Despite outrage from Israel, loud complaints from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies, and bitter skepticism from members of Congress, it appears as if the United States and Iran, backed by the P5+1 world powers, are on the verge of an historic first step toward a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. That the interim accord wasn’t reached during the round of talks that concluded on Saturday doesn’t make that accord less likely, perhaps as soon as the talks resume later this month.
There were, it appears, a number of stumbling blocks that prevented the preliminary accord from being reached, including disagreements over how to finesse the dispute over Iran’s “right to enrich” under the Nonproliferation Treaty’s opaque language, what to do about Iran’s heavy water reactor now under construction in Arak, and how to handle the disposition of Iran’s stockpile of medium-enriched uranium at 20 percent purity.
But, the outlines of an accord have been clear for quite some time, only waiting for the United States and Iran to move forward, and according to The Wall Street Journal—in an important background piece by Jay Solomon and Carol Lee—the United States has been quietly talking to and meeting with Iranians for a long time to explore whether Tehran was amenable to talks.
It’s significant that not only Western media but Iranian newspapers and news agencies, too, are predicting an accord. Why is that important? Because the new government of President Hassan Rouhani has to prepare Iranian public opinion to expect a deal with the country that Iran has long referred to, sometimes half-seriously and sometimes not, as the “Great Satan.” A report by the usually hardline Fars News Agency says that the Geneva talks could be “the first confidence-building step towards ending over a decade-long nuclear standoff between Iran and the West.” And the Tehran Times, an English-language daily paper in Tehran, Iran’s capital, writes, “Negotiators from Iran and world powers were about to draft a nuclear agreement on Friday.” The Tehran Times continued to give the news from Geneva a positive spin since the talks were suspended on Saturday, positively quoting Secretary of State Kerry’s comments and trumpeting an agreement, in parallel talks, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over a “road map” on inspecting Iran’s facilities.
That agreement didn’t quite happen, of course, in part apparently because France—seeking to curry favor with Israel and the arms-purchasing big spenders of the gulf states—raised last-minute objections (drawing sharp criticism from Iran’s Supreme Leader) and in part because Iran’s negotiators wanted to run the details by the powers-that-be at home.
But the reports from Iran’s media about the talks in Geneva are crucial because, just as President Obama has to face down hardliners among Congress, neoconservatives,= and the Israel lobby, Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have their own hawks to deal with, including a relatively small contingent that rallied in front of the old American embassy in Tehran chanting “Death to America!”
In a hilarious comment, Zarif dismissed the Iranian hawks as Iran’s own, home-grown version of a tea party. He said: “You said we don’t have a tea party? I wish you were right.” Added the Christian Science Monitor:
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, a hard-line group of Iranians have scored points against political rivals, sometimes putting at risk broader national policies for their gain. In some Iranians’ eyes, that makes them a perfect comparison for the American “tea party” that recently spearheaded a US government shutdown.
And the paper quoted a US official who refused to be alarmed about Iran’s anti-American hawks: “Iran is a culture with many elements in it, as is ours. We have hardliners in our culture—probably not hardliners like Iranian hardliners, but a different variety.”
The deal that almost happened in Geneva would have given Iran access to some of the $50 billion in oil revenue that it has abroad but has been unable to repatriate because of banking and finance sanctions and eased pressure from the United States and the West on Iran’s oil customers (read: China, Japan, India), in exchange for Iran’s agreement to freeze some of its nuclear work, perhaps for six months. It is designed to create a climate in which a final deal could be reached with six months.
The New York Times, in its report the other day, asked a series of questions about how to move an accord forward:
So the rigor of the initial understanding will turn on an array of thorny questions. How many and what type of centrifuges would Iran be able to retain to enrich uranium? Would Iran be barred from making additional centrifuges even if it did not immediately use them?
What would happen to the stockpile of uranium Iran has already enriched to 20 percent, which can be rapidly enriched to weapons grade? What sort of verification would be provided for?
Would Tehran be willing to suspend construction of a heavy-water plant that would produce plutonium? Such a step is important, experts say, because a military strike against the plant, should it come to that, could result in the dispersal of highly radioactive material if the plant was functioning.
All good questions—but the central question is: Will the United States accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed? Most countries, including Iran, say that the NPT certifies that right, but the United States formally disagrees. Yet Iran says that retaining that right is a red line that it won’t cross.
Indeed, in a speech to parliament yesterday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made explicit Iran’s commitment to retaining its NPT-guaranteed right-to-enrich:
“We have said to the negotiating sides that we will not answer to any threat, sanction, humiliation or discrimination. The Islamic Republic has not and will not bow its head to threats from any authority.… For us there are red lines that cannot be crossed. National interests are our red lines that include our rights under the framework of international regulations and enrichment in Iran.”
American diplomats, who explicitly and repeatedly have stated that Iran does not have a right to enrich, believe that they can finesse that gap by weasel-worded diplomatic language. The key to that maneuver will be an explicit acceptance by the United States that Iran can continue to enrich uranium up to the low-enriched 3.5 percent level.
As Roger Cohen writes in today’s New York Times:
According to people who have spent many hours with them, Rouhani and Zarif are prepared to limit enrichment to 3.5 percent (well short of weapons grade); curtail the number of centrifuges and facilities and place them under enhanced international monitoring; deal with Iran’s 20 percent enriched stockpile by converting it under international supervision into fuel pads for the Tehran research reactor; and find a solution on the heavy-water plant it is building at Arak that could produce plutonium. In return, as these steps are progressively taken, they want sanctions relief and recognition of the right to enrichment.
Robert Scheer looks at John Kerry's homage last week to the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian regimes.