Talking With Tehran Robert Dreyfuss

On October 1 in Geneva, in a little more than seven hours, diplomats from the major world powers and Iran made a series of breakthroughs in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, raising hopes for a peaceful resolution. Not only did top US diplomats sit down for the first time in decades for an extended official one-on-one with a high-level Iranian delegation; Iran agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect a disputed, previously covert facility intended for uranium enrichment. More important, Iran agreed to ship the bulk of its existing stock of fuel-grade, low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France, where it will be processed into fuel rods to be used for medical purposes at a reactor in Iran. In one stroke, Iran promised to divest itself of uranium that critics, including US and Israeli hawks, said was enough raw material to make a nuclear bomb if processed into highly enriched uranium (HEU).

It was a stunning turn of events. Those who said that negotiating with Iran was a fool’s errand, including editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard and National Review, looked like fools themselves. For President Obama, who’d made talking with Iran a central plank in his 2008 campaign and who’d reached out to Iran in speeches, in a videotaped New Year’s message and in two letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it was an important accomplishment. And it was a sign that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric–on the eve of the talks he had delivered a bombastic speech at the United Nations and spewed more vitriol by once again calling the Nazi mass murder of Jews a myth–might be designed to provide political cover at home for a grand bargain with the Great Satan.

Still, it’s early in the talks–and as Ali Akbar Rezaie, director general for North and Central America at Iran’s foreign ministry, told me in June, it isn’t clear whether the new US administration is willing to make a fundamental break with the stance of George W. Bush. “President Obama didn’t say that we have the right to enrich uranium. But he also didn’t say that we do not have that right. It is not clear to us whether he omitted that point intentionally or not,” Rezaie said, after analyzing Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo, in which the American president outlined his intention to rebuild US relations with the Muslim world. “We do not know what is in his mind,” said Rezaie.

That’s still the relevant question: what, exactly, is the US strategy? During the Bush era, Washington insisted that Tehran would not be allowed to operate a uranium enrichment program, even one dedicated to peaceful purposes. In June, in a statement seen in Iran as a hopeful sign that US policy was changing, Senator John Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Financial Times, “The Bush administration’s [insistence on] no enrichment was ridiculous because Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. They have a right to peaceful use of nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.”

If the United States insists that Iran dismantle its enrichment program, the newly opened talks are virtually certain to fail. That, in turn, would leave the administration facing an unpalatable choice between “crippling sanctions,” in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and military confrontation. On the other hand, if Obama acknowledges Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy in exchange for stringent international supervision and a rigorous IAEA inspection regime, an agreement is possible.

To be sure, even if the new administration is willing to allow Iran to continue enrichment, talks are likely to be very difficult, long and complicated, and hardliners in both the United States and Iran can be expected to do their utmost to prevent a rapprochement. In the wake of the brutal postelection crackdown by Iranian security forces against Ahmadinejad’s reformist, centrist and pragmatist opposition, who have mobilized millions of protesters to challenge what was widely seen as a fraudulent vote, the militant commanders of the ascendant Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)–and perhaps Ahmadinejad himself–may prefer defiance and confrontation with the West, rather than accommodation, as a means of shoring up domestic support. And in the United States, hawks, neoconservatives and supporters of the Israeli far right, including lobbyists from AIPAC–the American Israel Public Affairs Committee–have characterized the talks as a Munich-like appeasement policy, and are now trumpeting an unreleased, and disputed, IAEA report alleging that Iran is capable of making a bomb and has carried out extensive research and testing of bomb-delivery vehicles. These groups are out in full force demanding that Obama set a short deadline for Iran to capitulate before moving to confrontation, a cutoff of Iran’s gasoline and diesel fuel imports, and a policy of regime change, with all-out war on their list of options.

Among the opponents of sanctions are Russia, which has ever closer economic ties with Iran, and China, which buys one-seventh of its crude energy needs from Iran and, in return, is supplying Iran with an increasing share of its gasoline imports. Also against sanctions are leaders of the very opposition movement in Iran that proponents of sanctions in the United States say they want to help. “Sanctions would not affect the government but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers,” said Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in June.

Before the talks began, Washington and Tehran had staked out positions that seemed to rule out compromise. Said Ahmadinejad, “If you are talking about the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, this will never be closed down here in Iran.” In a dramatic statement after he announced the discovery of Iran’s covert enrichment facility, Obama said, “Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on October 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice [to give up their program or] continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation.”

But experts say most of Obama’s negotiating team understand that the United States cannot insist on zero-enrichment. Asked before the talks whether US negotiators realize that zero-enrichment is not an option, Thomas Pickering, a former US diplomat who’s taken part in a series of unofficial discussions with senior Iranian officials, said, “Sure they do. We’ve talked to them.” Pickering and other experts have proposed a conciliatory plan that allows Iran to manage a uranium enrichment program on its soil. Obama, he says, may be reluctant to tip his hand at the start of negotiations, but he thinks Obama’s team gets it. “There are folks inside the administration who have looked at our idea,” he said.

But getting the idea is half the battle. The other half is having the patience for what is expected to be a bumpy road ahead. Above all, according to analysts such as Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, Obama will have to resist those clamoring for a quick deadline for the talks and sanctions by the end of 2009. Echoing Pickering, Parsi says, “The administration has concluded privately that they are not going to get zero-enrichment.” If Obama wants to convince Iran to agree to robust oversight of its program, he’ll have to resist advisers who argue that Iran’s nuclear effort is a ticking time bomb.

Bolstering the notion that Washington has plenty of time to work out a deal, the US intelligence community says Iran is years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. In November 2007 a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003 and added that by mid-2007, it had not restarted it. Earlier this year Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair released an estimate by the State Department’s intelligence bureau concluding that it is “unlikely that Iran will have the technical ability to produce [bomb-quality] HEU before 2013.” And according to Newsweek, this fall US intelligence agencies told the White House that Iran “has not resumed nuclear-weapons development work.” Though agencies in Israel and Germany have reportedly concluded that Iran is somewhat closer to development of a bomb, Meir Dagan, the director of Israel’s Mossad, admitted that even if Iran faced no technical difficulties, it probably would not be able to develop and deploy a weapon until 2014, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

The September revelation of Iran’s secret enrichment facility sparked a flurry of accusations that Tehran is considering a covert weapons program; perhaps the site–in a hardened bunker on land controlled by the IRGC–is a sign of exactly that. Obama was apparently convinced, saying, “The size and type of the facility is inconsistent with that of a peaceful facility.” But by all accounts, it is designed to house perhaps 3,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment, a capability that Iran already has, and it is not a weapons plant. In addition, it is not yet operational and no uranium has been introduced into it. Iran’s decision to allow inspectors to visit the site is a sign that it may be willing to accept more stringent IAEA oversight–especially if Tehran concludes that it risks losing the support it gets from key allies and trading partners like Russia and China.

The fact is, Iran possesses only a limited quantity of low-enriched uranium, which is produced by the 8,000 or so centrifuges at its Natanz plant. To build a bomb, Iran would have to further enrich its LEU to bomb-grade HEU, a technically complex task that would require it to divert uranium into a weapons program, somehow evading the gaze of IAEA inspectors. It also needs the know-how to build an explosive device and develop a warhead, as well as the missiles or other vehicles that can carry it. Each of these steps is difficult, leading most observers to conclude that Iran is at least several years away from a military nuclear capability–assuming it wants one.

And there’s the rub. Just as Rezaie can’t read Obama’s mind, the United States doesn’t know the intentions of the Iranians. There’s little doubt, except among the terminally naïve and a coterie of apologists for Iran, that some in Iran’s national security apparatus are determined to make Iran into a nuclear-armed power. For years, Iran has been surrounded by countries with nuclear arsenals, including Israel, Pakistan, India and Russia, along with a heavy US presence in the region and, until recently, Iraq, a hostile neighbor that aspired to have the bomb. But it isn’t clear whether Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the IRGC view Iran’s nuclear program as the path toward the bomb, as a bargaining chip to trade for other goals that Iran wants to achieve or simply as its legitimate right as a signatory to the NPT. If Iran really wants a bomb–or, alternately, “breakout capability,” which would enable it to build one in short order–it’s likely to get it. None of the sanctions the United States and its allies can muster have the power to compel Iran to change course. Russia and China are almost certain to oppose draconian sanctions, and in three rounds of sanctions so far, the UN Security Council has imposed only limited and highly targeted ones. And military action, either by the United States or Israel, won’t do more than delay Iran’s program. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in late September: “The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time…. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened.” So if the talks don’t succeed, Washington is going to have to think about containing and deterring a nuclear Iran.

If Obama’s diplomats offer a proposal that acknowledges Iran’s enrichment rights, they would present Iran with a critical choice. If Tehran refuses such a deal, it will be universally accepted around the world–including by Iran’s anti-Ahmadinejad opposition–that Iran does indeed see its enrichment program as a steppingstone to the bomb. If Iran accepts it (after the requisite amount of huffing and puffing), not only will it get the current economic sanctions lifted but probably it will get access to a wide range of Western nuclear technology. According to numerous interviews with Iranian analysts and politicians in Tehran in June, that is the preferred outcome for many Iranian conservatives as well as leaders of the reformist-centrist coalition and the business class.

There is, indeed, a broad constituency in Iran’s establishment for a deal. According to Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University who helped assemble a group of Khamenei’s advisers to analyze Obama’s Cairo speech, Khamenei “does not really want the bomb.” Instead, Hadian says, the Leader sees the program as something to trade. “It is a bargaining chip, and if so, why not make a deal?” He said that if an accord is reached, Iran would probably voluntarily reduce the number of its centrifuges from 8,000 to fewer than 1,000 and place them under a vigorous international inspection system. Hadian added that several of Ahmadinejad’s top aides, such as Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, his chief adviser, and Hamid Mowlana, have taken part in off-the-record discussions with former US officials like Pickering and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary and a key Obama adviser. Such talks have taken place over seven years under the umbrella of the United Nations Association of the USA and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Critics often argue that Iran, awash in oil and natural gas, doesn’t need nuclear energy. But that overlooks the fact that Iran earns nearly all its foreign exchange from exporting oil and gas. If it can develop nuclear energy for domestic electricity needs, that will allow it to export more oil and gas and thus boost earnings. That’s the case made by Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a former mayor of Tehran and a leading reformist, who was a top aide to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi in the June election. The current enrichment program, Karbaschi told me in an interview in Tehran, is far less important than Iran’s access to up-to-date technology, even if that technology has to come from the West. The Bushehr plant, he said, is rooted in older-generation Russian-based technology, while Iran’s plan is to construct a series of at least eight to ten ultramodern power plants with a total capacity of 25,000 megawatts by the year 2025.

Between now and then, Iran will have little or no need for low-enriched uranium for power plants, so an arrangement to cut back its uranium processing would be useful for both sides in the negotiations. “This should be the main goal,” Karbaschi told me. “Our enrichment program should be focused on that long-range goal.” In other words, he suggested, there is no need for an intensive program to produce LEU until there is a demand for it in a system of power plants.

Mohammed Atrianfar, a top adviser to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and a member of Rafsanjani’s Executives of Construction Party, who was arrested in the wake of the June election crisis, told me: “There is an agreement between reformists and fundamentalists about nuclear energy. Should we have the right to utilize nuclear power? Everyone accepts this right. We believe that we can have [civilian] nuclear power when the world believes us and accepts us into their club. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad’s policies are creating tension and problems with the rest of the world.”

Many analysts believe it is exactly that tension that strengthens Ahmadinejad’s position at home. When US-Iran tensions heat up, and when Israel threatens to bomb Iran, Iran’s hardliners use that as an excuse for intensified repression against the opposition. If Obama offers a fair deal in the context of the Geneva talks, it will undercut Ahmadinejad’s bluster and help create space for the opposition to regain the momentum it had going into the June 12 election.

Many influential Iranians have been impressed by Obama’s outreach to Iran, but they insist that it is critical for the United States to do something concrete to convince Tehran of Obama’s sincerity. One who makes that argument is Sadegh Kharazi, a former ambassador to France, who is close to Khamenei and whose uncle, Kamal Kharazi, is a former foreign minister who leads a well-connected think tank in Tehran. In 2003 Sadegh Kharazi was a key player in the “grand bargain” offer to resolve outstanding differences between the United States and Iran. “We do not have any problem with international supervision of our nuclear program,” says Kharazi. “But we need a gesture from the United States. If Obama makes such a gesture, then all doors will open.”

Obama will be making a mistake if he calibrates his negotiating strategy to appeal to this or that faction of Iran’s ruling elite. “Frankly, we don’t know enough about how Iran works to adopt that kind of approach,” says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But by making a proposal for a fair deal allowing Iranian enrichment, Obama can test the Iranian political system. John Limbert, a former US diplomat and one of those held hostage during Iran’s 1979-81 seizure of the US Embassy, says the priority for the Tehran regime is political survival, and its response to offers from the West will revolve around the question, “Does engagement with the United States help my survival in power or does it open the floodgates to change that could sweep me out of power?” Across a broad spectrum in Iran, there is a consensus in favor of better relations with the West. What’s not clear is whether Iran’s leaders are ready to play to that constituency.

James Dobbins, a veteran US diplomat and negotiator who is now a director at the RAND Corporation, says, “It’s hard to know where the Iranians will take this. Perhaps the Iranians themselves don’t know.” But, he adds, “negotiations almost never end with either side achieving their objective. And they usually end with both sides being able to claim that they’ve achieved their objectives.”