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Nuclear chess in Istanbul
NEW YORK - On Saturday, a new round of nuclear chess between Iran and representatives of the "Iran Six" nations will resume in Istanbul after a 13-month hiatus in talks on Tehran's nuclear program.
Iran has responded positively to Russia's and China's request to show flexibility and will come to the meeting with a "positive approach". Tehran's expectations are that this will yield mild progress and set the stage for a follow-up round in Iraq's capital, Baghdad. The other members of the "Iran Six" - also known as the P5+1 - are the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Both Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, and Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, have expressed a desire to see a constructive meeting that will "show the common points between
the two sides and the fuel for amity and cooperation", to paraphrase Salehi.
The talks come after months of increased tensions between Iran and the US, along with other Western countries, which suspect that Tehran's nuclear program might not be as peaceful as it claims. Sanctions have been placed on Iran by the United Nations as well as individual countries, including the US.
On Wednesday, Jalali promised that Iran was "ready to hold progressive and successful talks on cooperation" and added that "the language of threat and pressure against the Iranian nation has never yielded results".
The latter statement was clearly aimed at the US government, which has been making veiled warnings of a military strike by stating that the "window of time for talks is not infinite", to quote US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Adding teeth to the hard-power tactic of making credible military threats for the sake of eliciting favorable concessions from Iran at the negotiation table, the US has announced that it is dispatching a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.
Amid much media specualtion about a US/Israeli plan to escalate their campaign of sabotage inside Iran, Tehran has responded with the news that it has nailed a vast network of Israel-trained operatives in Iran.
"The complicated and months-long measures and moves made by the Iranian intelligence forces to identify the devils led to the discovery of the Zionists' regional command center ... and discovering the identity of the agents active in that command center," a statement from the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said, according to the Fars News Agency.
Complementing Iran's counter-infiltration strategy has been the decision to hit several European countries with an oil embargo, such as Greece and Spain, with Germany and Italy to follow in coming days. Iran has already cut oil exports to France and Britain in response to US-led sanctions imposed on the Iranian oil industry, after the European Union announced plans on January 23 to impose a ban on purchasing oil from Iran.
This is sure to introduce painful pinches in the economically troubled eurozone. At the same time, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has told the public that even without exporting a barrel of oil, Iran has enough reserves to survive on for two to three years.
At the same time, Tehran is pleased with the latest announcements from China, urging all parties gathering in Istanbul to show "flexibility" and issuing strong condemnation of any future attacks on Iran. Moscow has followed suit; Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov admitted that there were differences among the "Iran Six" and once again stated Russia's position that Iran's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rights should be respected. As a signatory to the NPT, Iran has the right to enrich uranium for commercial and research reactors.
All the above means that the US's attempts to portray the Istanbul meeting as a "do or die" opportunity have already backfired, even with the Europeans, in light of a statement by the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, that Europe is pursuing "a sustained and continuing process". In other words, there will be no one-shot deal as hoped for by Washington and Tel Aviv.
Scrutiny of US conditions
Crafting a successful Iran strategy has not been a US strength for several decades and the Barack Obama administration may not be any different.
The White House opted for a poor pre-talk tactic, leaking its assortment of demands from Iran at the Istanbul talks. Per reports in the US media, these are:
The closure of the underground Fordow enrichment facility.
Iran's agreement to stop its 20% uranium enrichment program.
Iran should ship out its bundle of enriched uranium.
In response, Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of Iran's Atomic Organization, has stated that Iran will not pursue 20% enrichment beyond what is needed since that would represent a "waste of resources". Abbassi's statement has been widely interpreted in the Western media as a sign of Tehran's willingness to make some form of compromise that may meet the other side's demands halfway.
Iran has produced enough nuclear fuel to keep the Tehran medical reactor going for five to eight years, well below the 10 to 11 years estimated by some Western nuclear pundits.
It also has plans for a new 10-megawatt (MG) thermal reactor that would require twice as much as the five MG Tehran reactor, and Tehran may well put the issue of outside assistance for building this new power plant on the table.
Given the long record of Western broken promises and reneging on signed nuclear contracts, it is a sure bet that nothing short of firm, iron-clad commitments to provide Iran with the necessary nuclear fuel would convince Tehran to shelf its operating enrichment program.
According to a Tehran foreign policy expert who has spoken to the author on the condition of anonymity, two years ago, Russia and France were willing to provide the fuel rods Iran needed, but the US objected.
"Another problem is the unpredictable US politics," says the Iran expert. "Who knows, if Obama loses [the presidential election in November] and there is a new president at the White House, would he honor the US agreement?".
With all the Western media talk of "trust but verify", in reference to a US nod to Iran's low-enriched uranium program, a main stumbling block is the difficulty in convincing Tehran that future US administrations would be bound by the agreement with Tehran, and this is a promise that no one at the White House or in the US Congress can deliver with a great deal of certainty.
Lest we forget, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the presidency, has repeatedly criticized Obama's Iran policy as weak and branded himself as the president who would stop Iran's nuclear program.
US's extra-legal demands
Although the US's and its Western partners' proliferation concerns are understandable, nonetheless the question of the legality of those demands cannot be shoved under the rug. This is because many other nations enjoy the right to possess a civilian nuclear fuel cycle and are allowed to enrich even at a much higher grade than 20% without impunity. Therefore, one must ask on what legal ground is the West asking Iran to deprive itself of a right enjoyed by others.
As Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed in his book, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, "Many research centers worldwide also use 90% enriched uranium fuel for peaceful purposes, such as to produce medical isotopes ... Roughly a dozen countries have significant nuclear fuel cycle operations."
Iran boasts of having joined this elite "nuclear club" by mastering the full cycle in all its constituent stages of mining, building centrifuges, making "yellow cake" and injecting gas into the centrifuges - an impressive technological achievement that is a source of national pride in Iran.
Iran is looking to a future when it can have a slice of the pie, that is, the global nuclear technology market, nowadays expanded to Iran's rich Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf with zeal and enthusiasm, and with zero concern about military diversion, by Western governments acting as shrewd nuclear salesmen. China and Russia are also making inroads, in light of Turkey's decision to acquire a Chinese-made reactor.
Consequently, it would be an error for the "Iran Six" to simply focus on the potential threat of Iran's nuclear program and to conveniently jettison from the talks Iran's ambitions to be a nuclear power provider in the future, something it will be unable to do if its nuclear wings are clipped.
Yet, as Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, recently reminded his audience in Vienna, Iran has provided for one of the most exhaustive inspection regimes in IAEA history, via more than 4,000 inspector days and about 100 unnanounced inspections, mostly with about two hours notice. In addition, the IAEA has surveillance cameras at the enrichment halls and these provide important tools for constant monitoring of Iran's enrichment activities.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, a top Tehran politician and advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has recently proposed a "permanent IAEA human presence" to monitor the country's entire enrichment program, including the one at Fordow, which is also covered by the terms of the Iran-IAEA safeguard agreement.
Concerning Fordow, legally speaking, simply because it poses a tough military target for destruction it cannot be put on the demand list.
"What the US should do instead of focusing on a specific location, which can be replicated easily by Iran, is to focus on a workable concept within which the issue of Fordow can be discussed, not the other way around," says the Tehran expert mentioned above.
In other words, Tehran believes that the US has put the cart before the horse, thus giving rise to the suspicion that it represents a US/Israeli maneuver to "win one trench at a time, beginning with the most critical ones".
But Fordow is Iran's ace and no one at the Istanbul meeting should be naive enough to expect Iran to dispossess itself of one of its trump cards, or do so without substantial incentives from the other side.
Even if offered lucrative incentives, the problem of trust and fulfillment of the Western promises looms large in Iran, in light of unsavory past experiences, such as the Europeans' failure to deliver the goods promised as a result of the November 2004 so-called Paris Agreement, under which Iran's chief nuclear negotiator announced a voluntary and temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program.
If there is to be an Istanbul Agreement, what Iran wants is firm guarantees that it does not turn into another Paris Agreement.
In his book, ElBaradei confirms that negotiations with Iran in 2005 failed because "the offer prepared by the Europeans proposed few of the benefits discussed at the time of the Paris Agreement".
Finally, with respect to Russia's position at the Istanbul talks, Tehran is convinced that Western plans for Syria, likely to result in a negative geopolitical shift to the detriment of their interests, prevents Moscow from any meaningful bandwagoning with the US on Iran. To do that at this crucial juncture would be purely dysfunctional for Russia's national security interests.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).