Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 4 – 11 April 2014

Conflicts Forum

In the sense that the outcome to P5+1 negotiations with Iran will mark a key inflection point for the Middle East – one way or another – this Weekly Comment is devoted to looking at the arguments concerning the P5+1 ‘process’ that are being aired in the Farsi press.  It is not intended that this be comprehensive or definitive, but rather its aim is to give readers a gist of the issues which are pushing the pendulum of popular and informed opinion towards a much more sceptical stance in Iran.  It is clear that whilst President Rowhani still has a mandate to pursue negotiations, and the necessary critical mass of support at the top level, this mandate is neither unqualified, nor is it unlimited in its timeline: Indeed from a reading across the spectrum of Iranian opinion, the mood in parliament and in the country is becoming sceptical at best, or is souring, at worst. And maintaining public support will, for sure, be crucial to the longevity of President Rouhani’s ability to hold onto his P5+1 talks mandate. It is also clear that this shift in general opinion is not wholly related to the nature of the process unfolding in the nuclear talks, but has been adversely affected both by the visit by Lady Ashton and the recent EU parliamentary resolution on human rights.  There is a sense that many Iranians expected that their entry into negotiations would at result at least some mitigation of the criticisms of Iran: in short, that Rowhani’s initiative would be met with perhaps a greater decorum in respect to the Iranian choice of their ‘way of life’. In this sphere, expectations have been badly bruised – and some read this unwelcome trend as a harbinger of fresh pressures to come.

Taking the more positive line, Dr Nader Sa’ed writing in Javed notes that the talks have two principal axes:  the first, he writes, is (from the P5 perspective) fundamentally to alter the scope – and even the quality – of the Iranian enrichment activities to the lowest level possible, and to redefine the activity envisaged for the Arak reactor. But Dr Sa’ed points out the conundrum here: If Iran is to define its strategic nuclear energy needs realistically, both for today – and more importantly for tomorrow – what is the prospect that Iran’s strategic requirement for the next decades, when analysed in this way, will be found to come out well in excess of that level of enrichment below which the P5 is determined to hold Iran? In short, what is the level of enrichment restriction at which it might be possible to reach some agreement with P5 – and yet meet Iran’s legitimate long-term needs? Is there any real prospect that the line on the graph of the P5’s definition of ‘acceptable’ Iranian enrichment will intersect with Iran’s assessment of its own longer-term needs? This issue is complicated, Dr Sa’ed writes, which is why no early agreement should be expected.

Hoseyn Shari’atmadani, writing in Keyhan (of which he is the editor) takes up this point: having noted that nuclear science stands as a key link in the chain of science and technology, and that it simply is not one that can be readily ‘given up’ without doing severe damage to Iranian science as a whole (since all aspects are tightly interlinked), he notes that “our nation’s annual need for electrical power is close to 8000 megawatts. To produce this amount of electrical power, 220 million barrels of crude oil would be consumed”. This, he notes, is the P5 demand to Iran: ‘burn fossil fuel for all your electricity needs’. But were Iran to act on this ‘advice’, not only would it release more than 1000 tons of toxic carbon dioxide gas, place close to 170 tons of suspended particles into the air, and disperse more than 140 tons of sulphur and 55 tons of nitrous oxide into the environment, but to burn fossil fuel to produce electricity would cost Iran almost $6 billion annually more than the equivalent electrical output derived from nuclear power. Shari’atmadani concludes by noting that the nation’s oil and gas reserves are being quickly depleted, and that the demand that Iran should use its fossil fuel in this way gives no answer to what Iran would do, say, twenty years hence. And given the Iranian experience of sanctions, there is no readiness to place future generations at the mercy of international markets and at the risk of boycott again.

More fundamentally, Mehdi Mohammedi questions the entire P5+1 ‘breakout’ approach to the negotiations – and how the Iranian negotiators are handling it. The westerners say, he notes, that a point exists in Iran’s program which, if Iran were to reach it, “technically, whenever it decides to do so, it could rapidly and within a short period of time produce the materials necessary to manufacture one nuclear weapon, in other words, 25 kg of 90% enriched uranium, without either the IAEA or the intelligence services of the West ever finding out about it. They [the West] have called this, the unidentifiable nuclear breakout point, or ‘breakout’”. This concept lies behind the P5+1 insistence to limit enrichment to the minimum, he says.  But rather than accept complicated restrictions on centrifuges, and on 5% and 20% enriched reserves in order to preclude possibility of breakout, he argues that the Iranian team in Geneva should never have accepted the logic of ‘breakout’: “We must never accept such concepts”. The Americans and Israelis have fabricated this concept to use as an excuse to dismantle the infrastructure for industrial enrichment in Iran, he believes. “My question is: Why did the gentlemen agree to such a thing? If the West is worried about breakout, the solution is to increase transparency. Why did the friends agree to restrict the program under this pretext?”

Returning to Dr Sa’ed’s “twin axes”, after limiting the scope and quality of enrichment to the lowest level possible, the P5+1’s second axis, that of sanctions, “are still being enforced with the benefit of informal co-operation exacted from allies by the United States, and are constantly being renewed and strengthened in various forms, and under different formats. The UN Security Council sanctions are still more or less in place and so far there has been no possibility of examining the method of their removal. “In addition, the legal interpretation of paragraph 2 of the NPT’s Article 4 [requiring all parties to the NPT to assist aspirants in developing a peaceful nuclear programme] is of a voluntary and expedient kind, and has no strong compulsory aspect unless our diplomacy is able to use it to re-create this paragraph as a clear ‘requirement’ on the West”.

There is indeed evidence that this second ‘axis’, already highly attenuated in the relief that it offers Iran ($4.2 billion in eight installments out of an estimated $100 billion of frozen Iranian assets), is falling well short of the little the P5+1 initially had promised:Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings Institute, told AlMonitor that the Iranians knew they were getting “very little” in terms of sanctions relief from the interim deal. She warned, however, that the difficulties Iran is experiencing obtaining those limited resources would give “Iranians even greater trepidation about relying on sanctions relief that is based on waiver authority” from the White House. President Obama has the authority to waive many of the sanctions on the books against Iran for six months at a time — the same duration as the interim accord.  However, major multinational companies need a longer-term horizon to conclude significant deals, said Maloney. Erich Ferrari, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in sanctions, told Al-Monitor, “What we’re hearing from Iranians is that no one knows what this financial channel is [for transacting business with Iran].” Ferrari said also that he was not surprised that banks in countries still importing Iranian oil are making it hard for Iran to get access to the $4.2 billion Iran has been promised in eight separate installments under the interim accord. Former CIA analyst, Paul Pillar wryly comments that “the marvelous sanctions machine is so powerful that it continues to exude power and have effects even after a switch has been turned off. The Treasury needs to do more than just saying “go,” and more than it has done so far to put banks into their comfort zone, for the JPA to be implemented the way it was supposed to be”.

But, beyond this, Rowhani and Zarif are facing much more serious criticisms from knowledgeable opposition figures. Fundamentally, Mehdi Mohammadi, a former editor on Keyhan and a former adviser to nuclear negotiator Jallili, in an interview, points out: “the Geneva Agreement is a document in which the negotiation team has agreed that Iran is an exception to all other parties to the NPT … [who all have] certain legal rights and duties [defined by the Treaty]. In addition, the structure of this document [the Geneva Agreement] shows that Iran is regarded as an exception, and certain restrictions that have been imposed on Iran in this document, affirm this point”.

He continues, “the structure of the document defines a first step that has a timetable of six months. From the perspective of the Westerners, this first step is a confidence-building step, and it means that essentially in order for the actual negotiations with Iran to begin, Iran must carry out a series of initial actions in order – at a minimum – to provide the level of necessary confidence to justify any continued conversation with Iran. They themselves [the westerners] say that these actions will turn ‘talks’ with Iran into ‘negotiations’. Then, a series of additional steps have been defined that have no timetable. In other words, the Westerners can demand their implementation right away, since they are not timetabled. One of these additional steps is for Iran to address the resolutions of the [UN] Security Council, and another is the settling of all ‘outstanding issues’, including the likely military dimensions, for which the IAEA would require access to Iran’s military installations and scientists. Then we have the final step, which does have a timetable, but whose timeline is not specified for now. We only know that the two sides have agreed that this time will be long. In this final step, parts of Iran’s enrichment program will be dismantled, and the program will be seriously restricted”.

In short, Mohammadi states, for several years, Iran will have to accept very severe restrictions in implementing its rights, and very serious cooperation will be required of it beyond its existing NPT commitments, merely in order to become like others. Thus, until the time when Westerners are satisfied, Iran will remain an exception. “In other words, we ourselves agree that the Westerners have the right to treat us as a special case and to put pressure on us”. The point here, Mohammadi says, is that the [Iranian] negotiation team has given the West the right to identify Iran as a threat and an exception, for as long as it wishes. This act has very dangerous consequences for our national security”, he argues. “The starting point for the Westerners in every issue with Iran has been always to make Iran accept that it is an exception, and for this reason, it cannot expect to benefit from the same rights that others benefit from, or to have the same duties as others. Iran has never agreed to such a thing. “We have always said that we would not allow them to turn Iran into a special case and exception. The present team has accepted this without argument”.

Further, Mohammadi rejects the Iranian negotiators’ claim that America has somehow conceded the right of Iran to enrich: “The Geneva Agreement has absolutely no statement about recognizing Iran’s right to enrich. The Americans themselves – in other words, the side that must recognize that right – say plainly that no such thing has been recognised for Iran. The reason is clear: the reason is, and the Americans have stated so, that if they had recognised Iran’s right to enrichment, they would no longer be able to impose restrictions on Iran. In order to be able to restrict the program, they have been quite careful not to recognize such a thing in the Geneva Agreement”.  Neither is it true as Dr Salahi claims, Mohammedi continues, that because enrichment is present in the first step, and some limited and restricted enrichment may be the outcome of the final step, that this implies that the P5+1 have acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich: Dr Salehi is wrong, he argues, because – in the [non-timelined] additional steps – the Iranian team agreed to address the Security Council resolutions (which call on Iran to halt enrichment).

“Also, in the final step, when Iran has agreed to restrict the percentage enrichment capacity, and its locations and reserves, the intent is that large parts of Iran’s current enrichment program must be dismantled. This point is very important. The rhetoric of dismantling has been precisely stated in the Geneva Agreement. Everyone must carefully note the dismantling parts of the enrichment program are Iran’s obligations according to the Geneva Agreement. The negotiation team has agreed to, and signed this. In fact, that is why the Americans say that they will not allow this temporary agreement to become permanent, and that is why they say that future negotiations will be negotiations about dismantling. Unfortunately, when you look at the text of the agreement, they are right. The negotiation team has agreed to dismantling, and if any negotiation is going to take place, it will be about the dimensions and size of this dismantling, and not the principle [of the right to enrich]”.

The point which Mohammedi is highlighting is that when the Iranian negotiators say that the Agreement has institutionalised Iran’s enrichment activities and that this outcome denotes an important Iranian achievement, we must ask: ‘what is it, then, precisely that we mean by ‘enrichment’’? If by enrichment we simply mean a small symbolic program that would merely protect our reputation and which does not have much technical and industrial value, nor produce strategic power, then the negotiating team’s claim is true. But, if “the purpose of the enrichment program is an industrial program, the goal of which is both the creation of industrial skills and the production of fuel for the power plants as well as the production of nuclear fuel for export to the world markets in order to raise Iran’s position in the world’s energy market, the Geneva Agreement precisely gives this up, and loses it”.

And what will be the consequences to this Agreement? Mehdi Mohammedi says unequivocally that he thinks that the nuclear industry will be seriously harmed; and secondly, that Westerners have concluded that their strategy of creating calculated changes in Iran can successfully be achieved though imposing pressures on Iran. “I am certain, and the signs are already evident, that they will extend this method to other cases as well. Right now, with regard to the region and human rights, they say that Iran must take confidence-building measures”.  More pressures will follow. Even the more sanguine Dr Sa’ed, concludes that expecting any early agreement “is irrational” and there will still be need for further rounds of dialogue. He adds that recent international developments, particularly the crisis in Ukraine and the adverse domestic reactions to Lady Ashton’s actions in Tehran, have both directly impinged on Iranian foreign policy, and will add to the inconclusiveness of these talks.

Finally, may we remind readers that the purpose of this narration is not to weigh arguments, or even to provide contrasting perspectives, but rather to illustrate the flavour of the issues being deabted in the Iranian media, with which President Rowhani and his Foreign Minister must contend – with all their potential to erode their negotiations mandate. In the wake of the Presidential elections, the Principle-ist camp has become divided. The moderate segments of the Principle-ists, who have already paid a heavy price for supporting Ahmadinejad and hardliners within their own party, have become more cautious in consequence. They will not therefore support the hardliners’ attacks against the nuclear diplomacy – for now. President Rowhani still has parliamentary and Leadership support, but as indicated above, this is vulnerable in the absence of tangible results – particularly in the sphere where the already restricted sanctions relief is not flowing through.

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