Iran looks beyond the nuclear talks
By Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office, efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue have gained momentum, with the announcement on November 24, 2013, of an interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. It appears that the international community, and particularly the United States, is seeking to put the nuclear negotiations with Iran on a course that will eventually dispel the tense relations that have prevailed since Iran's Islamic Revolution.
It seems that the United States just waited for Ahmadinejad – who constitutes the true blunt face of the Islamic regime and who didn't play by the diplomatic rules – to leave office in order to bring the nuclear dossier to a forced closure. To cut a deal with Ahmadinejad was too embarrassing for the U.S. administration. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister's Zarif's social network diplomacy1 and charm offensive, combined with certain backchannels (Oman, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, The Asia Society), probably made the process much easier and smoother for the U.S.
The interim agreement leaves Iran with sufficient wherewithal to produce military nuclear capabilities – both with regard to uranium enrichment (using advanced IR-M2 centrifuges) and through the plutonium channel – should it decide at some point to break out as a result of a crisis in the negotiations on a permanent agreement, violation of the agreement, continued clandestine development of a bomb, or what Iran would perceive as a change in the Middle Eastern geostrategic landscape, which is indeed changing rapidly.
Thus, the West must ensure that by the end of the negotiating process in six months, which is still fraught with obstacles and potential Iranian stalling, Iran will not have any breakout capacity toward a nuclear bomb, and the countries subject to the threat emanating from Iran must goad the West in this direction if it shows hesitation. In addition, Iran must meet the strict conditions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) within the framework of the Additional Protocol (an issue that is under heated domestic debate in the Majlis). This would allow enhanced supervision of Iran's nuclear program and, particularly, of what is still its clandestine components. Only this can ensure that Iran will not keep enriching uranium and developing the military component of its nuclear program in concealed sites, thereby progressing toward the bomb at the same time that it takes part in negotiations. That, after all, is what Iran did in the wake of the 2003 agreements, which were negotiated by none other than Rouhani.
Concurrently, the West must "maintain" the sanctions effectively. Iran has already shown, in the initial stages of the negotiations, that it seeks to transfer the sanctions from the P5+1 framework to the UN Security Council and thereby essentially get them canceled by international decree; this is part of its effort to gradually vitiate the sanctions. The West must also sustain the credible military threat that already proved itself in the past, including when Rouhani was head of Iran's nuclear negotiating team in 2003. At that stage the U.S. military threat led Iran to temporarily suspend its enrichment program out of fear that, in the wake of America's invasion of Iraq, it would be the next target.
The West must also draw the lessons from its own behavior and from the agreements it reached with Iran ten years ago. Today, Iran has all the components for assembling a bomb should it choose to do so. In a meeting with students on November 3, 2013, on the eve of the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, observed: "Today Iran's situation is different from when it agreed to suspend uranium enrichment [in 2003]. Back then we had begun to spin one or two centrifuges; today thousands of them are in use." Iran has indeed been hit hard by Western sanctions, particularly those affecting its oil sector, and is losing about $5 billion per month. Yet, in contrast to other countries in the region, Iran is stable and had a quiet election campaign earlier this year. Rouhani, who emerged as the victor, has again joined the nuclear battle. This time he hopes to "rescue" Iran's economy and return it to the family of nations, as well as complete the nuclear cycle and accomplish the mission of creating the first Shi'a nuclear bomb.
Iran's Conduct in the Region
At present, the discussion of Iran's nuclear program is being conducted without connection to other regional issues where Iran exerts decisive influence. These include the ongoing crisis in Syria and Hizbullah's involvement in it; Hizbullah's role in Lebanon and continued assistance – with Tehran's encouragement – to groups that oppose a political settlement with Israel; Iran's subversive activities in the Gulf States (particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia); and the reshaping of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the like. The issue of human rights in Iran has already been sidelined for some time. For example, the number of executions in Iran has risen dramatically since Rouhani was elected. According to Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, that number has doubled, and the government's line about freeing political prisoners is "fraudulent."
The United States, however, chooses to ignore the many problematic elements of Iran's conduct in the Middle East and even in its own backyard that are likely to have serious implications – particularly if Iran eventually nuclearizes. The United States itself under the presidency of Barack Obama, who during his first term advocated openness and an outstretched hand to the Islamic world, is undergoing a generational change regarding its self-perception and role in the region, including its traditional alliances with "moderate" states (basically the Gulf States and Egypt). This may be due to the fact that the United States is now closer to "energy independence," or to the increasingly unstable, unpredictable, and unrewarding nature of the Middle East, leading to American fatigue and a search for new strategic directions.
Operation Iraqi Freedom and the death of Saddam Hussein, which preceded and perhaps heralded the outbreak of the "Arab Spring," constituted a death blow to attempts to forge pan-Arab unity and to the quest by Arab leaders for stature and charisma to inspire and unify the "Arab street" in opposing Western imperialism and the political borders it created. Instead, the "Arab Spring," or "Islamic Awakening" as Iran calls it, further accelerated the process of dissolution of the national Arab frameworks (such as in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Egypt). The Islamic alternative has not yet come to fruition, and the struggle over the nature of governmental rule, and its borders, is still far from being decided, but meanwhile is soaked in blood. Iran, a stable actor, wants to enter the political and ideological void that has emerged in the region and paint it in vividly Islamic hues.
Saudi Arabia Voices Concerns
The combination of hesitancy and occasional rashness shown by the United States at the recent rounds of the Geneva nuclear talks and the eventual signing of the interim agreement, on the one hand, and Iran's lengthening shadow and power projection in the region, on the other, has raised great concern among its neighbors – particularly Saudi Arabia. Those neighbors now have to reassess the main elements of their national defense strategy. They are well aware of U.S. policy toward its allies in the Obama era – as evidenced both by the willingness to sacrifice Mubarak, one of the strongest and most faithful U.S. allies in the region, and by the cold shoulder Washington has turned toward secular Egypt since Morsi's ouster and al-Sisi's assumption of leadership, which has brought al-Sisi to turn to Moscow.
Recent statements to the annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference by Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and former intelligence chief, reflect the Saudi fear of perceived changes in U.S. policy in the region and their implications for Iran's regional conduct. Faisal also addressed the options, including the nuclear one, available to the regional states as part of their response to U.S. policy. He discussed among other things:
The Iranian leadership and media responded to this statement by Faisal and similar statements by portraying Saudi Arabia (along with Israel, the Gulf States, and France) as seeking to sabotage a nuclear agreement with the West out of narrow economic interests. At the same time, as part of its "charm offensive," Iran continues to proclaim its desire for normal relations with all of its neighbors, "far from the influence and malign involvement of the United States." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is leading the nuclear negotiations with the West, addressed this issue in a wide-ranging interview on Iranian television. Zarif claimed that the negotiating team continued to enjoy Khamenei's backing, and said in an appeal to the Gulf States:
Zarif also emphasized that he aimed to visit some of the regional states so as to "allay their fears." He also published an op-ed in the influential Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat titled, "Our neighbors are our priority."
At the same time, Iran's Fars News Agency referred to reports that Saudi Arabia intended to purchase a nuclear bomb from Pakistan; according to several reports, Saudi Arabia had in the past helped Pakistan attain its nuclear capability.
Views of the Talks from Tehran
At present Khamenei, Rouhani, and the Iranian press, including the conservative press, are all lending their support to the Iranian delegation to the talks. The Kayhan newspaper, which is identified with the Supreme Leader, praised the delegation for its firm stance toward the conditions presented by the West, "which is playing the game of the good cop (the United States) and the bad cop (France)." Fars, for its part, criticized France's conduct:
After the initial round of talks, Rouhani gave a speech in the Majlis under the title, "Iran Did Not Go to the Negotiations Because of the Sanctions." He stressed that the Supreme Leader's support at a sensitive juncture for the "sons of the revolution" (i.e., the negotiating team), who had stood against the powers, had sowed fear among the enemies of Iran, causing all the warmongers to dread the path of peace. He underlined the fact that the multistage program Iran had presented had been accepted, and noted that Iran had told its dialogue partners that "threats, sanctions, humiliation, and discrimination will not avail, and Iran does not surrender and will not surrender to threats from any party."
Rouhani added that:
Regarding the sanctions, Rouhani remarked:
In drawing a linkage between the continuation of the talks and various regional issues, seeking to emphasize Iran's firm stance and regional influence, Rouhani asserted:
Rouhani summed up by saying that Iran would continue to take part in the negotiations and at the very least, as the Supreme Leader had said, did not stand to lose anything. Its regional role and importance would be demonstrated, its society would continue to develop its resilience, and the world would understand that it is Iran that speaks to the world logically and opposes weapons of mass destruction.
Khamenei: "I Am Not Optimistic" about the Talks
In his meeting with students on November 3, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei remarked:
Khamenei warned of false promises spread by propaganda, according to which an Iranian concession in the nuclear domain would lead to the solution of all of its problems. He again claimed that the West is only using the nuclear issue as a pretext to harm and weaken Iran, just as it always has since the outbreak of the revolution. "If the nuclear issue is solved they will raise dozens of other excuses....Why do they have missiles, why the unfriendly attitude toward the Zionist regime, why do you not recognize the Zionist regime, why do you support the resistance organizations in the Middle East and so on and so on."
Khamenei underlined the decline in American power and influence (even among its friends) and the economic problems afflicting it, contrasting this with Iran's rising power compared to the past. Even though he does not oppose the negotiations, he warns: "Do not trust the enemy who smiles at you, that is the advice that was given to our officials, to our children (who represent us in the negotiations)....They were careful not to be deceived by the smile of a trickster."
Khamenei also addresses at length the influence of "Zionist circles" over the United States and the European states, and avers in an anti-Semitic vein:
In a November 20, 2013, address the commanders of the Basij, IRGC's voluntary arm, ahead of the round of nuclear talks that led to the interim agreement, Khamenei focused his hatred on the "Zionist Regime" (Israel), saying it had "feeble roots" and is "doomed to oblivion." He termed Israel an "imposed regime which is formed by the force" and thus not durable, adding:
In a Twitter account affiliated with Khamenei, he tweeted:
Iran already possesses all the components needed to produce a nuclear weapon. It sees any easing of the sanctions – even at the price of giving up some elements of its overt nuclear program – as an achievement and a basis for the further erosion of the sanctions regime. On the domestic front, Rouhani can only be encouraged by the ongoing support from Khamenei as well as public support. Ahead of the six-month interim period, the Iranian regime has managed to ensure stability on the home front through its achievements during the negotiations (primarily, the right to enrich uranium and the gradual erosion of sanctions).
A Wider Context
Khamenei's statements at various opportunities, which senior Iranian officials echo, convey the message that Iran does not really need the negotiations and that they in fact serve as a tool in its domestic policy, and as part of a broader context of competing with the United States for influence in the region. The recent statements noted above that continue to dehumanize Israel (and which are largely ignored by an international community overwhelmed by the "historic interim agreement) is part of Iran's regional strategy.
In Khamenei's view, the negotiations, even if doomed to fail, only make Iran more steadfast in confronting the United States. Compared to its interlocutors, Iran is positioned in a totally different situation, which the West has difficulty understanding. Iran does not come to the nuclear negotiations out of weakness, but, indeed, from a position of strength. (Zarif's press conference following the interim agreement began at the same time as Obama's announcement.) Thus, rather than having anything to lose from the talks, Iran only stands to gain from them. Iran is cognizant of the broad regional and international picture, and its considerations in coming to the nuclear negotiating table do not solely concern the nuclear issue. They reflect, instead, a wide range of regional and international interests, along with Iran's assessment of the United States' declining regional and international status and its own expanding reach. The interim agreement and the six months of negotiations ahead will definitely boost Assad in Syria and the other components of the resistance camp (Hizbullah, Hamas), and will toughen the Palestinians' stance in their negotiations with Israel.
In sum, Iran is preparing for two main scenarios. One is ongoing negotiations, with Iran prepared for certain concessions that, in its view, will not derail it from the fast track to the bomb through clandestine channels, while entailing the removal of some of the sanctions and the erosion of the sanctions regime in general. In the second scenario, Iran remains firm in the face of the sanctions, upgrades its regional status, and progresses toward the bomb while taking a risk (which it does not see as great) of an attack on its nuclear facilities. The Supreme Leader is, in any case, preparing Iranian public opinion for that possibility.
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.