Pillars to US Iran Policy are Wobbling

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 20-27 February 2015

President Obama’s Iran policy has four essential (but seldom explicitly acknowledged) pillars. Recent frank statements, however, have served to bring the underlying framework of this policy into explicit view: these pillars are regarded by the Administration as essential, as they constitute the President’s overarching strategy for persuading the US Congress to endorse any agreement with Iran – something that is key to any lifting of sanctions in the event of agreement (or indeed, to warding off the imposition of fresh sanctions by Congress).

These pillars are:

That the US is negotiating from a position of strength: In an interview earlier this month, Under Secretary David Cohen claimed that Iran’s economic improvement is impossible without complying with western demands, and that this fact gives the US its leverage. He noted: “They’re stuck. They can’t fix this economy unless they get sanctions relief … I think they are coming to the negotiations with their backs to the wall.” Linked to this, is the belief that time is on America’s side: David Ignatius is quoted by a the Iranian newspaper Javan as noting that “cheap oil [and sanctions] are two factors that move the game of time forward to the detriment of [Iran’s] hardliners”. (Javan, 7 Feb.)

The second pillar – as enunciated by Yuval Steinitz (Netanyahu’s Minister for Intelligence and adviser on nuclear issues) earlier this month - is that whilst Steinitz understands the United States to want to tie Iran’s hands for a decade until a new generation takes power there, he adds: “You’re saying, okay, in 10 or 12 years Iran might be a different country”. But this is “dangerous” because Iran is thinking as if it were a superpower, he said.

The third element, as Gary Porter has noted, is the demand for “deep cuts in the number of centrifuges by citing the need to provide a sufficiently lengthy ‘breakout’ timeline. That arbitrary metric has nothing to do with the reality of nuclear policy, since it posits a scenario that even the former WMD adviser to Obama, Gary Samore, admits is "completely implausible”. Nevertheless, “in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 8 April last year, Secretary Kerry said he would try to get a breakout time of more than one year but might settle for six to 12 months. In the initial May 2014 draft agreement … a cap of 1,500 centrifuges was proposed … but [western] diplomats apparently suggested … [at that time] that they might ultimately settle for a 6,500 cap”. But by July, U.S. and European officials in Vienna were saying that their “margin of maneuver” had been reduced during the spring and summer, and that 6,500 centrifuges was no longer possible: capping the number of centrifuges at about 4,000, the ICG noted, was “a political imperative” for the United States and its European allies. (A reduction to 4,000 would increase the so-called breakout time to somewhere between 21 and 28 months on the basis of Iran’s holding of 5% enriched uranium). All this juggling of centrifuges, we may recall, is more about the Administration's primal preoccupation with what Congress will bear, rather than what might be necessary to secure Iran’s acquiescence, or address its long-term needs.

The fourth pillar, as noted by David Ignatius, is that President Obama had confided to Israel his strategy of limiting Iran to a one-year breakout cap from the outset – in the hope that by carrying the Israeli PM with him, he would prevent Netanyahu from souring Congress towards any deal. In other words, Obama’s strategy also depended on Netayahu’s quiescence and tacit co-operation.

In essence, President Obama’s selling point (for Israel and Congress) has been that in the next decade or so, the Supreme Leader, and most of the old-style revolutionaries will be gone, and that America would then face a new generation that would be more compatible, and more in tune, with the United States. If America had patience and contained (i.e. maintained sanctions on) Iran in the interim (for a decade or more), a global deal would then prove probable. But Yuval Steinitz and Netanyahu effectively are trying to pull the rug on this entire Obama ‘narrative’.

In a very real sense, we can see that the Administration’s orientation has been primarily focused on ‘what the market may bear’: not that is, so much what the Iranian ‘market’ will bear, but what the Israeli market, and therefore the Congressional market, will bear. Iran, in this calculus, is, as it were, a secondary factor - Iran, in this view, has to be cajoled and persuaded to accept what the ‘market will bear’ (in terms of centrifuges and in limitations arising from the dubious ‘theology’ of break-out capacity). It now seems however, that the Israeli market is saying – very explicitly and publicly – that it will accept nothing: just no nuclear programme.

Many Americans may shrug and say, ‘well, Obama simply is doing as things are done here’. This is understandable; but the question arises then, why Iran should go along with such a framework? It seems to presume that Iran has no alternative. (This is made very explicit in Cohen’s reference to Iran’s entering negotiations with its “back against the wall”, — with its hands tied). For many in America and Europe, it may appear that way; but in Iran, it is perceived differently.

The world is changing: nearly every week brings news of new non-dollar based trade agreements and Central Bank non-dollar currency swap agreements. Russia has just inaugurated its analogue to the SWIFT financial clearing system. Large states such as Russia and China have never committed to America’s unilateral sanctions on Iran, but only to UN sanctions, and have only reluctantly acceded to US-led sanctions because of the judicial threat associated from using the dollar as the base for transactions. But now these states – and others – are trading more and more in non-dollar currencies and the threat of secondary sanctions is diminishing. And as Russia (and China’s) tensions with the US have escalated on other issues, so in direct proportion, we have witnessed a strategic closening to Iran. In brief, Iran’s options to the East are no chimaera.

Yuval Steinitz, in an interview on 18 February, said plainly enough that Israel had never gone along with this Obama strategy from the outset: “From the very beginning, we made it clear we had reservations about the goal of the negotiations”. He confirmed: “We thought the goal should be to get rid of the Iranian nuclear threat, not verify or inspect it.”

He further undermined the Administration’s approach by stating that whilst “I understand the logic [of a 10-15 year freeze], I disagree [with this approach].” What the United States is saying to Iran, in effect, is “if you agree to freeze for 10 years, that’s enough for us.” But that won’t work for Israel: “To believe that in the next decade there will be a democratic change in leadership and that Iran won’t threaten the U.S. or Israel anymore, I think this is too speculative.”

And he repeated (thereby undermining a further pillar) the pointthat although Netanyahu has always argued for zero enrichment, “we got the impression that [enrichment] might be symbolic. The initial figure [discussed by the United States and its negotiating partners] was ‘a few hundred centrifuges’ ”. Now, he said, the United States is contemplating “thousands.” Steinitz also suggested that the notion of curtailing break-out capacity was moot: it might work for a while, but there would always be the risk of Iran “sneaking out”, rather than breaking out.

To complete the demolition of Obama’s approach, Netanyahu, proposes to address the joint session of Congress on 3 March, and is expected, in his address, to air his objections to an Iranian deal, thereby ending his period of diplomatic quiescence. Elections in Israel follow on 17 March. And the deadline for the framework agreement is 24 March, but in effect it is 21 March, as the long spring Nowruz holidays start in Iran on that day.

So timing is very tight. And this gives President Obama little time to reconfigure his strategy. Indeed it seems improbable that it will be possible for him to take stock of Netanyahu’s address (should it proceed as scheduled); to take account of the Israeli election outcome; to gauge Congressional temper; and then to craft a credible approach towards the Iranian negotiators, who will be only too aware of the President’s eroding strategy, and the likely impact of Netanyahu’s disruptive intervention on Obama’s ability to deliver an agreement.

This would seem to leave Obama with only the option of a two-stage agreement -- a broadbrush statement of political aspirations that might facilitate later negotiations, with any final settlement postponed, sine die.

But in his speech on 8 February, the Supreme Leader stressed that he was not in favour of a two-stage agreement, explaining that such agreements are rarely satisfactory, and that Iranian experience suggested that a mere agreement on generalities becomes used (by the other party) as the tool to make repeated demands on Iran in terms of detail (Javan 10 Feb).

Ayatollah Khamenei insisted that everything included in any contract made between Iranian officials and American officials would therefore have to be clear, transparent, and not be open to interpretation or paraphrasing: such an approach should not leave any opening for the other party to renege on its principles, he emphasised. More pointedly, Khamenei noted David Cohen’s comments about the Iranians coming to the table with their ‘hands tied’: “Well, that is a bad misjudgment: Just see what the Iranian nation will do, and how they will turn out on 11 February” [the anniversary of the Revolution, when (young) Iranians turned out by the millions]. (Javan 12 Feb)

But beyond this distrust of a general political agreement, there has been a wider issue raised by critics of the Iranian negotiators’ approach. A leading Iranian newspaper close to the Principle-ists, Javan (10 Feb), noted that whilst the general (Iranian) assumption that Obama is serious about reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran is correct, it does not then necessarily follow that Obama wishes to resolve Iran’s nuclear file either decisively, or permanently (as Iranians all desire), Javan's editorial argues.

The Israeli Intelligence Minister Steinitz's statements will have served only to strengthen these doubts about whether America is more intent on freezing Iranian progress and on severely constraining its political influence, or on genuinely trying to resolve the issue. Some in Iran claim that the pursuit of a political agreement has more to do with the (Rouhani-led) faction needing an achievement to bolster their flagging prospects at the polls – “to parade before cameras again” - rather than to bring any tangible benefit to the people. (Mohammad Esma’ili, Javan, 8 Feb)

And in this context, two further events seem destined to affect the Iranian perception of western bona fides: first, trial documents in a Virginia Court have shown details of a CIA ‘sting operation’, during which the agency passed doctored blueprints for nuclear-weapon components to Iran in February 2000. “This story suggests a possibility that hostile intelligence agencies could decide to plant a ‘smoking gun’ in Iran for the IAEA to find”, said Peter Jenkins, the UK’s former envoy to the Vienna-based agency. “That looks like a big problem.”

Secondly, the Jerusalem Post reports that “a new leak of secret intelligence documents obtained by Al-Jazeera shows that the Mossad expressed the belief that Tehran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon just a month after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Islamic Republic was a year away from becoming nuclear-armed”.

The combination of Steinitz’s statement, Netanyahu’s prospective Congressional address, the trial documents on the CIA Sting operation, and the Israeli intelligence leak, coupled with Iranian accumulating hostility to what is described in Iran as a “temporary pacifier to a dispute-filled atmosphere” (Javan 7 Feb) — with all these pressures, Obama will be hard pressed to escape complete policy paralysis. And, if there is no agreement? It is the US Administration itself that has been quietly warning its allies that such an eventuality may well lead to the unravelling of the sanctions structure.