Iran vs. the West: Endgame?
By Michael Segall
Direct U.S.-Iran Talks Begin
Last week a further round of talks began between Iran and the West. Unlike in earlier rounds, this time there have been direct negotiations between the United States and Iran, occurring behind the scenes of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Although the telephone conversation between Obama and Rouhani, which transpired at the end of the Iranian president's visit to the UN General Assembly, is still provoking anger in Iran, it has also aroused hopes that "this time" – ten years after the repeatedly failed negotiations began – there is room for success.
That conversation, and the direct U.S.-Iran meeting on the sidelines of the Geneva meeting, marked the apex of the Iranian charm offensive, which appears to have been well prepared even before Rouhani was elected as the Iranian president. Rouhani and his team (primarily Foreign Minister Zarif), who are experienced at negotiating with the West, have returned to center stage of the negotiations as they exploit – so far with considerable success from their standpoint – the various tools at their disposal in the international media and the social networks (Rouhani and the foreign minister have active Facebook and Twitter accounts). Iran is transmitting catchy messages to the Western ear like "win-win diplomacy," "heroic flexibility," and other stock phrases of the international discourse, while also making use of leaks to the top newspapers. High expectations have again been stirred in the West, which is clutching the rope of diplomacy proffered by the "moderate Rouhani." Following the Geneva meetings, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in his daily briefing that Iran brought to the table "a new proposal with a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before."
Rouhani Reveals His Strategy
During his election campaign Rouhani boasted of how, as nuclear negotiator in 2003-2005, he had toyed with the West. In the course of the negotiations Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, which was then at its inception. Meanwhile, though, it advanced other critical components of its nuclear program including the uranium-conversion facility (UCF) at Isfahan. Rouhani intimated that, if elected, he would continue on that same path. As he put it:
As part of his election campaign Rouhani promised that, if elected, he would "protect the nuclear technology like all other technology…the centrifuges will continue to spin as the Iranian nation progresses."
On another occasion, Rouhani said – while denying opponents' claims that Iran had suspended its nuclear program completely after acceding to the 2003 Tehran Declaration:
Even though subject to harsh sanctions that are damaging its economy and especially its oil exports and industry, Iran is today in a completely different situation from that prevailing during the 2003 negotiations with the West, when it purportedly agreed to suspend its enrichment program. At that time Iran was affected by the American campaign in Iraq and feared that the War on Terror would reach its own soil. Even then, as Rouhani points out, while the suspension was in place, Iran was able to utilize diplomacy to advance critical components of its nuclear program. Subsequently Iran capitalized on the knowledge and technology it had developed during the suspension to make great strides in its enrichment program. It now had a growing quantity of UF6 from the UCF, which it had completed during the suspension.
Iran Is Not Entering Negotiations Out of Weakness
Today Iran comes to the negotiations with the West in incomparably better geostrategic circumstances than in 2003. Iran is not entering the nuclear negotiations out of weakness, but, rather, from a position of strength. In its view (which some of the Gulf states share), America's regional status and deterrence power are in continuing decline, the Sunni Arab world is increasingly divided with no unification processes on the horizon, disappointment with the United States is intensifying (especially in light of its irresolution after Syria crossed the "red line" of chemical-weapons use), and Iran's strategic ally in Syria – Bashar Assad – is surviving mainly thanks to Iran's military, economic, and propagandistic support (as the IRGC commander reiterated recently).
Moreover, as the Middle East is forged anew by revolutions, counterrevolutions, bloodshed, and chaos, Iran has been viewed since its (surprisingly quiet) elections as a country marked by confidence in its ability to maintain domestic stability and also to project power toward its
neighbors amid the leadership vacuum – both Arab and American – that has emerged in the region. In this vein Ali Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's representative in the IRGC, asserted that:
Thus Tehran views its changing geostrategic landscape as congenial to its aims. Given its sense of power linked with domestic stability, it comes to the negotiations in a mood of confidence verging on hubris. The results of the presidential elections, along with the public's high expectations that Rouhani and his government can bring about a rapid economic improvement if the nuclear negotiations with the West succeed and ties with the United States are renewed, give Rouhani great room to maneuver and considerable boldness as the talks with the West commence.
Rouhani, a dyed-in-the-wool scion of the revolution, is now receiving great credit from the populace that elected him. Along with the promises he dispensed for a major economic change, the regime has been granting the media somewhat more leeway and hinting – not without protests by the conservatives – that certain easements in the dress code are possible. It also has been freeing political prisoners and human rights activists (despite a record number of executions since Rouhani was elected), relenting a bit in the blocking of websites, and appointing reformist figures from the days of the reformist presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami to senior posts in Rouhani's government and bureau. All this is intended to encourage a sense of a real change of direction in both domestic and foreign policy, certainly compared to the Ahmadinejad period. In actuality, this is the same regime that knows how to adjust to changing circumstances.
Will Iran Normalize Relations with the U.S.?
In the domestic arena, a formerly taboo subject – normalizing relations with the United States, the "Great Satan" – is increasingly out in the open. There are reports of restoring air traffic between the two countries and even setting up an Iran-U.S. Parliamentary Friendship Group. The reformist media, which now senses some leniency and is testing the limits of what is allowed, offers analyses claiming that renewed ties with America can lead to a lifting of the sanctions and provide a magic wand for improving the economy. In this context, calls for "Death to America" have become a hot topic. Since the Obama-Rouhani telephone chat, countless figures from all points of the political spectrum have been addressing this issue and analyzing it from every possible angle.
Khamenei's statement that "some of the events in Rouhani's visit to New York were inappropriate," which has been interpreted as criticism of the telephone conversation, and his harsh words about "America's true nature" generally, have prompted a wave of declarations in favor of continuing to proclaim "Death to America." Consider, for example, the peroration of Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who said in a Friday sermon in Tehran:
We see the United States as a lying government, a trickster that breaks promises. And yet the Americans have forced Iran into negotiations. All this is lies. The lying American president says they do not want to change the Iranian regime, and yet they have tried to do so for 35 years without succeeding. On this, too, the Iranian people's hatred of America is based. If we want to make a list of the American lies, we will need 70 tons of paper. That is also why the slogan "Death to America" continues to live and resound among the citizens. The United States is the Great Satan, and the Imam [Khomeini], too, said so. Over the past 35 years has the United States become a smaller or a greater Satan? If, until recently, in its machinations against Iran the United States was a "snake," today it has become a "rattlesnake."...This slogan is the secret of the steadfastness of the Iranian people, and the more America continues its machinations, the more this slogan will prevail among the citizens of Iran. Our diplomats must do their work, and so must our Education Ministry, each will do his work; in fact, such slogans give our senior officials greater room to maneuver so that they can be tougher in dealing with the United States, and this indeed serves our foreign policy. If one day according to an order of the Spiritual Leader, who holds and will continue to hold the American file, we come to the negotiations and talks, then too our bitterness toward the United States will not vanish.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Human Rights Council in the judiciary and brother of the Majlis speaker, stated:
United States, and even the president [Ahmadinejad] himself was interested in a one-on-one meeting with Obama.
The great hopes of renewed ties with the United States that the reformist elements are instilling, and the massive response to this camp's euphoria on the part of the conservative camp, will remain in the wings of the tactical negotiations between Iran and the West and the United States. Rouhani and the nuclear negotiating team will have to pivot carefully between, on the one hand, the high expectations for a rapid economic improvement particularly regarding unemployment and rising prices, and on the other, the Republican Guard and the Leader, who have already criticized the Rouhani-Obama telephone conversation along with Obama's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which "showed that ultimately the position of the United States remained as it was, trapped in Israel's vise."
Iran Plans to Divide and Rule
During the negotiations Rouhani and his team, who evidently have been efficiently planning the charm offensive since Rouhani was elected, will try as in the past to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States. (A senior ayatollah, Naser Makarem Shirazi, said the "Zionist lobby" was the main obstacle to improving Iran's relations with America.) They will also try to drive a wedge between the United States and the European states, both those that are and are not taking part in the negotiations. Meanwhile, even before the negotiations had started, Britain and Iran were discussing the renewal of diplomatic ties, and European delegations were arriving in Tehran in hopes of a political breakthrough that will yield economic opportunities. Iran will leverage the economic weight of the companies involved to pressure the governments to show flexibility in the negotiations.
Iran believes it has already managed to change the international atmosphere in its favor. Winds of "diplomacy and compromise" are already blowing in Europe and the United States as the dismantlement of Syria's chemical weapons begins and the OPCW wins the Nobel Peace Prize, providing further evidence of diplomacy's benefits. And the buzz of the Rouhani-Obama chat keeps resonating in the diplomatic airspace, purifying the atmosphere, even though the Supreme Leader himself and the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohammad Ali Jafari, were unhappy with this development. Jafari called it "a tactical error and a big mistake....If there are to be additional errors the revolutionary forces will take the necessary measures." As criticism of relations with America keeps mounting in Iran, it is hard to see how the Islamic Republic, which views itself as the only party to have resisted the United States since the revolution and withstood the pressures, could now make a 180-degree turn in its policy.
The telephone conversation, then, emerges as one of Iran's tactical measures vis-à-vis the international community. Even though it has (perhaps) exacted a price from Rouhani domestically, it continues to serve its purpose: Iran's renewed legitimacy in the international arena. Iran is busily wrapping this renewed legitimacy in terms like "heroic flexibility," "historic compromise," "full transparency," and a "World Against Violence and Extremism" (WAVE). Iran wants to make the most of its enhanced regional status (including its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan), along with its nuclear progress. Iran now controls the nuclear fuel cycle and can, whenever it decides, break out to build a bomb in a few months, while exploiting the irresolution and divisions that prevail in the West.
Iran's Central Goals
With the renewed negotiations, Iranian officials made clear that Tehran views uranium enrichment on Iranian soil as a red line on which it will not compromise. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that, while Iran was willing to allay "reasonable concerns" about its nuclear program, "making use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, including enrichment on Iran's soil, is an inalienable and fundamental right." Before leaving Tehran for Geneva, Foreign Minister Zarif urged "Western governments not pursue a lose-win strategy because they need to understand the reality that Iran has attained such capabilities in nuclear technology that cannot be eliminated through sanctions and pressure."
Even if Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which it claims is needed to operate the research reactor in Tehran (TRR) and for purposes of radiological medicine, to remove from its territory about 180 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium it has already amassed (there may be an additional clandestine quantity), to limit the number of operative centrifuges, and even to enhance the IAEA's supervision of its nuclear facilities (accepting Comprehensive Safeguards and the Additional Protocol may indicate Iran seriousness) and close the Fordo enrichment site, it still cannot promise to cease development of other, mainly military, weaponizing aspects of its nuclear program that are not connected directly to uranium enrichment. As for enrichment itself, Iran has already shown that it can fully perform the process without difficulty while even improving it over the years with advanced centrifuges, even under the vigilant gaze of the IAEA and the mounting sanctions.
Iran will demand compensation for its readiness to give up some of its nuclear assets (but not its capabilities) that are known to the West. If some of the sanctions are lifted, the rest are likely to dissipate as well. Iran has already proved that it can, in the framework of what it calls its "resistive economy," circumvent some of the sanctions, even those related to its oil industry, and keep exporting oil to China and India (some of it in return for commodities).
Developing nuclear weapons, or the ability to produce them within a short time, continues to be a central goal of the Iranian regime (despite Khamenei's purported fatwa against nuclear weapons, which does not appear in any compilation of the Supreme Leader's fatwas but is noted by senior Iranian officials at every opportunity). After ten years of talks in various settings, Iran remains determined to maintain and advance its nuclear achievements, perhaps with tactical concessions in return for the easing of sanctions. Iran is not concerned at the moment by its domestic scene, which, amid the upheavals of the Arab Spring, has been among the more stable in the region.
Iran continues to strive for a regional hegemonic status. It wants to supplant the United States and make the most of its own military power and geostrategic position, along with its oil and gas reserves and the economic opportunities these offer to both the West and the East. Iran was a partner to the chemical-weapons deal that was reached in Syria; the nuclear umbrella Iran aims to provide to its allies is supposed to compensate for the loss. Iran also wields influence in Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, countries where the United States and the West have political, economic, and military assets. Iran anticipates that nuclear weapons will buy it the sort of immunity from attack that North Korea now enjoys. It also seeks long-term stability so that it can promote its revolutionary objectives abroad (particularly in Bahrain but also in other areas with a Shiite population) and assume its place in the regional and international power equation as the one who sets the agenda and influences the reshaping of the Middle East in a way that counters and curbs U.S. influence.
In sum, Iran, which has hoodwinked the international community, is preparing a further campaign as it draws toward the final stages of its nuclear program. It needs an abatement of pressure so that it can complete the military components while maintaining the regime's stability and promising relief for the economy. Rouhani, who previously succeeded as negotiator to buy Iran the time required to complete the nuclear fuel cycle, now needs to traverse the last mile to the bomb. As president of Iran, he stands resolute and strong before a divided region and international community.
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.