islamic Republic lifts its hands from its red lines, Iran will be turned into a normal country.”); 5) the West even presented a plan that would lift the sanctions gradually over a 10-year process; 6) the West said that not all of the sanctions are related to the nuclear program and that they must first distinguish which sanctions are for that issue and which are over human rights, the missile program, terrorism or regional issues. (Hosseini Naghavi Hosseini said that Iran expects all of the sanctions to be lifted upon signing the agreement. He called this segmentation of the sanctions “a dangerous game” and “part of the intense disagreements” between the two sides.); 7) the West would not accept 20% enrichment for Iran, but added that the West would be willing to sell Iran 20% enriched fuel for the Tehran reactor; the West demands other enrichment sites in Iran would be allowed only 3.5% enrichment; 8) the West also wants to determine the amount of enriched fuel that is reserved, a red line for Iran that would limit its research and development capacities; 9) there were also differences over “who would determine Iran’s [enrichment] needs; and, 10) the West wants to determine whether the West would they allow the Islamic Republic to produce, or would others produce it for them; and, the West did not see the Arak heavy water reactor as being necessary for Iran. (When asked if the issue is a heavy water reactor or the production of plutonium, Hosseini responded that it was the latter.). Hosseini made it clear that these terms were against “all of Iran’s achievements.”

In a further development, Ismail Kowsari, a Member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee (NSFP), spoke to the Tasnim News Agency on May 22nd about the latest developments in the negotiations.  Kowsari revealed after the [interim] agreement, the file returned back to the Supreme National Security Council, and the chairman of the NSFP, Alaeddin Borujerdi, was added to the nuclear negotiation team. Kowsari’s statements would indicate that although Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will lead the negotiations on behalf of Iran, there will be more supervision and coordination with different bodies in Tehran.  Kowsari also added that Borujerdi was added to the nuclear negotiation team at the request of parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

Has An Iranian Weaponization Program Been Uncovered?

In a joint statement with the IAEA, Iran pledged to apprise the agency of what wss allegedly the most secretive dimension of its nuclear program: “the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran.” This is a reference to weaponization.  According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, the fact that the IAEA and the Western powers are now turning to the weaponization question is a sign of how far the Iranian nuclear-weapons program has progressed.  Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center was quoted in the May 27th article as saying, “a concern about weaponization followed by testing and use is the moral hazard when you don’t pay attention to fissile-material production.”  The article explained this meant once Iran was granted the right to enrich and was permitted to develop an advanced enrichment capability, the West was left with preventing weaponization as the final barrier against a nuclear-capable Iran.

The article further stated Western intelligence agencies discovered Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear device dated back to the late 1980s at a Defense Ministry-linked physics research center in Tehran.  According to the IAEA, Iran consolidated its weaponization researchers in the 1990s under an initiative called the “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a Ph.D. nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The AMAD Plan was charged with procuring dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  The AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-03, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserts Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities, now under the auspices of Iran’s new Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND.

The May 27th article confirms much of what greatcharlie.com had stated in a September 26, 2013 post entitled “Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts.”  Dehghan’s descent to the Rouhani’s cabinet after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council did not occur because his administration skills were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was selected to take command of the day to day activities of Iran’s fighting forces and to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone with his experience, capabilities, and reliability could be counted upon to direct.  Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC, is inextricably tied to that organization.  It was asserted by hreatcharlie.com that given his decades of devotion to the IRGC, there can be no doubt that precious little difference between Dehghan’s views and those espoused by the organization.  A key concept proclaimed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy is “heroic flexibility.”  The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan.  As understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, (translated into English and published by Arash Karami on the blog, Iran Pulse) “heroic inflexibility is an exalted and invaluable concept fully within the goals of the Islamic Republic.”  He further explained the concept meant “in no way would Iran retreat from fundamental lines and national and vital interests and this right is something that without [sic] concessions can be exchanged.”  That essentially means that only on issues in which Iran had an interest but no rights, could Iranian concessions be negotiated.  He went on to state: “Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced.”  Specifically on the nuclear issue, Salami explained: “For instance, the right to have peaceful nuclear energy according to the criteria that has been secured for us, and this right cannot be modified and there is no flexibility on it, however, within this framework a political flexibility as a tactic is acceptable because we do not want to create a dead end in solving the political issue.”  Therefore, for the IRGC on the nuclear issue, there was never any possibility of Iranian concessions, however, there was a possibility that the US and its Western allies might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise.  The talks would give them a chance to do so.

Using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility, it appears that Iran seeks to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners.  Under that approach, Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take the path of diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Dehghan and elements of the IRGC would take a path to accomplish the goals set for Iran’s nuclear energy program.  Placing the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program in Dehghan’s purview would seem reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities have included promoting Iran’s defense industry capabilities in meeting strategic requirements, placing an emphasis on passive defense in compliance with the requirements of development projects and land use planning, and linking knowledge, power, and strategy in industry and in Defense Ministry missions.  As greatcharlie.com concluded, if Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots remained obedient to Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, as the IRGC interprets it, then they would very likely engaged in a dual-track approach guided by that concept. A statement provided by the IRGC back in mid-2013 provided a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declared: “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of WH officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction.”  This indicated that thinking with the IRGC was influenced by Iran’s past negative interactions with the West, and a bicameral approach would assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

The Way Forward

Leaders of Iran and the P5+1 face hard choices regarding the nuclear negotiations.  The success or failure of the effort will fall squarely on their shoulders. Neither side wants to absolve the other of past transgressions.  Suggesting that would be a platitudinous appeal to those who feel they have been harmed.  The decision has not been made easier given positions recently established in the West.  They have been accompanied by public statements by officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama that imply the US decision to negotiate rather than take military action against Iran was an act of mercy which can be reversed.  Sanctions relief promised in return for a deal almost appears superficial.  While Iran has called allegations of Iranian weaponization efforts fabrications, if such allegations are true, any possibility of creating a deal based on mutual trust has likely been lost.  It would serve to confirm the West’s worst fears that the negotiation process was an opportunity for Iran to exploit Western generosity. It gives credence to early declarations of Iran’s hard line elements suggesting its diplomats were engaged in a counterfeit negotiation effort.

As a practical matter, decision making on a final nuclear deal must be guided by political positions and national security directives, along with revolutionary ideals in Iran’s case. IRGC Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.” Yet, when these old and seductive courses have been taken in the past, the results for those desiring an agreement have been unsatisfactory.  Unfortunately, it is far easier to unleash anger and treachery than unleash approbation and goodwill. A final choice can also be based on free will, effectively governed by moral accountability.  In the stewardship of their countries’ national security, particularly on this tricky nuclear issue, moral accountability must also guide leaders’ assessments and decision making.  Moral accountability is dependent upon the moral character of the leadership.  With political and other pressures at work at the same time as considerations of the moral implications of a decision, deliberations on how to proceed would become a delicate dance between virtue and vice.  Leaders must recognize what would be in their citizens’ interest and the national interest for the long-term and determining what would be the best course to take to secure those interests.  For Iran, going to war would hardly meet that criterion. For the West, accepting an agreement that could lead to disastrous consequences for themselves and their its allies would be a mistake.  Perspective must be maintained.  As a concept, parties must think of themselves as taking a gamble by casting a wide net, beyond the horizon, via the nuclear negotiations.  They must gather from their catch what is good and workable, then sift out the bad. In the end, what will be in their basket hopefully will be enough to develop suitable agreement.

A Breakthrough Agreement at Risk; An Unorthodox Approach Might Support It

According to a December 9, 2013 editorial in the New York Times, reports have circulated in Washington recently that Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, are preparing legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s remaining exports and strategic industries if, at the end of six months, the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva goes nowhere.  The editorial explained both US and Iranian officials have made it clear that such legislation could be fatal to the agreement. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Time and the New York Times during an interview in Tehran on December 7th that “the entire deal is dead” even if the penalties do not take effect for six months.   The editorial’s authors went on to state that similar mischief was afoot in the House of Representatives.  Democratic Majority-Whip Steny Hoyer denied an allegation, reported in the Washington Post, that he was working with Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader, on a resolution that could sharply limit the outlines of a final agreement or call for imposing new sanctions.

The reactions of Members of Congress toward Iran, particularly in light of the concessions made on economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to moderately cutback on its nuclear activities, were predictable.  The Congress has made it known for some time that is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the US due to its nuclear efforts.  US diplomats had to appear 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.  The Members negative positions stem not only from a history of uncongenial relations with Iran, but also from a plethora of detailed information on Iran’s nuclear activities, regularly provided by unofficial and official sources, including the US intelligence community.  They are also aware of hard line comments of senior Iranian leaders in Tehran.

In addition to his warning on further sanctions, Zarif surprisingly has made statements referring to the Obama administraions dfficulties working with Congress on sanctions.  In his December 7th interview, he stated, “We believe that the US government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.”  He also stated that “. 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.” 

Zarif and senior Iranian officials are astute enough to know, many of them having been educated in the US, that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center solely on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  They concern the US government.  The Iranians should be aware that the US system of checks and balances, its government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. In the legislative branch, Members of Congress serve as the people’s representatives and oversee what the country does at home and abroad, including the creation of international agreements.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not be subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s got everything it could ever have wanted regarding sanctions in Geneva, it would only be half the battle. 

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 in all respects.  Their respective governments have two different systems.  For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can issue what amounts to an edict on “heroic flexibility” regarding the Geneva nuclear talks, that the enitre Iranian government must follow.  US President Barack Obama cannot require all branches of government to obey any foreign policy concept he might declare.  

The process of direct negotiation between the US and Iran has been a new and unusual process for the long-time adversaries.  It requires professionalism, great diplomatic acumen, innovation, and mutual support.  The administrations of both Obama and Rouhani want a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions.  Issuing warnings to the Obama administration over what the Congress might do is counterintuitive.  It certainly does not make the job of convincing Congress to accept an agreement with Iran, or refrain from passing new legislation on sanctions more difficult. 

Rather than discuss what Obama, Kerry, and the foreign policy apparatus of the US government must do, it might be more constructive for Zarif to consider what he might be able to do in support of the administration’s efforts to lessen sanctions.  Zarif and his superiors have a mutual interest in preventing Congress from legislating any new economic sanctions and encouraging it to remove old ones.  One unorthodox approach might include having Zarif speak with the Congress about sanctions and the nuclear program.  It may build some confidence among the Members in the Geneva process who remain uncertain of Iran’s intent and of the likely outcome of an agreement.  Involving the Congress in the interaction between the US and Iran in this manner might prove crucial to its outcome.  US President Woodrow Wilson learned this the hard way.  Wilson refused to include US Senators among the negotiators accompanying him to the Paris Peace as suggested by his rival, Republican Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge.  Wilson needed Lodge’s active support to ensure Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles.  As a result of that “offense”, and Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with Lodge on the treaty, Lodge gave little support to the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, on November 19, 1919, for the first time in its history, the Senate rejected a peace treaty.  It is not publicly known if any Members of Congress have requested to hear from Zarif.  However, the Obama administration might kindly suggest that the Members do so.

If Iran is truly all in on getting an agreement and removing sanctions, it needs to commit to making that a reality.  Mutual support is what is needed.  Whether Zarif would ever appear before Congress in support of the Geneva process is uncertain.  Although Zarif would be supporting the Obama administration’s efforts, it might be believed among his superiors and hardliners in Iran that he was being brought to Capitol Hill to “beg” Congress for sanctions relief.  Hopefully that would not be the thinking in Tehran because having Zarif come to Washington might eventually become a necessity to secure an agreement. 

When bilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva began to appear possible, just before Rouhani took office, there was an effort afoot in the US Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran.  Hope was expressed in an August 8, 2013  greatcharlie.com post that such very poorly timed incidents and other encumbrances coming from both sides would be worked through by Kerry and Zarif given their talents.  The threat of sanctions at this juncture represents a real obstacle to the on-going Geneva process.  Yet, as long as cooler heads prevail and some thought is given by both US and Iranian diplomats to how they might provide mutual support for their efforts, such difficulties can also be overcome.

Supreme Leader Discusses Geneva Negotiations with His Fighters

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (seated) looks out before a massive rally of enthusiastic Basij commanders.  Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, stands to the left of Khamenei

Annually, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meets with large rallies of Basij (government sponsored volunteer fighters) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) fighters.  At those rallies, Khamenei usually makes an impassioned speech in recognition of the fighter’s devotion to God, their dedication to the revolution, and their commitment to Holy Defense and conveys his appreciation for their allegiance to him.  Khamenei also has the opportunity to become energized by looking out at the nearly endless rows of fighters, see the revolutionary zeal and patriotic fervor in their eyes.  Through their emotional expressions and responses to his speeches, the Basij and IRGC fighters convey to Khamenei that they would be ready at any moment to sacrifice themselves in Iran’s defense.

Among the issues Khamenei discussed in a speech before the audience of Basij commanders in the picture above were the concept of heroic flexibility, US policy, the Geneva talks, and the nuclear program.  On heroic flexibility, Khamenei approved of the IRGC’s explanation of his concept.  He rejected the notion expressed by some media spokesmen that heroic flexibility meant retreat.  Khamenei then defined heroic flexibility as “an artificial maneuver and utilizing various methods to achieve various goals and ideals of the Islamic system.”  Interestingly, that seems to imply heroic flexibility is a deception.

On US relations, Khamenei explained “This Islamic system does not even have hostility with the American nation, even though the American government is arrogant, hostile, and hateful towards the Iranian nation and the Islamic system.”  This is a less gentle phrasing of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comment at the University of Virginia on February 20, 2013, that “One of America’s most incredible realities continues to be that we are a country without any permanent enemies.”  Yet, clearly Khamenei and his government’s animus toward the US remains considerable.  Khamenei asserted that the struggle against the US and Western powers was an historic and Koranic mission.  He declared “What is at the opposite side of the Islamic system and what the Islamic system opposes is ‘Arrogance’ (which is a term Khamenei uses to refer to the US).”  He reminded the Basij commanders that “The great Iranian nation and the chosen system of his nation fundamentally took shape and grew in protest to Arrogance and its causes.  Therefore, with attention to the aforementioned characteristics, Arrogance is fundamentally unable to tolerate this system other than becoming hopeless of defeating it.”  Khamenei apears to be expressing the view that concessions and compromise by the Obama administration was expected given its inability to defeat Iran.  Moreover, there exists a belief in Tehran that US President Barack Obama wants to avoid using US military force against Iran at nearly any cost.  Obama wanted a deal; an historic agreement. The decision of the White House to use back channels and secret talks to reach that agreement despite engaging with Britain, France Germany, Russia, and China in multiparty negotiations with Iran and the concessions made on economic sanctions levied by the US Congress have somewhat substantiated that notion that the US was desperate.

As for the Geneva nuclear negotiations, Khamenei, in his most powerful statement of the day, declared that while he did not intend to invest himself into the talks, he rejected any notion of retreat.  He made it clear that the negotiators had no right to retreat even one step from Iran’s red lines.  In his own words, “I have emphasized the rights of the Iranian nation, including its nuclear rights, and I must insist there not be even one step of retreat from the national rights of Iran.” 

Make no mistake, that in Geneva, from Khamenei’s perspective, what is being negotiated over is economic sanctions relief, not Iran’s nuclear program.  Based on these statement by Khamenei (translated by Will Fulton, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute) before the Basij commanders, optimism over eventually dismantling or even shutting down Iran’s nuclear program may very well be misplaced.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, before being elected, shared his view of the thinking behind Iranian relations with the US.  In one of his books on foreign policy, Rouhani writes that modernity has failed, and that Christians in the West gave in to secularism without a fight.  He writes further that the US and the Islamic Republic are in permanent conflict.  Some policy analysts and other observers have said the US and Iran have turned the page and begun a new chapter.  While the Obama administration got the historic agreement it sought with Iran, it is not clear as yet that the agreement constructed was truly the best one that could be reached or one that will be sustainable.  As far as Khamenei, the IRGC, and the Basij commanders such as those pictured above are concerned, the Geneva accord will only impact Iran’s nuclear program, or will be sustainable, if they want that to be so.