The War of the ‘Fact Sheets’: Hardened and Polarised Positions – For Both Parties

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 3-10 April 2015

Paradoxically, the attempt by the two parties after two-and-a half years of nuclear negotiations to set out jointly areas of consensus has brought about the converse: Instead of highlighting areas of joint agreement (and there have been some), the exercise inadvertently has exposed and magnified the divergences.  The problem here is that the points of consensus lie with certain technical issues (and even here, major disagreements remain - such as what happens to Iran’s residual LEU stocks), whilst the divergences go to the very heart of any potential solution. 

In a sense, the two divergent narratives do not expose the Emperor as completely naked, but by wearing only a hat and gloves, we can notice that he is distinctly déshabillé.  Thesight has somewhat shockedus, but the main consequence is that America has locked itself into the interpretations of its ‘fact sheet’.  It will now be very hard to ‘walk it back’ without attracting harsh criticism from domestic and external opponents; and in Iran, the very principles underlying the talks, are now being questioned. As the Supreme Leader himself noted via twitter yesterday: "If the sanctions are not lifted on reaching agreement, what then is the point of these negotiations?"

The key divergences relate to the structure of a solution, rather than to its details: the parties are completely apart on the preconditions to entering into a formal agreement, what shape that formal agreement will take, the formal timing of all these, and the post-agreement implementation methodology.  This constitutes a pretty fundamental gap.

According to the US ‘fact sheet’, the prerequisites to entry into agreement are that the IAEA gives its confirmation that Enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD (possible military dimensions) and verification commitments are met – and then, and only then, would sanction suspension, not lifting begin, and even this, only incrementally.  The Iranian version differs: there are no prerequisites: the completion of a text (Plan of Action) and its implementation in a UNSC resolution itself constitutes agreement, after which follows the start of implementation of the Plan of Action. (Comment: surely the PMD aspect was a wrench inserted into the draft by supporters of Israel and Saudi Arabia, who recall well the process of forcing Saddam Hussein to ‘prove a negative’.  It was the impossibility of definitively proving the negative that allowed US and European neo-conservatives to construct a ratchet of escalating demands and concomitant penalties, leading to war).

As for the mechanism to agreement, the US says it will take the form – after pre-requistes are met – of a non-binding UNSC resolution that endorses the agreement, and urges implementation (whilst keeping in place other restrictions related to conventional weapons and ballistic missiles).  Iran says it was agreed as a Chapter Seven resolution, that incorporates the Plan of Action and which is binding and excutable on all Member States – that is to say that not just Iran, but also America and its allies, would be legally bound by the provisions of the agreement.

On timing, the American ‘fact sheet’ is imprecise, but implies that the architecture of sanctions will remain in place for the duration of the implementation phase (which has 10 year, 15 year and 25 year timelines in the US text) and that incremental suspension of sanctions will begin when all prerequisites (including resolution of outstanding PMD issues) are resolved. No specific timeline is given (and in other statements it is implied that the lifting of sanctions would not happen quickly).  In the Iranian version, the timeline is plain: from now until 30 June the drafting of the Action Plan will take place, and then the finalized text will be transformed into a binding UNSCR, and with the start of Iran’s nuclear implementation actions, all sanctions would be lifted on a single specified day. 

On the post-agreement transparency requirements, the US document provides for implementation of the IAEA additional inspection protocol, a (new) complete chain of supply inspection mechanism for Iran’s entire nuclear fuel programme (to include uranium mines and centrifuge assembly plants) plus (another new) “challenge” inspection regime, which would permit – on the PMD pretext – inspections of any Iranian military, security or other sites for which ‘suspicions’ may have been raised with the IAEA. (Again the legacy of the Iraq ‘ratchet’ mechanism is evident in this P5+1 proposal, as is the suspect evidence provided by Israel to the IAEA on Iran’s PMD).

Iran’s interpretation is quite different: the Supreme leader, Khamenei, yesterday confirmed Iran’s position: "No unconventional inspection that [would] place Iran under special monitoring is acceptable. Foreign monitoring on Iran’s security isn’t allowed."

These divergences between two parties seeking to outline precisely their points of convergence is astonishing. How could this have arisen, and what are its consequences?

Clues to the answer perhaps lie with President Obama’s long video interview with Tom Friedman (which was orientated wholly towards Israel), and the offer to Gulf States of a Camp David get-together - in order to construct new Gulf security measures.  In short, the US ‘fact sheet’ seems to have been more about ‘regional balancing’, rather than about the Iran negotiations per se.  Most likely, it was never intended to constitute a reflective, half-time address of the issues.  It was constructed rather, as a partisan political weapon in the deadly war with Congress - and the Israeli and Gulf lobbies, who want for their own reasons, to keep Iran forever quarantined and sanctioned.

From the US Administration's perspective, it seems, this ‘war’ with its Iran talks opponents is primordial. If the Iran talks are wrecked by these interests, Obama’s Presidential legacy, and what Tom Friedman termed the ‘Obama doctrine’ — that negotiated outcomes are possible and preferable to (last resort) war — will founder alongside the Iran negotiations. Perhaps too, Zarif's acknowledgement that there would be different narratives emerging from the ‘framework statements’ suggests that Iranian negotiators had been warned by their American counterparts that the US would have to battle with Israel and Congress before any final deal could be concluded.  Maybe the Iranian side acknowledged the US necessity (but were told bluntly that they would, in any case, have to ‘lump’ the inconvenience, since this was what the Administration intended, and needed to do - in its own interests).  

Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani may well rue the whole episode, and may feel that the US Administration, as it were, played faster and looser with ‘facts’ than they had expected. But the more important question is: will the war of the ‘fact sheets’ yield unintended consequences? (Iran’s IAEA representative, Ali Saleh, is saying that Iran has now prepared its own formal ‘fact sheet’, having initially released to the Iranian media a “Summary of the Solutions Reachedas an Understanding for Reaching a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”).

Plainly, the US will find it hard to resile from its claimed achievements in the talks, which effectively it has portrayed as already ‘pocketed’; but Iran has dug in, too. President Rouhani has said that he will sign no agreement unless all sanctions are lifted, on the same specified day as completion of an agreement.  The Supreme Leader and the Iranian Defence Ministerboth have said there will never be external inspections of Iran’s defence and security establishments, and Parliament is demanding that it should be fully briefed on the details of the talks.  The conservative Iranian press is scathing about the claims of Iranian ‘achievement’ at the talks.

In brief, the ‘fact sheet’ may have represented an attempt by the US to front-run its presumed accumulation of political capital from the talks, in order to score preemptively against Netanyahu and Congress; but perhaps the ultimate price of this ruse will be that it has been done at the expense of the negotiations themselves. In Iran too, as Mehdi Khalaji at the Washington Institute notes: "If this war of interpretation drags on, it could create serious problems for President Hassan Rouhani's team as they attempt to justify the deal to the Iranian people and defend it against hardliners”.

The sense of mistrust of America this episode has engendered in Iran – at the top leadership level – will significantly harden Iranian negotiation positions, and will prolong the process: negotiators will insist to nail down any, and all, ambiguity for the future.  The Iranian team can do nothing less – given the wide criticism (see here and here) that they have sustained for having permitted such differing interpretations to have arisen (the Supreme Leader had specifically warned against such an eventuality).  Lifting all sanctions, as one package, upon reaching an agreement, and the insistence on having the terms for lifting sanctions codified into international law, will, it seems, become the new Iranian ‘red lines’.  Will the US Administration – post ‘fact sheet’ – have (political) space for compromise?

This hardening of sentiment in Iran has already received a firm twist from Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen (itself partly a Saudi reaction to the perception of the imminence of a P5+1 deal). Leading Saudi commentators make no bones that Saudi policy is to “pull the rug” from under Iran, everywhere.  The escalation is evident in Syria (where Saudi-Turkish intelligence services are co-operating in a renewed firing-up of inflamed jihadism against the Syrian state).  It is evident too in Yemen (as elsewhere in the region).

Ayatollah Khamenei has reacted strongly: “I warn that they [the Saudis] should refrain from any criminal move in Yemen. The US will also fail; and lose face on this issue … the Saudis used to display composure with us; but now inexperienced youngsters have come to power, and replaced composure with barbarism”.  The gloves are off.  Maybe Washington conceived support for Saudi Arabia in its Yemen adventure also in terms of striking a regional ‘balance’ as the no-brainer response to calming Saudi ‘fears’, but the mood in the region is not for finding a new balance, a new equilibrium. Instead, the long-expected trial of strength between Saudi Arabia and Iran is underway.  The United States, we suspect, will not find Iran disposed to be emollient in respect to Yemen – or now to the P5+1 either.