January 28, 2012
It is possible that there will another round of nuclear discussions between the P5+1 and Iran in the near future. Given the extent to which Israel, the United States, and America’s European partners are ratcheting up tensions over the nuclear issue, one hopes that additional talks would help the parties find a peaceful and productive way forward. But that is unlikely unless the Western powers are prepared to accept the reality that Iran is enriching uranium, that it will continue enriching uranium, and that it has every right to do so under international law. We want to highlight a few pieces that have come out recently and make this point.
One is from Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Peter has published several pieces on Race for Iran, and we have always benefited from his analysis and insights. Peter’s most recent article, “The Deal the West Could Strike With Iran”, was published in The Telegraph earlier this month, see here. He rightly attributes what he sees as “a big rise in the twin risks of military action and grave damage to the world economy” to “a great diplomatic over bid: the West’s demand that Iran surrender its capacity to enrich uranium.”
Peter charts his personal experience with the Iranian nuclear issue, noting how his own views on the matter have evolved. He states forthrightly that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “prohibits the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons. But it permits the uranium enrichment that has been at the heart of the West’s quarrel with Iran.” He also notes that, today, “the West is all but isolated in insisting that Iran must not enrich.” The way out, he writes, is
“a deal along the following lines: Iran would accept top-notch IAEA safeguards in return for being allowed to continue enriching uranium. In addition, Iran would volunteer some confidence-building measures to show that it has no intention of making nuclear weapons.
This, essentially, is the deal that Iran offered the UK, France and Germany in 2005. With hindsight, that offer should have been snapped up. It wasn’t because our objective was to put a stop to all enrichment in Iran. That has remained the West’s aim ever since, despite countless Iranian reminders that they are unwilling to be treated as a second-class party to the NPT—with fewer rights than other signatories—and despite all the evidence that the Iranian character is more inclined to defiance than buckling under pressure.”
One of the main reasons this sort of deal was not “snapped up” by the Europeans in 2005 is that the United States, in the form of the George W. Bush Administration, was not on board. Since the Obama Administration came to office in 2009, there have been periodic flurries of reports in the media and the work of some commentators on the Obama team’s purported willingness to accept safeguarded enrichment in Iran as a negotiated outcome. The reports are false. While there are some Obama Administration officials who would be prepared to accept safeguarded enrichment inside Iran as part of a solution to the nuclear issue, there has never been a consensus within the Administration or a presidential decision to this effect. U.S. policy, unfortunately, is still “zero enrichment” where Iran is concerned.
But there is another reason the Europeans did not snap up the deal advanced by Iran in 2005. One of the more striking dynamics inside the P5+1, since the United States finally joined in multilateral nuclear diplomacy with Tehran in 2006, is that Britain and France have both been very hardline on the enrichment issue, discouraging any flexibility by the United States on the matter. It seems like London and Paris are both chronically concerned about what the development of potential “threshold” capabilities by important regional powers like Iran would mean for the strategic value of Britain and France’s small nuclear arsenals—and what Iran’s rise portends for the West’s ability to continue dominating the Middle East as it has in the past.
All of this makes us very skeptical that the United States and its European partners will be prepared to take a fundamentally different approach to nuclear talks with Tehran. If they are, Peter’s piece shows what such an approach might look like.
An important element in the current tensions between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue is an extraordinary hyping of the Iranian nuclear “threat” by Western powers and Israel. In this regard, the most recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities looms very large. Peter offers cogent observations about the report in his article, noting that
“the IAEA has not reported evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so. This is hardly surprising, since the key bits of November’s IAEA report were based on material supplied by Western intelligence. For years, the Western assessment has been that Iran seeks the capability to build nuclear weapons, but has not taken a decision to produce them.”
Another richly insightful deconstruction of the IAEA’s recent engagement with Iran’s nuclear program was provided earlier this month by Robert Kelley, see here. Kelley is an American nuclear engineer who worked for 30 years in the University of California’s nuclear weapons laboratories before serving for nine years at the IAEA. In his article, “Nuclear Arms Charge Against Iran Is No Slam Dunk”, published by Bloomberg, he notes that the “evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons program
“is sketchy. And the way the data have been presented produces a sickly sense of déjà vu. I am speaking up about this now because, as a member of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team in 2003, I learned firsthand how withholding the facts can lead to bloodshed. Having known the details then, though I was not allowed to speak, I feel a certain shared responsibility for the war that killed more than 4,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis. A private citizen today, I hope to help ensure the facts are clear before the U.S. takes further steps that could lead, intentionally or otherwise, to a new conflagration, this time in Iran.”
Turning a critical eye to the 24-page IAEA report, Kelly points out that “all but three of the items that were offered as proof of a possible nuclear-arms program are either undated or refer to events before 2004. The agency spends about 96 percent of a 14-page annex reprising what was already known.” Of the three relatively “new” indications of “possible military dimensions” to the Iranian program, Kelley points out that
“two of the three are attributed only to two member states, so the sourcing is impossible to evaluate. In addition, their validity is called into question by the agency’s handling of the third piece of evidence. That evidence, according to the IAEA, tells u Iran embarked on a four-year program, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign.
In 2009, the IAEA received a two-page document, purporting to come from Iran, describing this same alleged work. Mohamed ElBaradei, who was thenthe agency’s director general, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity. What’s more, the document contained style errors, suggesting the author was not a native Farsi speaker. It appeared to have been typed using an Arabic, rather than a Farsi, word-processing program. When ElBaradei put the document in the trash heap, the U.K.’s Times newspaper published it.
This episode had suspicious similarities to a previous case that proved definitively to be a hoax. In 1995, the IAEA received several documents from the Sunday Times, a sister paper to the Times, purporting to show that Iraq had resumed its nuclear-weapons program in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The IAEA quickly determined that the documents were elaborate forgeries. There were mistakes in formatting the documents’ markings, classification and dates, and many errors in language and style indicated the author’s first language was something other than Arabic or Farsi. Inspections in Iraq later in 1995 confirmed incontrovertibly that there had been no reconstitution of the Iraqi nuclear program.
I regret now that ElBaradei did not speak out more vehemently, before the U.S. went to war, about the 1995 faked documents, additional forgeries provided to the agency in 2003 and other falsifications. A good man, he had been an international lawyer with years of experience dealing with half-truths and prevarications. But he was trapped between telling the whole story and overtly insulting the U.S., which supplied 25 percent of the IAEA’s funding.
For example, ElBaradei labeled documents provided to the IAEA about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from Africa “not authentic.” A better description would have been “blatant and amateurish forgeries.” He provided evidence that aluminum tubes the U.S. said were for nuclear centrifuges were actually for rockets. But he did not supply the supporting engineering details publicly. The truth was lost in the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s scandalous detailing of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which was wrong in almost every respect.
ElBaradei’s successor also has fallen short by failing to note in his report the earlier doubts that Iran was continuing to develop a neutron-producing device. If Amano has found new reasons to overlook the many questionable aspects of this story, he should present them. Given past doubts about the episode, the agency’s reporting on it should be above reproach. When it comes to accurately accounting for potential diversions of nuclear materials, the IAEA’s main mission, the agency has gone about its work with precision. It needs to be just as exacting when it delves into allegations about Iran’s weapons intentions.”
The third and fourth pieces we want to highlight here are by Iranians, and were written as critical responses to Matthew Kroenig’s recent Foreign Affairs article, “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike is the Least Bad Option”, which we, see here, as well as Stephen Walt, see here, and Paul Pillar, see here, have also critiqued. Kayhan Barzegar, who teaches at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran and whose work has been featured previously on Race For Iran, published “Military Option Is the Worst Possible Scenario” in Iran Review earlier this month, see here, (it was originally published in Farsi in Tabnak; later Sanaz Tabeafshar, a Ph.D. candidate at the Islamic Azad University, published “Attacking Iran is the Least Good Option, Dr. Kroenig!” in Iran Review , see here.
Kayhan zeroes in on the same passage in Kroenig’s article that we did—his warning that “a nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East.” Kayhan rightly links Kroenig’s “hyperbolic stance regarding the peril of Iran’s nuclear program and portrayal of it as an ‘urgent’ danger” to “neo-conservative ideas previously circulating in the U.S. political establishment as well as uncritical conformity with the Israeli perspective on the issue.”
–This perspective undergirds Kroenig’s unsubstantiated insistence that Iran’s nuclear activities are inevitably aimed at weaponization.
–Kayhan notes in response that
“Tehran’s recent measures to move its sophisticated centrifuges to the Fordo site in Qom, announced the opening of a new nuclear site, and recently making nuclear fuel rods and plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and so on have been taken with the aim of creating ‘political equality’ in the nuclear negotiations with the West.”
Of course, that is precisely what London, Paris, and Washington do not want—for Iran to achieve something approaching “political equality” in its dealings with the West. Kayhan points out that, if one were really serious about dealing with nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one would embrace the idea of nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the region, noting that, according to a recent World Public Opinion poll, “64 percent of the Israeli public favors a NWFZ in the Middle East, mostly [as a way] of checking Iran’s nuclear program.” But that idea is not going to get serious consideration by Western governments anytime soon.
As to a possible attack against Iran, by either the United States or Israel, Kayhan graciously recalls that,
“as the Leveretts precisely argue, the military attack is only justified on the basis of the peaceful enrichment activities of Iran, to which it is entitled according to the [NPT]. One should perceive that such a perspective aims mostly to preserve the nuclear monopoly of the Israeli regime in the Middle East.”
More broadly, Kayhan underscores how Kroenig
“once again falls into the trap of traditional and simplistic self-contradiction typical of the neo-conservative way of thinking which holds that the United States enjoys indefinite military power and can advance its objectives by means or war, a conception which has helped to prolong the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…the author conceives that Washington can launch a military offense against Iran successfully and pull out of the conflict easily without having to suffer any dire consequences.”
Kayhan lays out multiple reasons why such a conception is highly fanciful.
Sanaz Tabeafshar, in her critique of Kroenig’s article, picks up on some of Kayhan’s broader strategic themes, noting that
“after the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq, a strategic deal between the U.S. and Afghan government, the Arab spring and isolation of Turkey from the Middle East, the territorial swath controlled by Iran has extended from western Afghanistan up to the Mediterranean Sea…With or without any so-called nuclear bomb, Iran’s direct or indirect way of pursuing its foreign policy has, according to Greg Bruno of the Council on Foreign Relations, made ‘a veto holding power on Middle Eastern peace’.”
We, of course, have argued for some time that Iran’s rising regional influence bolsters the imperatives for U.S. rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. As Tabeafshar underscores, this also reinforces the sheer foolhardiness of a unilateral strike against Iranian nuclear targets. She points out that, if Iran were attacked, beyond closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles, Tehran could confront the United States and its partners with “the uprising of Shias through the religious decree of jihad which would be extended out of the region and will come off with proxy attacks against U.S. military installations.” Moreover, “even in the best case scenario of a strike that, say, set back the Iranian peaceful nuclear program by 2 or 3 years, the Iranians would reseed it with much legitimacy and urgency that only come from having been attacked by an outside power.”
The case for serious U.S. diplomacy with Iran could not be clearer. But seriousness, in this context, will require very significant changes in U.S. policy and Washington’s overarching attitude about the Islamic Republic. We hope that we are wrong, but we do not think it likely that the Obama Administration will be up for this, especially not at the President continues his re-election bid.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett