The Next Rounds of Nuclear Talks with Iran and Their Strategic Ramifications

by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett (source: Going to Tehran)
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Iranian President Rowhani meets with diplomat Zarif


It seems ever clearer that Iran and the P5+1 are headed toward new rounds of nuclear talks this fall.  For those thinking through the prospects for these negotiations and their larger strategic ramifications, a couple of recent interviews published in Iran Review provide important input. 

One is with the Islamic Republic’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.  To read the whole interview (which we very much recommend), “It’s US Turn to Show Political Resolve,” see here.  Below, we highlight some exchanges that bear directly on Tehran’s approach to nuclear diplomacy and to interaction with the United States.        

As the Islamic Republic’s new President, Hassan Rohani, has suggested and as Dr. Zarif acutely understands, there is a deal to be had on the nuclear issue—a deal grounded in international law as embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  In this deal, the United States and its Western partners would recognize Iran’s right—as a sovereign state and as a party to the NPT—to enrich uranium under international safeguards, in return for greater transparency regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities

We anticipate that the thrust of Iranian diplomacy in the upcoming rounds of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 will be to make it plain for all the world to see that Tehran is fully prepared to solve the nuclear issue on this basis, putting the onus on those unwilling to accept such a solution—the United States and its British and French hangers-on—why they won’t accept an approach grounded in reason and international legitimacy.  In this light, consider the following exchanges from Dr. Zarif’s interview with Iran Review (emphases added): 

Q:  In his first press conference after the inauguration ceremony, President [Hassan Rouhani] said resumption of the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group will be one of his priorities. Do you have any new plan or proposal for the resumption of these talks?

A:  There have been discussions inside the administration with Mr. President about how to follow up on the country’s nuclear rights and reduce unjust sanctions which have been imposed against the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The basis for our work is to insist on the rights of Iran and do away with logical concerns of the international communityAs the Supreme Leader and the President have emphasized, it would be easy to achieve this goal provided that the main goal of all involved parties is to find a solution to the nuclear issue.  We believe that finding a solution to the nuclear issue needs political will.  On the side of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the election of Dr. Rouhani—in view of his past track records with regard to this case—proves that the Iranian people are willing for the nuclear issue to reach a final solution with power and strength and within a reasonable time frame.  We wish the opposite side will also have the necessary political resolve for the resolution of the nuclear issue.  In that case, we would have no concern with respect to assuring the world about the peaceful nature of our nuclear energy program because according to the fatwa [religious decree] issued by the Supreme Leader and based on the strategic needs of Iran, nuclear weapons have no place in our national security doctrine and are even detrimental to our national security…

The main issue is whether the necessary political resolve [among member states of the P5+1 group] will be present and whether the US government is ready to stand in the face of the interest groups and prevent the whole case to be steered by radical groups?

Q:  Will you agree to engage in bilateral direct talks with the United States if such a thing is proposed to you on the sidelines of such international meetings as the United Nations General Assembly sessions or negotiations with the P5+1 group?

A:  The Supreme Leader has made his opinion about [direct] talks [with the United States] public time and time again.  Negotiations, per se, is not an issue here, but the main issue is what topics are going to be discussed in such negotiations and how much political determination exists in the opposite side for the settlement of the existing problemsThe main issue is will such a political resolve take shape and whether the US administration is actually ready to stand up to radical groups and prevent such radical groups from setting the course of the whole issue?  This will be in fact a litmus test for the government of the United States to show its readiness to play a more serious role and pave the way for the achievement of a final solution

In my opinion, political will is the precondition for the improvement of relations.  The methods [to do this] can be discussed, but what is necessary is the emergence of such a political will and its manifestation in practice.  In that case, various methods can be used to achieve goals.  At a time that it is not still clear whether such a political will exists or not, the efficiency of using new methods cannot be clearly decided.  In Iran, the election of Mr. Rouhani shows that people have made up their mind to engage in constructive interaction with the world.  Mr. Rouhani, on the other hand, has shown through his words and deeds that he has the necessary political will to do this.  Now, the important requisite is for such a political will to take shape on the other side of the equation.”

Of course, the Obama administration claims that it has all the political will in the world to reach a deal if Iran is “serious” in its approach to negotiations.  But this formulation obscures, deliberately, that the litmus test of “seriousness” on the Iranian nuclear issue is openness to a deal based on the NPT, including explicit recognition of Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment.  And by this litmus test, the Islamic Republic is absolutely serious about reaching an agreement; the United States and its European partners are not

Interestingly, in assessing the prospects for diplomatic progress, Dr. Zarif draws a distinction between “the U.S. government” and “interest groups” and “radical groups” out to derail possibilities for success—a distinction he amplifies in this exchange: 

Q:  We have witnessed the emergence of anti-Iran currents at both the US Congress and Senate concurrent with the election and inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration.  On the other hand, Israelis claim in their propaganda campaigns that the administration in Iran has changed, but policies are the same as before.  What is your plan to offset such radical moves?

A:  The warmongering elements are apparently concerned about reduction of problems and are clearly doing their utmost to resort to any pretext in order to intensify the crisis with Iran.  The important point is that decision-makers in Europe and the United States should come to grips with the real nature and goals of warmongers.  On this basis, they should not allow a warmongering and tension-seeking agenda—which aims to put unjust pressures which have no place in international law on the Iranian nation—to prevent them from taking advantage of opportunities which can be used to find solutions to existing problems.”   

While we hope that Dr. Zarif’s scenario of U.S. decision-makers resisting “a warmongering and tension-seeking agenda” to find real solutions on the nuclear issue is realized, we are pessimistic about the chances for this—for, in our view, U.S. decision-makers have internalized warmongering and tension-seeking in their own strategic agendas.  And, as Hillary pointed out on Russia Today just a couple of days after Rohani’s inauguration, see here, “the Iranians are coming into this with open eyes, understanding the dynamics of the U.S. system”; as we have pointed out before, there is mounting skepticism in Tehran that the United States, even during the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama, is prepared to deal with the Islamic Republic as an enduring and legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests

On why such skepticism is well warranted, some exchanges from Iran Review’s recent interview with Lawrence Wilkerson, retired U.S. Army Colonel and former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, see here, are illuminating (again, emphases added):    

Q:  In his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush talked of an Axis of Evil which stretches from North Korea to the Middle East and encompasses Iran and Iraq.  He called Iran a threat to the international peace and security.  This is while Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami who was a reformist figure with a reconciliatory foreign policy which was based on détente and easing the tensions with the West had cooperated with the United States and the EU on a number of issues and his promotion of the idea of the Dialogue of Civilization was embraced internationally.  Don’t you think this branding Iran a member of the so-called Axis of Evil was a strategic mistake by President Bush?

A:  This was a strategic mistake if the strategic objective one imagines the U.S. pursuing is advancing the fundamental interests of the U.S., its allies, and friends in the world and, importantly, if one’s overall objective is world peace.  It was not a strategic mistake if the strategic objectives of the U.S. were turmoil in western Asia, support of Israel’s continued aggression, increased U.S. control over the region’s oil reserves, and a state of perpetual warTwo of the three members of the Axis harbor close to a quarter of world oil reserves; Israel’s aggression has not ceased—indeed, it has increased; and the region is in turmoilThe U.S. is in an interminable state of warThe Axis of Evil speech helped to achieve these results.  Some people in the U.S.—and Israel—wanted these results.

Q:  So you think certain extremist elements in Washington and Tel Aviv benefit from confrontation between Iran and the United States.  What about the state of bilateral relations between the two nations under President Khatami?  He had signaled his willingness to engage in bilateral negotiations with the United States when he was in power.  He was one of the first world leaders who sent a message of condolences to the U.S. government following the 9/11 tragedy.  However, it seems that President Bush was not willing to react positively as he turned down Khatami’s message.  Can we consider President Bush guilty for the failure of the attempts to bring Iran and the United States to the negotiation table?

A:  President George W. Bush was not sufficiently knowledgeable to have contrived to produce failed diplomatic circumstances with Iran.  His Vice President, Richard Cheney, worked to produce this failure.  Cheney maintained an adamant policy that there would be no negotiations with Iran.  He sold this policy to the unwitting President. Later, in 2003, when there was again an opportunity to start meaningful negotiations with Tehran, Cheney had captured the entire government with his views.  Even Secretary of State Colin Powell opposed the Iranian initiative in 2003.  See my answer to your question number one:  Cheney is one of those who wanted the results I have described in my answer.

Q:  Prominent investigative journalists and political commentators Seymour Hersh and Glenn Greenwald have released reliable evidence that CIA, with the help of Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been providing arms, ammunitions and financial support to the exiled anti-Iranian terrorist cult Mujahedin-e-Khalq in the past 10 years in a bid to impose political pressure on Iran.  Do you confirm these clandestine and underground ties?

A:  I cannot confirm these ties because I have not had an active security clearance since 2005.  However, if I were a betting man, I would bet that what Hersh and Greenwald asserted is correct.

Q:  Let’s get to the next question.  The U.S. played its last card in 2012 by removing the name of MKO from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.  What’s your viewpoint on this controversial decision?  Isn’t it a dualistic and somewhat hypocritical approach toward terrorism and human rights?

A:  The U.S. move to delist the MEK was a very hypocritical move—and even a very stupid moveIt was based on a passionate but irrational dependence on Israel, large amounts of money changing hands, and an utterly unreasonable desire to punish Iran through any means possible.  The MEK are bloodthirsty terrorists.  But the U.S. harbors Luis Posada Carrilles in its very midst, the terrorist responsible for bringing down a Cuban airliner in 1976 and killing everyone on board, and for bombing Havana hotels in 1997.  So supporting terrorists is not a new policy for the U.S.

On the basis of his analysis, Larry predicts that “because of Iranian intransigence and U.S. obduracy—and, with regard to President Obama, a decided lack of political and moral courage—no meaningful success will be achieved” in the upcoming nuclear talks between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic.  While it is not clear to us how—or why—the Islamic Republic would be less “intransigent” in defending its core nuclear rights, we agree with Larry that U.S. obduracy and President Obama’s “decided lack of political and moral courage” are likely to block “meaningful success” in the upcoming nuclear talks

If Dr. Zarif and his colleagues can drive home that Iran is serious about reaching an agreement grounded in international law as embodied in the NPT, then the next rounds of negotiations could well be a clarifying moment for everyone as to just who is obstructing diplomatic progressThis approach could also clarify, for Iranians and for other countries, Washington’s real intentions toward the Islamic Republic.  As Hillary pointed out on Russia Today, “the strategy here is to try to ease some of the pressure on other countries—on Germany, on England, on Russia, on China—to ease some of the pressure on some of these other countries in dealing with Iran.” 

For its part, the Obama administration is hoping to use the talks as they have used previous rounds of negotiations—as an occasion to reiterate offers that Iranians could not possibly accept, then cite their “intransigence” to urge the United Nations Security Council to impose more sanctions on the Islamic Republic.  We are skeptical that this established American approach will work this time around. 

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