Iranian strategy feeds off perceived western weakness
By Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
A further round of the nuclear talks between Iran and the West is supposed to be held in mid-May, apparently in New York (at the expert level) and Vienna (at the senior level on May 13). An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman disclosed that Iran and the P5+1 will start drafting the final nuclear agreement in Vienna, adding that guidelines for such agreements had already been set. In recent weeks, not to Iran’s displeasure, the issue has been pushed to the margins of the international agenda by the ongoing crisis over Ukraine between Russia (a main participant in the nuclear talks) and the West. At the same time, many questions still remain regarding Iran’s commitments under the Geneva agreement and to what extent it has honored them.
Khamenei Sees the Nuclear Program as Strengthening National Security
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who met early in April 2014 with employees of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) in connection with National Nuclear Technology Day (April 9), continues to encourage the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, he is at the forefront of pessimism about the chances of reaching a comprehensive agreement even as he continues to the give the talks a green light. Khamenei told the AEOI employees that whatever the circumstances, and despite the ongoing talks, no activity in the R&D field would be stopped or slowed down, and that the main advantage of Iran’s nuclear program is the “strengthening of national security.”
Khamenei again asserted that the West is using the nuclear issue to damage Iran’s international status, and said that was why “the government’s new policy of holding nuclear talks was adopted…so as to improve the international atmosphere regarding Iran and so that the other side would lose momentum and international public opinion would see the truth.” Khamenei also made clear, however, that the talks do not entail any Iranian retreat from scientific and nuclear progress, and called on the negotiating team to emphasize the ongoing R&D activity to the other side since “it is impossible to stop Iran’s nuclear achievements….No one has the right to negotiate about this and no one will do so.”
Khamenei stressed further that the negotiating team must not consent to any “forced statements” and that Iran’s relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should be “standard and non-extraordinary.” After the meeting Asghar Zare’an, the AEOI’s deputy security director, said that Khamenei “is not permitting the AEOI to stop any element of the nuclear program in light of the great debt we owe to the martyrs and especially those in the nuclear field.”
President Rouhani also addressed the nuclear issue in a speech for National Army Day (April 18), during which he harshly criticized the Revolutionary Guard Corps (which made sure to get him back) for its involvement in the political arena. He had high praise for Iran’s international diplomatic power in the context of the nuclear talks. This diplomatic power, he said, stems from the popular will of the electorate, the instructions of the Supreme Leader, and the authority of the armed forces and the Iranian army. Rouhani asserted that the security forces and the courageous Iranian people are what enable the negotiating team and the other diplomatic actors to protect Iran’s interests effectively.
Meanwhile, Iran has been signaling to the West through statements and concrete steps that it is serious about reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Some of these statements and measures have stirred bitter controversy between the different power centers in Iran. Associates of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad keep accusing the current government of weakening Iran’s nuclear program in the context of the talks with the West.
The head of the AEOI, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran had completed the process of diluting its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, converting 103 kilograms of it to the 5 percent enriched level. Salehi added that Iran intended to retain twenty thousand centrifuges for a period of five years to meet the nuclear fuel consumption requirements of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which is estimated at 30 tons. Iran, he said, had presented its plans regarding uranium enrichment to its partners in the talks, plans that include increasing the number of centrifuges from eighteen thousand to twenty thousand so as to supply the Bushehr reactor.
At the same time, it was reported that beyond the requirement to dilute its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, Iran has begun, in line with its commitment in the Geneva agreement, to convert portions of its 5 percent enriched uranium UF6 (which it produced since the signing of the nuclear deal on November 24, 2013) to oxide (UO2). As for the Arak heavy water production plant, Salehi said no substantial changes would be made in the reactor at Arak, but its capacity to produce plutonium would be reduced to one-fifth, and therefore the dispute on this issue between Iran and the West “has virtually been resolved.”
Salehi added that Iran “has no problem” with the IAEA visiting its Parchin military site if the organization offers a
From 5 to 20 Percent Enrichment in Two Weeks
Following reports in the local and international media about the dilution of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium to 5 percent, AEOI spokesman Bahruz Kamalvandi emphasized that Iran had not yet begun the process of converting its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to uranium oxide, or the 5 percent enriched uranium that had accumulated since the signing of the agreement, since the building of the facilities required for this process was not yet complete.
He said Iran would honor its commitments by July 20, 2014, the prospective date for the signing of the comprehensive agreement. Kamalvandi made clear that oxidizing 5 percent enriched uranium does not mean destroying all the uranium Iran possesses and that Iran would not lose its uranium stockpiles: “We can convert the uranium enriched to 5 percent to a level of 20 percent in two or three weeks if we need to.”
Iran’s Rights Enshrined in the NPT
Spokesmen for the Iranian negotiating team continue to emphasize, amid growing domestic criticism, that Iran will keep insisting on its right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program and will not submit to the pressures of its negotiating partners. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, a senior member of the negotiating team, noted during a debriefing with members of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee that Iran has attained scientific and technological capabilities in the nuclear domain, and is engaging in the negotiations as “a power with peaceful nuclear capabilities.” He added that the comprehensive agreement would guarantee Iran’s right to nuclear technology in line with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Mohammad Ali Esfanani, spokesman for the Majlis Legal and Judicial Commission, claimed that the Geneva agreement actually guarantees Iran’s right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The West, he said, will not be able to manipulate the wording of the comprehensive agreement to undermine Iran’s rights as enshrined in the NPT. “Iranian nuclear activities are under the NPT rules and regulations and Tehran will not accept any demand beyond it.”
Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said during the council’s first session of the year that
He said that the Iranian negotiating team needs support from all political parties in the country to help the nuclear negotiations yield fruit.
The Talks Reveal the True Face of the West
With the new round of talks approaching, Friday sermonizers have been focusing on the issue and stressing Khamenei’s firm stance and pessimistic view of the nuclear negotiations’ likely results. For example, Hojjat Al-Islam Mehdi Mohammad Saeedi, a Friday preacher in Qom (Iran’s religious-political center), asserted:
Meanwhile, conservative elements continue to accuse the Rouhani government of lack of transparency regarding the negotiations and “silencing” of critics of the conduct of the talks. Majlis member Seyyed Mahmud Nabavian said that “most unfortunately and despite its promises to protect freedom of speech, the government is not allowing its critics to express themselves,” and complained that the Supreme National Security Council had filed charges against him for criticizing the Geneva agreement. He added that before publicly criticizing it, he had conveyed his text to Araqchi and requested his response.
Mohammad Reza Mohseni-Sani, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said the U.S. decision to deny a visa to Iran’s appointed ambassador to the United Nations would likely have a negative effect on the nuclear talks:
The Iranian lawmaker further said Obama’s recent move signified the fact that “the wall of distrust” between the two countries has grown taller.
Situation Assessment: Western Weakness
Although not much time remains until July, the talks’ next round is not expected to produce a breakthrough toward a comprehensive agreement. Now that the talks have slipped from the international agenda, there is even less warrant for optimism. This situation, however, further highlights Iran’s internal tensions between the Rouhani government and the conservative elements, led by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, over the conduct of the negotiations. At the same time, it is clear that both sides want to reach the goal of a military-nuclear threshold capability.
Khamenei remains in the sidelines, trying to balance the internal power equation regarding the nuclear issue, which also has implications for Iran’s economy. Maneuvering carefully between the camps, his statements indicate that, on the one hand, he favors the talks as a means of improving Iran’s international status (like Rouhani) while, on the other, he is deeply pessimistic about their chances of success, given the “Satanic” nature of the United States. His instructions to the negotiating team reflect his awareness of the critics’ demands.
Iran is constantly updating its situation assessment regarding the talks, taking account of the domestic tensions but mainly focusing on regional and international developments and the prospects and risks they pose for Iran. In the regional arena, as statements by senior figures make clear, Iran sees its main ally, Bashar Assad, and main proxy, Hizbullah, as succeeding in the Syrian arena despite Hizbullah’s casualties and the impact on Lebanon. Iran is also well aware that U.S.-Saudi tensions are mounting and that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has apparently run aground, while the actors subject to Iran’s influence – Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – are gaining strength.
In the international arena, Iran sees ongoing weakness and lack of vision in U.S. and European policy toward the Ukrainian crisis as well as the Palestinian issue, and the ignoring of the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The situation assessment, then, is basically one of Western weakness. This will likely lead Iran to toughen its position in the nuclear talks, or even derail them if it sees little chance of incurring damage for doing so. The ongoing erosion of the sanctions regime and a sense of gaining the upper hand are factors impelling Iran in that direction. The weekly bulletin of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, in analyzing the nuclear talks so far, asserted that the United States and the West face daunting problems in the regional and international arenas, economic challenges at home, growing competition among the powers, and no longer have unlimited options as they once did. Over the past two years they have displayed a passive approach to significant developments. It is this reality that explains their conduct in the nuclear talks, since they have no other option in the international arena if the attempt at an agreement fails.
If this is the prevailing mood in Iran on the eve of the next round of talks, there is cause for concern.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.