Obama’s Iran Deal Campaign Amasses Support While Stirring Other Public Concerns

Above is DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons development site at Parchin analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security. As shown, Iran appears to have used heavy construction equipment to sanitize the site. Such actions may indicate Iran has not been forthright about its nuclear activities. As the Obama administration campaigns for the Iran deal, Tehran may be engaging in activities that could result in the deal’s collapse.

The administration of US President Barack Obama has spoken with great pride and aplomb the administration about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed on July 14, 2015. The White House’s infectious enthusiasm has spread far and wide to reach its Democratic political base around the nation. The deal has received support from academics and Hollywood celebrities who produced a video encouraging support for the deal to grassroots organizations and community activists who have held small rallies on sidewalks, in parks and in shopping malls. As Obama explained in his August 5, 2015 speech, the deal defines how Iran’s nuclear program can proceed. The deal curtails Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity to 3.67 percent and limits its stockpile to 300 kilograms for 15 years, thus increasing the time Iran would need to amass enough weapons grade uranium to make one bomb from 2 or 3 months to a year. Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will be repurposed and its Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor will be modified to reduce its proliferation potential. Iran will be barred from developing any capability for separating plutonium from spent fuel for weapons. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring has been put in place to deter Iran from violating the agreement. The international community has also enhanced its capability to detect violations promptly, and if necessary, disrupt efforts by Iran to build nuclear weapons at declared and undeclared sites. Before sanctions relief begins, Iran must take major steps such as removing centrifuges and eliminating its stockpiles.

The Israeli lobby in Washington, and many politically influential individuals and groups from the Jewish community around the US, have been the most vocal critics of the Iran deal and have been alarmed by what they view as its far-reaching concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged their efforts. He believes lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges is a terrible mistake. In a riposte to criticism, he recently said, “I don’t oppose the Iran deal because I want war. I oppose the deal because I want to prevent war, and this deal will bring war.” Obama’s Democratic support base may have been infected by the administration’s enthusiasm for the deal, but the US Congress seems inoculated from it. Congress poses the greatest challenge to the Iran deal. The administration believed Congressional Republicans would be ready to vote against it before it was signed. It generally views Republican arguments as specious, used only to support a rejectionist position. It was surprised by a few Congressional Democrats who also indicated they will not support the deal, in defiance of Obama. Many are senior Democratic leaders. Those Members are looked upon as enfants terrible, but have not faced castigation from the White House. Scinditur incertum studia in contraria vulgus. (In wild confusion sways the crowd; each takes a side and all are loud.)

In their messages to Congress, Obama and administration officials have urged Members to take the deal whether they like it or not because it’s the only one the US is going to get. The administration would have one believe that if critics among political opponents were to pick up the figurative palate and brush to create anything similar to its “work of art” would result in the creation of a cartoon. One point emphasized by the administration has been that war would be the only option left if the deal is rejected. The administration has been fairly open about the fact that it is ill-disposed to taking military action. It has gone as far as to say there is nothing that can be done effectively by the military to halt the nuclear program. Military action was once repeatedly threatened and declared on the table by the administration only a couple of years ago. However, perhaps those threats were not genuine. Obama has an apparent aversion toward military action that has become woven into his decision making. It has contaminated thinking coming out of the White House on foreign and defense policy. The Iran deal is in many ways a manifestation of Obama’s discomfort with the US military and its utilization. Administration officials and diplomats, while negotiating the Iran nuclear deal operated with a type of tunnel vision, animated with the idea projected from the White House that reaching a deal would be preferable to walking away, left to make a decision on military action. Real perspective of what was happening was lost. US strength seems to have been somehow negated in the Iran Talks. That is ostensibly evinced by the administration’s capitulation to Iran demands. Negotiating to reach peace at any price will always be a quick step toward appeasement. Moreover, advancing the idea with the US public that the US military cannot effectively demolish the Iranian nuclear program may also have had unintended consequences. In a way, the administration has created the impression that the US can no longer intervene against certain countries of a size and strength approximating Iran’s or greater. That could have a negative impact on the US public’s psyche regarding national security. Pictured here is a US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The results of the Iraq War undoubtedly had a strong effect on US President Barack Obama’s understanding of the limits of US military power. However, the results in Iraq say less about the US military and more about the abilities of US political leaders to utilize it. The US military remains unmatched. Advancing the idea that the US military cannot demolish the Iranian nuclear program could have a negative impact on the US public’s psyche regarding national security.

According to a CNN/ORC International poll released on July 28, 2015, overall, 52 percent of the US public says the US Congress should reject the Iran deal, and only 44 percent saying it should be approved. The US public has tended to look at Iran with scrupulosity ever since the fall of the Shah and the US Embassy takeover in 1979. There is a sense of moral superiority over Iran supported by reports human rights violations in Iran and Tehran’s sponsorship of groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iran was also said to have supported Shi’a elements of the Iraqi insurgency and Taliban factions in Afghanistan that fought US troops. Still, Iran had never been depicted as a threat to the US directly. What the US public would expect to hear from the administration is that the US military could peel Iran like a pear and be justified in doing so if Iran ever threatened to develop or actually developed a nuclear bomb. Instead, the administration has announced to the US public and the world, that even thinking about military action is unreasonable given its assay of how little the US military could accomplish against Iran’s nuclear program. This is not a surprising development. The US public has been served a steady diet of negative information from administration officials about its military. Whereas there was once the notion in the US public that the military represented US power and prestige, and was a source of pride, there is now a sense of impotence associated with the military and a resignation that US is on the wane. It should be expected that many in the US public would begin to wonder if the US, itself, is well-protected.  Similar feelings surfaced in the US public as it watched the ravenous, pagan Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) move with impunity in Iraq and Syria in 2014, brutally murdering anyone in its way. CNN/ORC International poll results released on September 8, 2014 indicated 90 percent of the US public believed ISIS posed a direct threat to the US. Reportedly, 70 percent believed ISIS had the resources to launch an attack against the US.

The administration’s concerns over military action against Iran seem more of a manifestation of its understanding of US military power. It was apparent in the first term with regard to decision making of Afghanistan and Iraq and remains present in the remnants of the administration’s second term. The results of the Iraq War, in particular, ostensibly had a strong educational effect on Obama with regard to the limits of US military power in general. Still, those results told less about the US military and more about the relative abilities of US political leaders to effectively utilize it. The US military is a well-crafted tool for warfare. However, as with any instrument, it can only perform as effectively as the skill level of the one handling it will allow. Vis consili expers mole ruit sua. (Force without wisdom falls of its own weight.)

When the US acts in a way that conceals its full capabilities as a great military power, it automatically cuts itself down to a size that an opponent may be able to cope with, even if temporarily, thus raising its costs, possibly prolonging a problem.

Obama administration officials are so rapt with the idea of avoiding military action that it glares out of speeches and official statements on the Iran deal and other foreign policy matters as well. Seeing, they do not see. Hearing, they do not hear. Once the Iranians could discern that US negotiators were driven to get an agreement for the White House and sought to avoid war, conditions were created in which there was little remove for maneuver.  The deal reached truly became the best one that could be constructed. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in his 2013 inaugural address, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” Clearly, Iranian negotiators managed to acquire that “requisite” degree of equality. Acceptance of that equality appeared confirmed by the administration when it began to make comparisons between the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and the Cold War nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. In reality, there is no comparison.

During the Cold War, in the year 1963, to which the administration specifically referenced, the US and the Soviet Union had forces deployed to achieve mutual assured destruction. As war between US and Soviet Union meant annihilation, any desire to declare nuclear war would be nihilistic by its very nature. The US has remained a strong, nuclear armed superpower. Despite what has been said by the current administration, the US is fully capable of acting militarily to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear program or potentially doing even greater damage to Iran. Iran, on the other hand, has limited conventional capabilities at best and no defense or response available against the US nuclear arsenal. Iran would not even be able to deter a US military response by having a few rudimentary nuclear devices in its arsenal. The threat to attack US interests internationally or domestically using unconventional forces or clandestine operatives should not be an effective deterrent to US military action. Nescire autem quid quam natus sis accident, id est simper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur? (Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things in a superior age.) The IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility may provide clues on how a dual-track approach may have been created to resolve problems concerning the nuclear issue. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would engage in diplomacy to gain concessions on sanctions, while unbeknownst to them perhaps, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and IRGC elements achieved all goals for the nuclear program.

The 19th century Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, was quoted as saying: “The object of war is to impose our will upon the enemy.” In 2013, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared “heroic flexibility” to be a key concept in the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy. The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan. Senior leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) explained that heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear energy program. In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Salami, “heroic flexibility 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 meant 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 elaborated by stating: “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.” According to this IRGC interpretation, there was no possibility of authentic Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue. However, given the possibility that the US and its Western allies, themselves, might be willing make concessions, particularly on sanctions, the talks would allow them the opportunity to do so. It is possible that the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility provides clues on how a dual-track approach may have been established to resolve problems over the nuclear issue. Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would engage in diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and IRGC elements would pursue all goals for the nuclear program. Above is commercial imagery of what Der Spiegel reports is a suspected underground nuclear weapons development site operated by Iran and North Korea west of Qusayr in Syria. The nuclear complexes they initially operated in Syria, located at Kibar near Deir al-Zor, were destroyed by Israeli jets and special operations forces in 2007. Recent tests of nuclear warheads in North Korea may have involved Iranian made warheads or warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

A number of different approaches exist to develop material for nuclear weapons beyond what was negotiated in the Iran Talks. Iran has the technological know-how to attempt them. Iran is known to have experimented with laser enrichment in the past at the Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center. Iran might be conducting an effective laser enrichment program in secret. Strides have been made by Dehghan’s Defense Ministry to revamp and enhance advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iran’s defense industrial base.  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 downed in Iran, the advent of a new anti-ship system and other naval technologies, and Iran’s greatly enhanced cyber capabilities. The administration might say with certitude that Iran has remained in compliance with the agreement. Still, reports of Iran’s effort to sanitize the facility at Parchin prior to the arrival of IAEA inspectors, in a likely attempt to conceal illicit nuclear weapons development there, should be somewhat disconcerting.

It has been reported that Tehran may have taken its nuclear program outside of Iran. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea in other countries to develop a weapon. The first evidence was their joint operation of nuclear facilities was the complex of structures found at Kibar, just east of Deir al-Zor in Syria. During Operation Orchard, on September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft, along with special operations forces, attacked and destroyed the facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly confirmed that Kibar was a nuclear weapons development site. There is the possibility that other nuclear facilities operated by Iran and Nrth Korea exist in Syria. According to Der Spiegel, there is a suspected underground nuclear weapons development facility west of Qusayr, about 2 km from the Lebanese border. Recent tests of nuclear warheads in North Korea may have involved Iranian made warheads or warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

The Way Forward

Nam cum sint duo genera decertandi unum per disceptationem, alterum per vim, cumque illud proprium sit hominis, hoc beluarum, confugiendum est ad posterius, si uti non licet superiore. (While there are two ways of contending, one by discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to man, the latter to beasts, recourse must be had to the latter if there be no opportunity for employing the former.) In a statement on July 14, 2015 regarding the Iran deal, US Secretary of State John Kerry explained, “The President [Obama] has been resolute in insisting from the day he came to office that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon, and he has been equally—equally strong in asserting that diplomacy should be given a fair chance to achieve that goal.” Still, dealing with Iran is tricky. To allay concerns that Iran might violate the deal’s terms, the administration explains doing so would be illogical as Tehran has too much to gain from the deal. In the end, a final decision will be made on the deal one way or the other. However, the virtual abandonment of the option to use military power to urge Iran’s compliance was perhaps an error and the administration should reconsider taking this tack. It has raised concerns in the US public. Apparently, it has built up the confidence of many hardliners in Iran. In the Parliament and at Friday Prayers, the chant “Death to America” is regularly heard again.

By any authentic assessment, the US military is unmatched. Yet, it can only be as effective as the commander-in-chief utilizing it will allow. There may be genuine doubt about what the US military can accomplish vis-à-vis Iran in the administration. However, its near predilection toward denigrating US military capabilities to avoid considering military action as an option must be curbed. Fate might soon play a role in that anyway. A response to overseas activities by Iran most likely related to its nuclear program might soon be required. Other than tolerating denials and succumbing to Tehran’s will, there might be little choice but to halt those activities with military action.

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.

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.

Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s UN Envoy: Hopefully, the Rejection of Abutalebi Hasn’t Jeopardized the Nuclear Talks

The bill that US President Barack Obama signed into law on April 18th blocks any individual from entering the US, including a Member State’s appointee to the UN, who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.

According to an April 18, 2014 New York Times report entitled, “Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s Envoy,” US President Barack Obama signed into law the bill that prevents the granting of a US visa for Iranian diplomat Hamid Abutalebi.  The bill, itself, was unanimously passed by US House of Representatives and approved by the US Senate on April 10th.  The vote in Congress was supposed to send what sponsors called a blunt rejoinder to the Iranian government for having selected a nominee who played a role, however minor, in the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran.  Iranian officials have said Abutalebi’s appointment was decided months ago, but it is still believed by US experts that hardliners in Iran urged Abutalebi’s appointment as Iran’s UN permanent representative to create controversy, snuff out reconciliation efforts, and halt the nuclear talks.  Compassion and sympathy should be felt toward the former embassy staff members who suffered during the hostage crisis.  Yet, while Iran might decide upon a candidate based on domestic political considerations, it is not useful for the US officials to reject an Iranian candidate based on domestic political considerations.  Given all that has been articulated so well by the Obama administration the possibilities that could come from newly established diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran, his decision to block the visa does not appear rise up to that same positive spirit.  Obama’s support for the Congressional legislation, that banned Abutalebi and dredged up the many visceral issues associated with the hostage crisis, makes the administration’s statements in support of building better ties seem more as mere lip service to the process rather than a genuine effort. 

What remains to be seen is whether a strong enough communion exists among US and Iranian officials that would allow them to overcome such stumbling blocks as a disputed appointment to the UN.  Unless Iran can use legal means and negotiations with the US to reverse the decision on Abutalebi, the ship has likely sailed on the issue of his appointment.  Before Obama signed the Congressional bill, an April 10th New York Times article informed that some US specialists on Iran said optimistically that despite the sharp language, they did not forsee the dispute over Abutalebi sabotaging the broader efforts at achieving a nuclear agreement.  Cynics, waging a “legislative war” against Iran, are unable to see the value of the improved relations and idealist are unable to discern the capability of provocative statements and acts to effectively derail the nuclear negotiation process. Yet, perhaps this might be a case when cynics and idealists alike in the US are unable to fully discern the situation before them.  In the end, to avoid war and to ensure greater confidence that what is happening both in Iran and the US is known, both cynics and idealists must oddly come together, along with pragmatists, to help establish a sustainable agreement satisfactory to all.  Such steps taken now will facilitate efforts to maintain the agreement by its future stewards.

The Concerns Over Abutalebi

This episode regarding Abutalebi is not the case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.  In Iran, the selection of Abutalebi to replace the current permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, Mohammad Khazee, hardly could have been made without input from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.  It was undoubtedly tacitly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, when the selection of Abutalebi was made in Tehran, even if months ago, it had to be recognized then, as it is quite apparent now, that his selection would cause a strong response within official Washington, given his connection to the infamous capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. In the US, the decision to withhold a visa from Abutalebi gained impetus in the US Congress after legal representatives of the 52 embassy staff members of the captured US embassy in Tehran reported that he was among the revolutionaries, some of whom engaged in acts of mental and physical abuse against many of them during the 444-day hostage crisis.  Misgivings about Abutalebi rapidly built among Members of Congress and were manifested in a bill to prohibit him from entering the US.  Given the significant progress made in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program both in Geneva as well as back channel talks between US and Iranian officials, it was incumbent upon Obama to fully weigh blocking one Iranian diplomat, albeit with a problematic history, against paving a smooth course toward an historic agreement with Iran before placing his signature on it.

Abutalebi is a veteran diplomat who began working in the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the early 1980s.  He has held key European postings in the past.  He served as Iran’s ambassador to Italy, Belgium, and Australia. Abutalebi is said to be connected to circles close to Rouhani as well as former President Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani.  In September 2013, Abutalebi was appointed as deputy director of Rouhani’s political affairs office.  He also headed the Central Asian branch at the research center of the Expediency Council lead by Rafsanjani.  Abutalebi is said to be close to former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist.

Abutalebi stated that while he was a part of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, the student group that occupied the US embassy in November 1979, he was not among the core group of student activists and was not inside the embassy during the crisis.  Nothing stated or reported indicates Abutalebi’s actions 35 years ago were of an egregious nature.  In fact, Abutalebi claims he was Ahvaz during the occupation of the US embassy.  It was only when he came back to Tehran that he was asked to help with some translation and he accepted to do it.  Abutalebi was quoted on the Iranian Khabaronline website as stating “I did the translation during news conference when female and also African-American employees of the embassy were released.”

Yet, Abutalebi’s explanation of his involvement in the embassy seizure was never relevant to US officials.  A spokesman and attorney from the legal team representing former hostages who have made compensation claims, Alan Madison, admitted that very little concrete information was available about Abutalebi’s role in the hostage-taking. Madison stated, “After 34 years, it’s difficult to say this was a central character or this was a tangential character. But he was there, and it’s our understanding that having been a participant, he still has some political credibility with some of those folks in Iran.”  Madison also presented a statement from former hostage, Barry Rosen that explained, “It’s a disgrace if the USG (U.S. government) accepts Abutalebi’s Visa as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.”

The Abutalebi Case Shows US-Iran Relationship Requires Far More Work

Relations between the US and Iran remain far from perfect, however they are at a new stage as a result of the nuclear negotiations.  The talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of each other.  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. Indeed, progress has been made of the nuclear issue and sanctions.  Key Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with the most powerful revolutionary slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, the senior US authority on diplomacy, admits that Iran has kept its end of a deal reached on November 24, 2013.  On February 24, 2014, Kerry stated Iran had reduced 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 explained that “They [the Iranians] are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

However, cynics ignore such truths.  The truth, itself, is seemingly viewed as treason for those against the change in relations between the US and Iran.  Despite progress, enough US and Iranian leaders have not moved forward at all in their thinking and they seem determined to have a negative impact on the negotiation process.  As the IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has stated, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  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.” In the US, it remains dogma among policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program.  The idea that nuclear talks may be the path for new, positive relations between the US and Iran, probably will not gain acceptance among cynics until a final agreement is achieved.  Even then, some will cling to doubts.

Given emnity that surfaced in both Tehran and Washington over the matter of Abutalebi’s selection as Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, it is clear that hardliners in Tehran or Members of Congress persist in viewing policy goals and approaches giving primacy to information developed in the abstract long before the negotiations began.  A new understanding of each other’s ideas on issues and intentions should have been developed given the months of talks between the US and Iran.  If a more positive understanding of respective concepts and intentions is not reached soon, the failure of the direct talks will practically be ensured.  Moreover, with a limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking, cynics significantly lessen the possibilty of achieving their own policy goals.

The Way Forward

Despite what idealist may hope, how Obama handled this matter will determine what type of confidence he builds among leaders in Tehran.  Having stood with what Iranian officials see as the banality of Congress’ rejection of Abutalebi over his nearly indiscernible role in the US embassy seizure, Tehran may use the signing of the bill to gauge whether Obama would challenge Congress on other issues concerning US-Iran relations, to include the nuclear talks.  Although Obama cannot prevent Congress from passing sanctions or force Congress to remove them, he could greatly curtail or remove sanctions over the nuclear program under a final deal by waiving them until he leaves office if he chooses.  The Iranians probably recognized that was the most they could expect.  Now, even that outcome has been put into question.

At the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, other senior officials, and even UN Member States most friendly with the US, would unlikely require or expect Iran to repeatedly present candidate after candidate until one would finally be found acceptable to the US.  Some of those friendly states have already accepted Abutalebi as an ambassador in their capitals.  The bill that Obama signed into law blocks any individual from entering the US who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.  From the information that has been presented about Abutalebi so far, it does not seem that by his mere presence in New York City as Iran’s UN permanent representative, he poses any threat to the US.  Interestingly, Abutalebi’s actions during the embassy takeover were undoubtedly far less egregious than that of some diplomats past and present from states whose forces have engaged in combat against the US military since World War II, including China (The Korean War 1950-1953), Vietnam (The Vietnam War 1964-1973), Cuba (Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury  1983), Serbia (Operation Allied Force, 1999), Montenegro (Operation Allied Force, 1999), or Iraq (The Gulf War 1991 and The Iraq War, 2003-2011).  Except in the case of Cuba, the US has normalized relations with those states.  There is plenty of literature available that explains known or detected members of the intelligence services in the UN Missions, embassies, or consulates of states such as Russia, China, or the North Korea are, more often than not, granted visas and not expelled from the US as persona non grata.  Perhaps it should be considered by Congress that if Abutalebi is kept from assuming his post as Iran’s UN permanent representative, perhaps out of spite and due to extraordinary pressure from hardliners, Tehran might just send a new appointee, a very capable government official outside of the Foreign Ministry, who may have a less obvious profile but later may be discovered to have committed acts against the US and interests.

Rather than just deciding on whether to accept or reject the Congressional bill on Abutalebi, Obama could have used the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate what good things can come from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement in foreign policy efforts.  His personal involvement in US policy on Iran should always result in the injection of fresh thinking to the process to keep things moving forward.  The same should be expected of Rouhani.

The nuclear negotiations have meaning for present and future US-Iran relations.  Will and intellectual power is required to recognize the benefit of constructing a satisfactory and sustainable agreement.  True, a healthy dose of cynicism must exist in the process despite the best intentions.  However, the cynics must not be allowed to win the day.  For them, relations between the US and Iran appears to boil down into a competition over who has the upper hand in the relationship outside of the military sphere. Idealists would likely agree that a deal can be reached without the assistance of Iranian hardline political and religious leaders and the US Congress, yet it cannot be successfully concluded without their help.  Perhaps a focus could be placed on encouraging cynics on both sides.  As a result, they just might be helped to see, in a new way, the possibility of an agreement, and appreciate its value would be akin to that of a pearl of great price.

Book Review: Kenneth Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Pictured above are centrifuges used to enrich uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility.

In Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, Kenneth Pollack explains that Iran is most likely attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and may very well have it in the near future.  Having proffered that, Pollack then considers what will allow US policy makers to best respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in order to protect the interests of the US and its allies.  Pollack asserts that from the options available, the US will inevitably be forced to choose between declaring war to stop Iran from moving any further forward with its nuclear program or implement a policy of containment.  Pollack engages in a strenuous effort to support his belief that containment would be the best choice for the US.  However, Pollack does not limit his analysis to weighing the military option and containment.  He lays out other possible solutions to the Iranian nuclear dilemma that he poses.  Those other approaches include redoubling US efforts at a carrot-and-stick approach that combines negotiations and sanctions; aiding Iranian opposition to bring about a popular form of regime change; and, backing an Israeli military strike.

Pollack’s experience in examining Iranian security issues is extensive.  He began his career in international affairs as a Persian Gulf analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  He served twice on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC), at one time holding the position of Director for Persian Gulf Affairs.  Pollack also held positions as a senior research professor at the Department of Defense’s National Defense University, as a director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  Throughout his career Pollack has interpreted facts and developed timely inferences on situations and entities in the Middle East, using large quantities of informatiuon with the goal of supporting US policy.  Pollack clearly possess what might be a granular understanding of the situation of Iran from detailed reports and assessments.  He likely retains what he learned from very enlightening classified sources during his tenure at CIA and perhaps afterward if he possesses a security clearance that would permit that.  However, Pollack’s understanding of Iran was still developed from the abstract.  Despite the eloquence of his argument, what stands out in Unthinkable is Pollack’s choice to make use of a limited range of primary sources to support his positions on the nuclear ambitions and decision making of Iranian authorities, which are central to his argument.

Pollack states in the Introduction to Unthinkable, “How we choose to fill the gaps in our knowledge is often more important than the knowledge we have.”   Claiming that there is not much known about the true intentions of the Iranian leadership, Pollack presumably felt it would be enough to write his book using research and writing techniques developed as an analyst for CIA.  Doing so certainly does not make for scandal.  However, Pollack’s apparent tact of presenting policy options as if he were still a CIA analyst at headquarters in Langley, Virginia, beset by travel restrictions, is questionable, since he is free and fully able as a private citizen and research fellow at an independent think tank to gather information and conduct interviews, including in Iran, to thoroughly investigate and assess the possibility of success for each option.  There is no evidence in Unthinkable that Pollack ventured to gain a greater understanding of issues himself by traveling to Iran or interview Iranian policy and decision makers.  To some degree, this represents a lack of commitment to the truth by Pollack.  In a world were interaction between people of the world is facilitated by electronic communication and air transport, it is difficult to understand why Pollack takes what is ostensibly an archaic tact to limit his study by denying himself access to first-hand information that is readily available.  Pollack very likely would have been welcomed in Iran.

Pollack’s self-imposed restriction on fully investigating Iran’s positions on nuclear issue seemingly caused him to reach a number of positions on the Iranian nuclear issue and US policy on Iran that were incorrect.  Most notable was Pollack’s argument against a “policy of pure engagement” or an “engagement only approach.”  While that position was not a main feature among his arguments, it has proven to be one of its greatest flaws.  Pollack based his assessment on the experience of the Europeans who attempted that tact with Iran without success in the 1990s.  Perhaps with a deeper look, Pollack would have discovered that the US and Iran had essentially decided to take a new direction on the nuclear issue.  While Pollack was arguing against initiatives to pull back on sanctions as a prelude to a grand bargain, the US and Iran were on the threshold of establishing a new dialogue.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed strong interest in establishing a dialogue with the West, and it was manifested with both his September 2013 telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama and the formal meeting in New York between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry the same week in 2013.  Months before contacts, there were back channel negotiations underway to set-up an official dialogue between the US and Iran.  Those efforts coalesced, resulted in the announcement of bilateral negotiations between the US and Iran and a Geneva negotiations process between representatives from Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany).  Those negotiations, which Pollack had taken a stand against, have resulted, to some degree, in an improvement in US-Iran relations, and an interim agreement signed by all parties on January 12, 2014.  That deal curtailed the Iranian nuclear program, focusing on two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium.   It allows time to negotiate a more ambitious deal that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.  In return, the Iranians would receive relief from sanctions and the ability to sell oil around the world again.

The P5+1 Talks in Geneva have also borne fruits beyond the agreement.  They 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 contradicts Pollack’s assessments of thinking within Iran.  Indeed, for officials in all countries involved in the negotiation process, close contact through the Geneva process have given them a chance to look into each other’s eyes and sense one another’s feelings.  Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know.  Every inflexion, tone, and change in the others voice provides some insight as to what might be on an official’s mind.  For the US and Iran, the understanding of positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the NSC.  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. 

Even if US officials at the Geneva Talks determined their Iranian counterparts were not being forthright or simply being deceptive, it could be best confirmed through talks, certainly not through the speculation that Pollack offers.  The understanding that US and Iranian leaders have of the others thinking as a result of Geneva would greatly inform the chief executive’s own assessment and eventual response to the crisis.  Frequent meetings between the US and Iranian officials allows for the development of a “fresh” understanding of each other, and enhances prospects for fence mending.

Part of Pollack’s rationale behind Unthinkable was to provide options for US policy makers in the event of a downturn in US-Iran relations.  As such, his discussion still merits consideration.  Regarding military action, to degrade Iran’s nuclear capability, Pollack, who again admits lacking information argues that a strategic bombing campaign might not inflict enough damage to prevent the Iranians from resurrecting their program.  If that occurs, Pollack believes US decision makers would turn to a ground invasion that would inevitably be more complex than the Iraq War.  However, in spite of his thorough examination of the issue, and his experience at CIA and the NSC, it is difficult to accept Pollack’s ideas on how senior US military planners would approach the Iranian nuclear program.  Pollack proffered similar analyses on Iraq, before Operation Iraqi Freedom. (See Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002).)  Pollack encouraged military action in Iraq despite not fully understanding: whether the premise for the attack being presented by the administration of US President George W. Bush—Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction—was  accurate; how the Iraqis would respond to the attack and subsequent occupation; what securing and reconstructing Iraq would require; and, how decision makers in the Bush administration understood the situation at the time and what their likely approach to the intervention would be.  Pollack now recognizes that the Bush administration was in willful denial of the enormity of the undertaking.  Preparing good military plan to meet the goals of political leadership that will result in a favorable, attainable outcome, requires dominant knowledge of the prospective battle space and excellent “situational awareness.”  In recommending a military plan to political leaders, senior military leaders must possess a necessary level of “political awareness,” bearing in mind to what degree their plans might be politicized as a result of expedience, making desired outcomes less likely. 

US military planners, using their expertise based on careers in their respective branches of the armed forces, that included continuous military education and training and considerable experience in war fighting, are responsible for developing plans for military action for political leaders.  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.  Policy makers and analysts, regardless of their level of understanding of military theory or strategy, are outmatched by the degree of understanding senior military commanders possess for the planning and execution of an attack on Iran.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior 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.

While Pollack may believe that attacking Iran is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high, circumstances in the future may not permit a policy based on convenience.  Whether faced with war-weariness over Iraq and Afghanistan or isolationism following World War I, if military action is the most effective option, it must be taken.  Decision makers must operate within circumstances that exist, not the circumstance they like to have.  Perhaps Pollack, as a result of personal reflections on mistakes made concerning Iraq has become adverse to risk and now seeks to avoid military action.  However, that mindset typically will result in the search for alternate approaches that, in a less than perfect world, do not exist.

Interestingly, Pollack’s argument that military action in Iran would be too costly weakens the case for containment which is his preferred option.  A containment effort of any kind requires the existence of the credible threat of force.  Nevertheless, Pollack recommends establishing red lines to deter an Iran with nuclear weapons from threatening US interests and allies.  He suggested the further use of coercive diplomacy in the form of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and ideological warfare with the hope it will modify Iran’s behavior and allow structural flaws in its political system to bring an end to the regime itself.  To enhance the possibility that containment would succeed, Pollack suggested supporting anti-regime elements to foment revolution in Iran.  Despite the questionable nature of such groups, Pollack explains “Any imaginable change of regime in Tehran would benefit the United States, if only because it is hard to imagine a regime more anti-American than the one in place today.”   Surely, this belief would be modified after a discussion in Iran with ordinary citizens about groups such as the People’s Mujahedeen.

Despite questions raised in this review on Pollack’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue, Unthinkable should still pique the interest of policy scholars and academics interested in appraising some very, well-researched arguments on the future of US relations with Iran.  Pollack is a good researcher and great writer.  Business leaders and policy aficionados would find Unthinkable of interest because it provides insight into how similar arguments of US foreign policy issues are formulated by think tank scholars.  There is much for students of international affairs to learn from his work.  Undoubtedly, Unthinkable has been read and briefed in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.  It might be interesting enough for them, as well as readers from governments of other countries, to view the book as an opportunity to review the methodology for research and analysis used by a skilled former US intelligence analyst.  However, as mentioned, The Iranians would most likely feel they have much more to learn from their first-hand interactions with US officials in Geneva.

Unthinkable was highly recommended in many reviews when published in September 2013.  Many of the book’s arguments may soon be overcome by events in Geneva.  Yet, there are still some things to be learned from it.   As greatcharlie.com appreciates books that can enhance the understanding of its audience of foreign and defense policy makers, to business and political leaders, and policy aficionados on international affairs, we recommends Unthinkable to them.

Suleimani Isn’t Finer’s “Man on Horseback,” But His Views and Those of Other Senior Military Commanders Will Impact Geneva’s Outcome

The young man in the photo above is Qassem Suleimani.  This photo of Suleimani, was taken during the Iran-Iraq War.  General (Sarlashkar) Suleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, currently serves as commander of Iran’s Quds Force.  The photo was presented on Twitter on December 20, 2013 by Will Fulton, a leading US expert on Iran policy and Iranian security issues. Also on December 20th, Fulton completed his outstanding service as part of American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Critical Threats Project where he published the Iran News Round Up.  Whether through his work at AEI or simply on Twitter, information provided by Will Fulton displayed  his remarkable depth of knowledge on Iranian security issues, shedding light on how and why events occurred and personalities who were moving events forward.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Suleimani was one of tens of thousands Iranian men engulfed in the fighting.  Relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues fell together during that fight for Iran’s very survival as a nation.  It was probably impossible for Suleimani to imagine then that he would survive or have a military career that would allow him to become the commander of Iran’s most elite formation.  For the past three decades, he has engaged in conventional and unconventional warfare, wherever required globally, to support and defend Iran and promote the Islamic revolution.  While pictured above riding a horse, he is far from being “The Man on Horseback,” a term Samuel Finer made popular in 1962, referring to a military figure whose ambitions and popularity mark him as a potential dictator.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine any Iranian military commander could be more patriotic, more devoted to Shi’a Islam, more dedicated to the Islamic revolution and the resistance against “oppression,” or more adoring of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  These qualities allowed him to become a trusted confidant and reliable commander for Khamenei.

Much as Fulton has steeped himself on Iranian security issues, for quite a while Suleimani has been quite focused on US security issues.  Consider that at one point the US had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, west and east of Iran respectively, and a fleet of warships deployed in the Persian Gulf.  As of late, his attention has expectedly been drawn to the bilateral talks between the US and Iran and the Geneva nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council and Germany.  Suleimani has made public statements about the Geneva process.  However, in those public expressions, Suleimani does not display a depth of knowledge similar to Fulton’s.  Rather, his public assessments on the capabilities and possibilities of the US have been inaccurate.  This is surprising as Suleimani very likely understands the importance of the Geneva process to Iran.  The real focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process is Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s 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.  The danger may not be clear and present as when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran.  Nonetheless, pragmatic thinking is truly required of all elements of the Iranian government on this matter, not boasts and declarations.

In his address at the martyrs ceremony in Kerman Province, Suleimani was quoted by Fars News on December 22, 2013 as stating the following: “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.”;and, “In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”  (This translation of the Fars News quotes was provided by Will Fulton)

A martyrs ceremony is typically a highly-charged political gathering at which passionate, patriotic statements are expected.  Suleimani’s address, while being such, also reflected the group-think among Iran’s hard liners about the US rather than a sound presentation of the current situation.  Indeed, in foreign and defense policy circles in Tehran, it seems to have been concluded that the US is now disinterested in the Middle East as it does not align with its 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 viewed as a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they view US President Barack Obama as lacking the will to fight.  To that extent, Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed.

As Suleimani pointed out in his address, the US has actually suffered economic woes and political divisions, and steep reductions have been made in the US armed forces, but these are not signals the US has somehow become weaker as a nation.  The US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily across the spectrum of warfare.  Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear weapons program, a potential military mission, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new systems and tactics.  The White House would not agree that the Obama administration not to take military action in Syria signaled an unwillingness to take military action.  Rather, the decision was viewed as a maturation of it approach to the use of force.  Iran must concern itself not only with the Obama administration response to a violation of an agreement with the US, but also the response of a prospective winner of the 2016 US Presidential Election to a violation or to the agreement itself. 

Interestingly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, acknowledged worldwide as an expert on US foreign and defense policy issues, has a different take on US prestige, power, and authority in the world.  He has rebuffed statements made by Iranian military leaders such as Suleimani and General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC.  According to a December 20, 2013 article on BloombergZarif, on December 3, 2013, publicly declared that Iran’s military was not powerful enough to deter the West. 

Men such as Qassem Suleimani are unintimidated by war and are prepared to sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice in the defense of Iran and the Islamic revolution.  However, the survival of Iran is central to the survival of the Islamic revolution.  In a war with the US, in which nuclear weapons are in the mix, the survival of Iran could not be guaranteed.  Good judgment requires the Iranian military commanders such as Suleimani to support the construction of an agreement that is acceptable to them, given the current realities, while at the same time being sustainable.  This would allow them to ensure Iran’s security and allow future generations to the opportunity to further the Islamic revolution.  Although it would not be a spectacular victory, it would nonetheless represent a victory for Iran.

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.