Missing Peace | missingpeace.eu | EN

Iran vs. the West: Endgame?

By Missing Peace
New talks between Iran and P5+1 countries in GenevaNew talks between Iran and P5+1 countries in Geneva

By Michael Segall, October 15, 2013

Unlike in earlier rounds, this time there have been direct negotiations
between the United States and Iran. Today Iran comes to the negotiations
with the West in incomparably better geostrategic circumstances than in
2003, when it temporarily suspended uranium enrichment to further advance
its nuclear program, then in its infancy. Iran is not entering the nuclear
negotiations out of weakness, but, rather, from a position of strength.

In Iran’s view (which some of the Gulf States share), America’s regional
status and deterrent power are in continuing decline. Given Iran’s sense of
power linked with both domestic and regional stability, it comes to the
negotiations in a mood of confidence verging on hubris.

Khamenei’s statement that “some of the events in Rouhani’s visit to New York
were inappropriate,” which has been interpreted as criticism of his
telephone conversation with Obama, and his harsh words about America’s “true
nature” generally, have prompted a wave of declarations in favor of
continuing to chant “Death to America.” The commander of the Revolutionary
Guard, Mohammad Ali Jafari, called the Rouhani-Obama chat “a tactical error
and a big mistake….If there are to be additional errors the revolutionary
forces will take the necessary measures.”

Iran now controls the nuclear fuel cycle and can, whenever it decides, break
out to build a bomb in a few months, while maintaining its past conduct of
exploiting the irresolution and divisions that prevail in the West.
Developing nuclear weapons, or the ability to produce them within a short
time, continues to be a central goal of the Iranian regime. After ten years
of talks in various settings, Iran remains determined to maintain and
advance its nuclear achievements, perhaps with substantial tactical
concessions in return for the easing of sanctions.

Iran believes 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 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.

Direct U.S.-Iran Talks Begin

This 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).1 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:

“The negotiating team (indeed) agreed to suspend uranium enrichment but was
able to complete all the technology needed for the full nuclear fuel
cycle….The Iranian establishment is well aware that the nuclear technology
was a product of the reformist government [of Khatami]….The citizens of Iran
are well aware that the main components of the nuclear technology were
completed in 2003-2004. In spring 2005 the uranium conversion facility that
supplies the material [UF6] that is fed to the centrifuges, the underground
plant at Natanz, was almost completed, Arak [the IR-40 heavy water reactor]
was completed….All these components (which are essential to the nuclear
program) were completed at that time….The fuel cycle was completed (during
the course of the negotiations and while enrichment was suspended).”

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.”2

On another occasion, Rouhani said – while denying opponents’ claims that
Iran had suspended its nuclear program completely after acceding to the 2003
Tehran Declaration:

“On my watch the centrifuge technology developed, and Iran was able to
remove sanctions and avoid tension with the West….We must practice
intelligent diplomacy so as to take the nuclear file out of the Security
Council’s hands and remove the sanctions….During my tenure Iran succeeded to
reach the level of knowledge required to convert yellowcake to UF6, build
the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and increase the number of centrifuges for
enriching uranium to 3,000….President Bush tried to isolate Iran and instead
isolated himself.3”

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 deterrent 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).4

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:

“The United States has reached the conclusion that no regional equation is
possible without taking into account Iran’s influence in the regional and
international arenas….Its influence is what prompts America’s apparent
readiness to negotiate with us….This influence of ours stems from our
unwavering resolve….The enemy sought to undermine our resilience in an
attempt to damage our influence.5”

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 reformist presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami to senior posts in
Rouhani’s government and bureau. All this is intended to encourage a sense
of 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.6 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,7 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 Supreme 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.8”

Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Human Rights Council in the judiciary
and brother of the Majlis speaker, stated:

“The West and the enemies of Iran want to impose liberal-secular democracy
and thus divert the Islamic regime from its ideological course. The Islamic
Revolution is advancing on the path of freeing itself of infidels and
spreading the pure culture of Islam of Muhammad….The telephone conversation
between Obama and Rouhani was a mistake, was not an appropriate act, and
should not have been carried out because Iran must function without any
mistake or error, even the smallest, in its heroic diplomacy.

The Iranian call for “Death to America” can hardly be compared with the
insults the United States hurls at the Islamic regime. In the periods of
Rafsanjani, Khatami, and at the end of the period of Ahmadinejad, there was
much talk about the relationship with the United States, talk that was not
appropriate….Even at the end of the Ahmadinejad period some said our
grievances could be redressed through a direct encounter with the United
States, and even the president [Ahmadinejad] himself was interested in a
one-on-one meeting with Obama.9”

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 Supreme 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.)10 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-א-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 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.”11 Before leaving Tehran for
Geneva, Zarif urged “Western governments not to 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.”12

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)13 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 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).14 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.

Endgame

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 a 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.
 
First published at: http://jcpa.org/article/iran-vs-west-endgame/

  1. http://www.2014election.org/iran/iran-democratic-elections-2014/
    IRAN DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS 2014
    on October 23, 2013 at 8:42 am wrote:

    […] Iran vs. the West: Endgame? | Missing Peace | missingpeace.eu | EN […]