The reports coming out of the last round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran, held in Kazakhstan, were surprisingly positive. The Washington Post headlined its Feb. 27 report on the subject, “Iran nuclear talks end on upbeat note.” Saeed Jalili, the head Iranian negotiator, told reporters that the two sides might be getting to a “turning point” in the talks between them. Was all this optimism warranted?
Jalili, who undoubtedly wanted to paint himself as a tough negotiator protecting Iranian interests, explained his optimism by saying that the U.S. was now making concessions that it did not make before: “It was they [the U.S.] who tried to get closer to our point of view.”
There were some signs that pointed in this direction. The Wall Street Journal suggested in its main editorial that Iranian behavior at the negotiating table had been influenced by Washington’s decision to cut the number of aircraft carriers it deployed in the Persian Gulf from two to one, which the newspaper implied weakened the West’s diplomatic leverage.
Even The Washington Post adopted a critical line against the Obama administration in its main editorial on Feb. 28, which asked provocatively whether the U.S. was “kowtowing to Iran.” It pointed out that during the previous negotiations held in Baghdad during May 2012, the P5+1 demanded that Iran shut down completely its Fordo uranium enrichment facility, which was built underground, inside a mountain. The Western powers also insisted that the Iranians ship their entire stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium abroad. However, in the Kazakhstan talks, the P5+1 only called for a suspension of operations at Fordo, without the plant being closed. According to the new proposals, Iran could retain some of its 20% enriched uranium.
It should be stressed that the Western powers were pulling in different directions when it came to their strategy towards Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted in his public statements that time was running out for a diplomatic solution. In contrast, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was also the head negotiator for the P5+1, took a very different position. At the Munich Security Conference in February, she refused to speak about diplomatic deadlines with the Iranians: “We shall never cease to strive to find ways to bring them to the table and to have that diplomatic solution, and we are very much engaged right now in trying to move forward on this.” The European officials, with a few exceptions, appeared to be seeking to keep the negotiations going at almost any cost.
The strongest opponent of this view, besides Israel, was Saudi Arabia. In remarkably candid remarks made in a joint press conference in Riyadh with Secretary of State John Kerry on March 4, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal stated that the talks with Iran could not go on forever, adding that “negotiations must end at a specific time.” He stressed that the Iranians were not serious about their talks with the West: “They continued negotiations just to reach more and more negotiations in the future. If such negotiations continued, we will see ourselves in front of a nuclear weapon, but we cannot allow this to happen.”
This Saudi realism is undoubtedly a product of the kingdom’s strategic situation. Saudi Arabia is encircled by Iranian proxies receiving aid directly from Tehran. To Saudi Arabia’s south, Iran is supporting the Shiite rebels in Yemen; during January 2013 a third weapons ship with Iranian anti-aircraft missiles and Katyusha rockets was intercepted before it could make its delivery to the Yemeni Shiites. To the north, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is viewed in Riyadh as no less than an Iranian agent.
Bahraini security just accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of being involved in planned terrorist attacks on the island, which is 25 kilometers away (15.5 miles) from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Saudi officials also have charged that their own Shiite rebellion was being “manipulated from abroad,” meaning from Iran. As a result, it is not surprising that the Saudis are one of the few who fully understand the Iranians’ diplomatic technique of exploiting nuclear talks with the West to play for time and further advance their nuclear program.
After he served on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005, Hossein Mousavian explained Tehran’s negotiating strategy during talks held at that time with the British, French and Germans on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Speaking on Iranian television he frankly admitted: “Thanks to the negotiations with Europe, we gained another year, in which we completed [the uranium conversion facility] in Isfahan.”
Until now, many experts on the Iranian nuclear program generally assumed that Tehran planned to follow the North Korean example of “breakout” — that is, ejecting the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and rushing to enrich its uranium to the weapons grade level, thereby confronting the West with a fait accompli. If that was the Iranian plan, then starting from the 20% enrichment level would cut the time needed to reach weapons grade uranium in half. That is the reason why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set Israel’s red line with reference to the accumulation of enough 20% uranium for one atomic bomb, roughly 225 kilograms (496 pounds).
But in response to the Israeli red line, over the last year, while continuing to enrich uranium to the 20% level, the Iranians have been diverting a portion of their 20% stock to other uranium derivatives, like uranium oxide, which cannot be used in nuclear weapons. Iran should have crossed the red line last fall, but because it keeps diverting uranium for other uses it has only accumulated 167 kilograms (368 pounds) instead of the 280 kilograms (617 pounds) which it has produced so far.
Instead, Iran appears to have adopted a new strategy of massively increasing its enrichment infrastructure by installing more centrifuges than it has ever added to its Natanz facility and moving to a new generation of faster centrifuges. In the aftermath of the Kazakhstan talks with the P5+1, Iran announced that it was building 3,000 of these advanced centrifuges. If Iran decides on a strategy of nuclear breakout, it will involve far more weapons-grade uranium than it needs for one bomb.
As a result of these trends, while the West is hopeful that the negotiations with Iran might lead to a breakthrough, it appears that Tehran is only hardening its position. Iran’s interest, at this point, is to drive a wedge between the U.S. on the one hand and the Europeans on the other in order to obtain more concessions from the P5+1. But looking at Iran from the Middle East, any weakening of Western resolve will only invite further Iranian aggressive behavior.