US and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months: A Deal May Be Reached with Trust, But Not with Certainty

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (right) stands close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), at a ceremony. For hard-liners as Jafari, the failure to reach a deal by November 24th proved the West only wants Iran to surrender its nuclear program. Fears of US military action are gone. Hard-liners have gained even more of Khamenei’s attention on foreign policy.

According to a November 25, 2014 New York Times article entitled “U.S. and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months”, the US and partners in the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China—plus Germany), to declare an extension for talks with Iran on its nuclear program until June 30, 2015. The extension came after a yearlong effort to reach a sustainable agreement with Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear infrastructure. There was no indication of why negotiators felt they could overcome political obstacles blocking a deal. Until very recently, negotiators from all sides insisted that the November 24, 2014 deadline for a deal was hard and fast.

The November 25th New York Times article explained the already extended high-level diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear program was arguably US President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority. The results on November 24th had to be a disappointment for him. Negotiators did not even agree on the framework for a comprehensive deal. In expressing hope that a deal could still be reached, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that a series of “new ideas surfaced” in the last several days of talks. He further stated “we would be fools to walk away,” because a temporary agreement curbing Iran’s program would remain in place while negotiations continued. Indeed, it has been reported that Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24, 2013 interim agreement, named the Joint Plan of Action, by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things. In extending the interim agreement, Iran has ensured itself sanctions relief, bringing it $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared on Iranian national television with a message of both reassurance and resistance. He told Iranians that a deal would end sanctions, but also said “the centrifuges are spinning and will never stop.” The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected US demands for the deep reductions in Iran’s enrichment capability. His view may not change before a March 1, 2015 deadline for reaching a political agreement, the first phase in the seven-month extension.

For the hard-liners in Iran, the failure to reach an agreement proved the US and its allies were not negotiating honestly and simply wanted to take away Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian moderates however, seem to realize an authentic agreement that includes the removal of sanctions and an acceptable modification of Iran’s nuclear activities can be reached. Yet, they likely also worry that the failure to reach an agreement coupled with the lackluster US reaction over events in Iraq and Syria has strengthened hard-liners’ resolve, and worse, strengthened their position and influence with Khamenei. Threats made by the Obama administration to take military action if negotiations fail now ring hollow. Western negotiators remain concerned over how Iran will proceed with or without a deal. A deal would need to be made with the prayer that Tehran will not announce one day that it has a weapon.

Zarif Wants An Agreement to Resolve the Nuclear Issue in Tehran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was upbeat before reporters at a press conference on November 25, 2014 in Vienna saying with a broad smile that he was optimistic that in the next few months a solution would be found. He was quoted as saying “We don’t need seven months.” Zarif directed his words at the US Congress saying Iran would not be ending all of its nuclear activities. He explained “If you are looking for a zero sum game in nuclear negotiations, you are doomed to failure.” He also revealed that the step by step removal of sanctions was a stumbling block in the talks. Zarif apparently argued to the end in the talks that the sanctions must be lifted permanently and almost immediately. For both Rouhani and Obama, the next seven months may be difficult to manage. Opponents of concessions of any kind have been gaining strength in both countries. It seems time has quickly passed since the summer of 2013 when considerable enthusiasm was created in Washington and other Western capitals over the potential of negotiations with Iran. Rouhani made an eloquent case for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  Skepticism expressed in the US came mainly from Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process. However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program has become a distant memory.  Obama administration officials pleaded with Congress not to levy new sanctions against Iran because sanctions would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  Simply put, the White House wanted to reach a deal, and US officials did not really hide that fact. Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He told the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

By that point, Zarif saw the real possibility of reaching an agreement with the P5+1 that Tehran could live with. He argued with hard-line elements in Tehran, including the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hard-line political and religious leaders, that a deal would be beneficial to Iran. The hard-liners did not desire to engage in negotiations, particularly with the West and remained reluctant, but, in obedience to Khamenei, they did not oppose his efforts. Zarif assures that Iran neither needs nor simply wants a nuclear weapons capability. That is to the best of his knowledge. Zarif believes Iran’s size and strength and level of technological development makes it unnecessary to augment its power with nuclear weapons. Zarif believes the goal of Iran’s nuclear program was to produce fuel for its nuclear reactor. That argument has remained at the root of his efforts during the entire negotiation process.  In a US television interview in July 17, 2014, he explained that nuclear weapons would likely reduce Iran’s security and influence in its region.  He said “It doesn’t help anybody.”  He went on to state “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security, through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over, is simply mad.” Zarif argued: “Have they [nuclear weapons] made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.” To prove Western claims about Iran’s nuclear program untrue, Zarif has proposed confidence-building measures and responded to proposals from the P5+1. However, firm limits to what he could commit to were set by Khamenei. As the November 24th deadline approached, Tehran apparently pulled the reign on Zarif tighter. Zarif undoubtedly recognized that other events in the region were having an impact on Khamenei’s thoughts on the negotiations. Threats of US military action had already dissipated. However, once the Obama administration displayed great reluctance to act militarily in Iraq in the face of monstrous actions by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), fears were mitigated within all quarters in Tehran that the US would act militarily against Iran.  Obama’s October 2014 letter to Khamenei may have further substantiated that view. With less worry that failed negotiations would lead to war, leaders in Tehran, particularly Khamenei and the hard-liners, saw no need to deal away any more of Iran’s nuclear program.

Hard-liners Strengthen Their Position with Khamenei

From the prism of hard-line elements in Tehran, the negotiation process has been a contest of wills. IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.” Yet, as the eagerness of the Obama administration to reach a deal became even apparent to them, the hard-liners watched, anticipating that the US would acquiesce to Iran’s demands. Previously, Iran contended with the administration of US President George W. Bush who threatened regime change and, hinted at a possible ground attack from Iraq. However, the Obama administration seemed less threatening and somewhat pliant to hard-liners. That perception was apparent iin the reaction of Jafari to the negotiations latest outcome. He explained “The Americans’ surrender to the authority of Iran is apparent by their behavior in the region and in the [nuclear] negotiations, and the issues of the enemy in combat with Iran were fully felt. Of course, their excesses in some cases are due to their fierce temper.” Jafari still expressed no genuine interest in reaching a deal with the P5+1. He stated, “The main elements of our power are in the hands of God and country. We should not seek our dignity and authority from the foreigners.”  He waxed on Iran’s potential to become a global power, and the need for a strategy to promote its interests and the Revolution worldwide. Jafari proffered, “Our problem is that we don’t have a broader outlook; the Supreme has also stressed this issue . . . If we don’t have a comprehensive and broader outlook, we will go wrong in all fields and decision-making, even the negotiations and nuclear issues.”

IRGC senior commanders have always looked with a bad eye at the size, power, and capabilities of the US military, and have wanted to surpass it in the Middle East and beyond. The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces regularly declare their willingness to defend Iranian territory to the end and display Iran’s military capabilities. Jafari stated: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” On Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s military forces on the ground and efforts to shape events there. Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons, the Obama administration expressed fears over placing “boots on the ground” and eventually declined to act.  That led IRGC commanders in particular to publicly deride the US as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands. IRGC Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani said of the US, “There was a day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

In one of his early public statements on the Iraq, Khamenei said, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.” Hard-liners apparently had to convince Khamenei that the Obama administration did not have the situation under control and was not moving with an assured step. Much as Zarif seemingly recognized, hard-line military and security officials apparently concluded uniformly that the US has no intention of attacking Iran if the nuclear talks fail. The hard-liners appear to have convinced Khamenei that Obama’s reluctance to fight ISIS showed he would be even more reluctant to face the IRGC, Iranian Armed Forces, and other security elements globally if the US attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  The hard-liners also likely inferred from Obama’s reluctance he would not want to concurrently fight Iran and ISIS. Khamenei was able to see Iran was in, what Jafari would characterize as, a stronger position versus the US, even on the nuclear issue.

Jafari has always looked with a bad eye at the US military. He believes the US is in decline and wants Iran to acquire a broader outlook regarding its role in world affairs.

A maturing public relations apparatus in Khamenei’s office shaped official quotes from the Supreme Leader in response to the talks’ result. On Thursday November 27, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he backed the extension of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, and praised the negotiating team for its efforts. Khamenei expressed on his website, “For the same reasons I wasn’t against negotiations, I’m also not against the extension.” He characterized Iran’s negotiators as “hard-working and serious . . . [They] justly and honestly stood against words of force and bullying of the other side, and unlike the other side, they did not change their words every day.” In another message on his Twitter account, Khamenei stated “We accept fair and reasonable agreements. Where there’s bullying and excessive demands, all of Iran, people and officials, will not accept.”

However, in a more genuine manifestation of his feelings on the negotiations, Khamenei, in a November 25, 2014 meeting with Muslim clerics in Tehran, dismissed the diplomatic and economic pressure that world powers had brought to bear on his country over its nuclear ambitions. Khamenei said that the West had failed to bring Iran “to its knees.” On his website, he further stated that “In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so—and they will not be able to do so.” Several Twitter posts from an account used by Khamenei’s office, accused the West of meddling in the Middle East and using Sunni militant groups to thwart the Arab Spring uprisings with intra-Muslim infighting, “in line with arrogant [US] goals.” Some of Khamenei’s November 27th statements actually lapsed into the same aggressive tone. Khamenei said the US would be the biggest loser if the extended talks failed. He remarked “Know that whether or not we reach a nuclear agreement, Israel becomes more insecure day by day.” He then proclaimed, “Our people are willing to maintain their authority and values, and will bear the economic pressure.” Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon. However, his statement likely came with caveats. If Khamenei, as the steward of Iran’s national security, felt a weapon was necessary for Iran’s security, he would build it and expect the Iranian people to faithfully overcome any Western efforts in response.

The Danger That Lurks: Real or Imagined?

Before the nuclear talks began, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obtained information suggesting Iranian leaders are not completely opposed to developing a nuclear weapon. In an internal 2009 IAEA document, most of which was published by Institute for Science and International Security, is a section titled “Statements made by Iranian officials.”  It states: “The Agency [IAEA] was informed that in April 1984 the then President of Iran, H.E. Ayatollah Khamenei declared, during a meeting of top-echelon political and security officials at the Presidential Palace in Tehran, that the spiritual leader Imam Khomeini had decided to reactivate the nuclear programme. According to Ayatollah Khamenei this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel, and to prepare it for the emergence of Imam Mehdi. Ayatollah Khamenei further declared during the meeting, that a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.” The November 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report described the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that peaked in 2002 and 2003, and then was abruptly halted. The IAEA report also presented information from UN Member States indicating aspects of this program continued or restarted after 2003 and may be on-going.

The concern among US and European negotiators is that hard-liners in Tehran are using the on-going nuclear talks to misdirect them, enabling elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Continued progress with the nuclear program has been a feature of Iran’s negotiations with the West since such talks began with the Bush administration. Iran may have the capability to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the West within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and Zarif would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the P5+1while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements secretly develop the ability to create a nuclear weapon. According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, 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 “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The mission of AMAD Plan was to procure dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-2003, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserted Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities under the auspices of Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND. Nulla tenaci, invia est via! (For the tenacious, no road is impossible!)

The Way Forward

While stumbling blocks are addressed, new approaches to ameliorate US concerns are being explored such as ways to provide the US with at least a year to discover if Iran was racing for a weapon, a standard that the US has set. Such steps could involve a combination of Iranian commitments to ship some of its nuclear stockpile to Russia, efforts to disconnect some of the country’s centrifuges in ways that would take considerable time to reverse, and limits on output that could be verified by international inspectors.   However, efforts in that direction may not amount to much in the current political environment, particularly in Iran and the US. When it was announced that no deal was reached and negotiations would be extended, lawmakers inthe Iranian Parliament erupted in chants “Death to America” after a lawmaker commenting on the deadline extension spoke of “the U.S.’s sabotaging efforts and its unreliability.” The lawmaker, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, who is the deputy speaker of the Parliament, said Iran had learned from the nuclear negotiations that it had a strong hand to play. “Today, we can speak to the U.S. and its allies with the tone of power,” he said in remarks quoted by the Fars News Agency. “A lesson can be taken from the recent nuclear talks that, for various reasons, the U.S. is not reliable.” The Republican controlled Congress really has no interest in restoring or improving relations with Iran while it has a nuclear program. Congressional Republicans have threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran regardless of whether such action interfered with the nuclear talks. Obama will no longer be able to rely on Democratic leaders in the Senate to bottle up legislation that would require new sanctions. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the New York Times, “I don’t think Congress is going to sit still.” He further stated, “There is a fear the administration is being played for time, and there will be a desire to express that in some form of a sanctions bill.” Disapproval over the renewed sanctions relief that had brought Iran $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad may very well compel Congress to levy new sanctions. If the nuclear negotiations failed, any outrage expressed after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The use of military force would be unlikely given current circumstances in the Middle East and Obama’s disposition on it. There would be sanctions, but it is likely Tehran has already calculated what the consequences of such measures would be and how it could best mitigate their effects. Khamenei has assured that, if the extended talks fail, “the sky won’t fall to the ground.”

Evidence that the Iranian nuclear program has been militarized does not exist. Yet, despite what Zarif has argued, Khamenei and hard-line Iranian leaders may believe a nuclear weapon would make Iran more secure. At a minimum, they might seek the option to weaponize. Proceeding in that way would be very dangerous for Iran in the long-term. Iranian leaders know that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time. Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term. As greatcharlie.com has cautioned more than once, striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president. To the extent the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of its nuclear activities. A new demand might be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.  If the current global perception that US leaders lack the will and power to act militarily still prevails in 2016, the next administration may not be able to compel outcomes on many issues with diplomacy or threats to use force. Favorable outcomes may result only from robust use of US military force.

An above average understanding of human nature and faith will be required to formulate a final decision on a deal under current circumstances. Clearly, some reasonable doubt exists, at least among Western partners in the P5+1, over whether the terms of a deal would be observed. With circumstances in the world seeming off-balance, George William Rutler, pastor of Saint Michael’s Church in New York City and author of Cloud of Witnesses, recently reminded greatcharlie.com of a live radio message by King George VI on New Year’s 1939, offering reassurance to his people. It would have an important effect on the listening public as they moved closer to war. King George VI acknowledged that there was uncertainty over what the new year would bring. He explained, “If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”   He went on to quote a poem from Minnie Haskins of the London School of Economics entitled “The Gate of the Year” (The Dessert 1908). It seems apropos to present that quote here at the end of 2014, given the situation the leaders of the P5+1 nations will face in 2015 over the nuclear negotiations.

“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year:

‘Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!’

And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way’.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

“Capabilities”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Possibilities”

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

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

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

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

What Has Occurred So Far

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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