Iran: Preconditions and Provocations

, February 10, 2011

Vol. 10, No. 29    February 10, 2011

    • The telling, if predictable, failure of the most recent talks with Iran concerning its nuclear ambitions highlights the country’s intransigence, which is not likely to soften anytime soon.
    • For Iran, last month’s talks in Turkey offered an opportunity to show how the center of power has shifted from Western dominance to Islamic hegemony under Tehran’s leadership.
    • Iran’s behavior during the talks in Istanbul once again demonstrated the limits of dialogue and engagement with the regime.
  • In their current scope, international economic sanctions may damage the Iranian economy and may impede the nuclear program’s pace, but they do not suffice to restrain the Iranian leadership from attaining a nuclear bomb.

The January 21-22 meeting in Istanbul between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1), aimed at reaching at least some understandings regarding Iran’s nuclear program, concluded in a resounding failure. To understand why is to shed light on the larger question of Iran’s regional role.

In the course of the meeting, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, head of the Iranian delegation, laid down two preconditions: a cessation of the sanctions against Iran, and recognition of its right to nuclear fuel and enrichment. In practice, the insistence on such preconditions rendered the meeting superfluous. “These preconditions are not a way to proceed,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton noted at the end of the meeting.1 But they came as no surprise. As Tehran had declared both before and during the talks, it did not want to deal with the nuclear issue at all but with the “entire range of regional and international problems.”

It was a small, if telling, example of how Iranian behavior prior to, during, and following the talks attested to Iran’s sense of supreme self-confidence. Western pressure notwithstanding, Iran draws encouragement from its progress on the nuclear program, from regional developments in Lebanon and Iraq, and from the frozen negotiations in the Palestinian arena. It senses that it can persist in its provocations against the West without paying any price whatsoever. A member of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, remarked that the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany would have no choice but to return to the negotiating table, given Iran’s standing as a major regional player.2

Indeed, last month’s talks in Turkey offered Iran an opportunity to show how the center of power has shifted from Western dominance to Islamic hegemony under Tehran’s leadership. This is why, in the course of a fatiguing press conference following the failure of the talks, Saeed Jalili emphasized the historical roots and the reinvigorated status of Islamic culture since the first meeting between Iran and the great powers took place in Switzerland. He then proposed that the next meeting also take place in Istanbul, for “we believed that a majority of talks over international issues can be held on the basis of the Islamic civilization.”3

“Transparency”

On the eve of the meeting, Iran conducted a broad propaganda campaign intended to show the world that the nuclear program was intended for peaceful purposes and that Iran was behaving transparently in everything connected with its nuclear installations. One of the objectives of this raucous propaganda campaign was to drive a wedge between the European Union and other Western countries supporting the United States and its policy towards Iran.

To this end, Iran invited ambassadors accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – excluding representatives of the United States, Germany, France, and Britain – to tour the 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor installation in Arak (still in the stages of construction) and the uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz. Representatives of the EU claimed that IAEA supervisors and not diplomats should be the ones supervising nuclear installations. In a similar vein, Russia noted that the Iranian invitation was indeed “worthy of attention,” but that it was no substitute for proper IAEA inspection.

In the end, only a few representatives of IAEA member countries – who also fulfill roles in the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the G-77 – joined the inspections. Participants included the ambassadors of Egypt and Cuba (Iran, Egypt, and Cuba constitute the troika in the Non-Aligned Movement presidency and the G-77), the representative of Oman, the Syrian and Algerian ambassadors to the IAEA, and, as a “special guest,” the Venezuelan representative to the IAEA.4

By inviting these parties to its nuclear installations, Iran hoped to demonstrate that the country is not as isolated as the United States would like to imagine, and that it is capable of recruiting large international “blocs” – such as the non-aligned countries and the Islamic states – as a counterweight to America’s influence, especially in the Middle East and Latin America.

Missing an Historic Opportunity

Iranian representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, who accompanied the inspection tour, said it was intended to rebut Western claims that Iran was conducting clandestine activity at its Arak and Natanz installations. He noted that those who declined the Iranian invitation missed “an historic opportunity to see Iran’s nuclear program for peaceful purposes up-close.” Those who did participate, he remarked, saw with their own eyes that “the U.S. claim on Iran’s isolation is entirely wrong and you see that Iran not only is not isolated, but also is supported by many countries in the world.”5 Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian acting foreign minister and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), added that Iran is the first country in the world to have opened up its nuclear facilities to other states, proving that his country “has nothing to hide.”6

Salehi also said that in the end the Western countries will be compelled to recognize Iran’s nuclear rights. “Western countries always seem to make world public opinion believe that Iran’s nuclear activities are not peaceful, but these countries will one day be obliged to acknowledge the righteousness of Iran’s nuclear activities,” he said.7 During the visits, Salehi emphasized that with its reliance upon Islam, “Iran does not need weapons of mass destruction.” He further warned that “states that prefer to confront Iran instead of cooperating with it would pay for their misdeed.”8

Nuclear Independence

On the eve of the talks, the Iranian Majlis tried to “anchor” the positions of Iran’s negotiator and forestall concessions to the West. Mohammad Karamirad, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, indicated in an interview with Iranian television that the Majlis had adopted four binding guidelines with regard to Iranian nuclear activities: preserving Iran’s achievements in the nuclear field; completion of all components of the fuel cycle; continued progress on the nuclear program; and coordinating all actions in the nuclear field with the IAEA. Karamirad stressed that the talks in Istanbul had to focus on Iran’s need for nuclear energy to generate electricity and insisted that under no circumstances would the Iranian nuclear program be halted. He also called upon the West to exploit the opportunity and cooperate with Iran.9

On one issue, however, there was at least a modicum of dialogue during the meeting in Turkey: the proposal to exchange nuclear fuel. Iran’s representative in the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said that Tehran’s declaration regarding the exchanges of nuclear fuel intended for the Tehran research reactor, initiated by Brazil, Iran, and Turkey, constituted the only possible basis for talks with the Vienna group (the U.S., Russia, France, and the IAEA).10 In threatening tones, he added that by September of this year Iran would be capable of manufacturing sufficient uranium enriched to a level of 20 percent. When the reactor was loaded with nuclear fuel independently produced in Iran, he said, there would be no further significance to a dialogue on the subject.

Acting Foreign Minister Salehi, meanwhile, sarcastically thanked the West for refusing to supply Iran with 20-percent enriched uranium, thereby encouraging Iran to manufacture it by itself. In December, Salehi noted that after the transfer of the first shipments of uranium from the Gachin mine to the Isfahan uranium conversion facility, Iran had become independent in everything connected with the various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, and that Iran was no longer dependent on the supply of yellowcake from abroad.11

What’s Next?

Iran’s behavior during the talks in Turkey once again demonstrated the limits of dialogue and engagement. Sanctions do indeed impede Iran’s nuclear program, but they do not suffice to restrain the Iranian leadership from attaining a nuclear bomb.

Upon the conclusion of the talks, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad hastened to emphasize that he was prepared to continue the dialogue. One “could not solve things,” in his opinion, “over the course of one or two sessions.” He added that the West had to reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli. Western behavior towards Iran must take this fact as its point of departure, the Iranian leader insisted. “Conditions are now prepared for reaching good agreements in future sessions,” Ahmedinejad said, “if the opposite side complies with justice and respect (for Iran’s nuclear rights).” He boasted that the world powers had failed to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, that even hundreds of superpowers could not budge Iran from its positions, and called upon the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany not to submit to Israeli pressure (“narrow-minded Zionist individuals”) if they wished to achieve progress in negotiations.

Iran now has sufficient low-level enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear bomb or two. If the Iranian leadership should decide, on the basis of strategic considerations at home or abroad, to do so, it could enrich uranium to the high level requisite for nuclear weapons. (Iran currently claims that it can already enrich to a level of 20 percent to supply the research needs of the Tehran reactor.)12

A recent study by the Federation of American Scientists warned of complacency and a dulling of the sense of urgency on the part of the West. Inter alia, the report concluded that “despite a drop in centrifuge numbers during 2010, the total enrichment capacity of Iran’s main facility has increased relative to previous years….It would take Iran anywhere from five months to almost a year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single crude bomb, which does not seem like a viable breakout option.”13

Reports of a delay in Iran’s nuclear progress due to the damage inflicted by the Stuxnet computer virus only reinforce Iran’s position, and at the same time allow the country to continue making progress on its clandestine military nuclear program. In their current scope, the sanctions may damage the Iranian economy and may impede the nuclear program’s pace, but are not likely to induce Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards to forgo the military nuclear program, vital for anchoring regime stability. For the moment, then, Iran only derives encouragement from the West’s persistent haplessness.

Iran today is demonstrating that it is capable of detrimentally influencing regional politics (the Israeli-Palestinian peace process) and regional stability (in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Afghanistan). Iran also sees itself as inspiring the democratic awakening in the Arab world (Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan), viewing events in Egypt as the direct continuation of Khomeini’s revolution.14

Furthermore, Iran is also involved in activity tied to narco-terrorism in Latin America and has hinted that it will assist the promotion of nuclear programs elsewhere. Therefore, we must restore a sense of urgency and once more put a credible military threat on the agenda. (According to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, in 2003 such a threat caused Iran temporarily to abandon the military track of its nuclear program due to apprehensions about an American attack.)

American President Barack Obama has the opportunity to “correct” the line that he adopted at the start of his term vis-à-vis Iran, a line that allowed Iran to harden its position on the nuclear issue and intensify its influence in Middle Eastern affairs. Adopting a harder line towards Iran and creating a genuine military threat would not only pave the way for a more effective response to a state that harms American interests in the Middle East, but would also lay the groundwork for a better handling of the Palestinian issue and democratization in the region. The alternative is grim: a weakening of the moderate Arab camp, a strengthening of the “resistance camp” (Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, and the other Palestinian terror organizations influenced by Iran), and a steep decline in American influence in the region. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “We have time. But not a lot of time.”15

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Notes

1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/22/AR2011012203405.html
2. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8911040503
3. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8911021416
4. IRNA, January 15, 2011.
5. http://isna.ir/ISNA/NewsView.aspx?ID=News-1696403&Lang=E
6. http://www.presstv.ir/detail/160280.html
7. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8910261159
8. IRNA, December 16, 2010, http://bit.ly/fokRQN
9. Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 15, 2011.
10. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8910271276
11. http://www.presstv.ir/detail/153963.ht http://www.presstv.ir/detail/153963.html
12. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8910181207
13. http://www.fas.org/pubs/_docs/IssueBrief_Jan2011_Iran.pdf
14. Michael Segall, “Iran Views the Egyptian Revolution as the Direct Continuation of Khomeini’s Revolution,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, http://jerusalemcenter.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/iran-views-egyptian-revolution/
15. http://m.state.gov/md154161.htm

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IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall is an expert on strategic issues, with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East.

 

Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.