At the close of the last round of talks in Kazakhstan between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K., and Germany) that ended a week ago, the head Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, tried to implicitly drag Israel into the considerations that had made the nuclear negotiations so difficult.
The headlines in the major newspapers in the West left little doubt that the talks had completely failed. Thus the LA Times announced “Iranian Talks Unproductive.” The Washington Post ran a headline stating that the Iran talks had ended in a “muddle.” The Voice of America led with the harshest verdict stating that the “Iran Nuclear Talks Collapse.”
The fact of the matter was that the parties to the Kazakhstan talks did not even set a date for the next round. What was needed was an explanation of what happened. Jalili tried to put a good face on a bad situation. He said that he believed that delegations from the P5+1 wanted the talks to succeed, but there was one country which was pressuring the negotiators representing the West and was the hidden reason for their hardened position. He did not say who he had in mind but it was clear that he was suggesting that Israel was somehow pulling the strings and influencing the nuclear negotiations.
Jalili was not alone in trying to force the argument that Israel was somehow a factor in the West’s diplomatic stalemate with Iran. They wanted people to believe that Israel was not only the problem but also part of the solution. Former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who was part of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team under then-President Mohammad Khatami, has an office at Princeton University, and has become a sought-after commentator in the international media every time there is a new negotiating round between Iran and the West.
Last year, the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, whose headquarters are in Washington, published Mousavian’s 500-page memoir, entitled The Iranian Nuclear Crisis. Like the Iranian government, from which he fled, Mousavian insists that any solution to the crisis include recognition by the P5+1 of Iran’s right to enrich uranium — a right that does not appear in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But then he adds another element to the solution of the Iranian nuclear dispute: the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, which will include Israel.
While this idea was not popularly accepted it gained currency in certain circles. For example, Shibley Telhami, who is a fellow at the Saban Center in Washington, also picked up this theme. He proposed in a January 2012 article in The New York Times that to make Iran more flexible in nuclear negotiations, the West should push for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East that would put the spotlight on Israel.
To its credit, the Obama administration made a realistic assessment of the situation in the Arab world today and decided not to convene last fall a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which had been proposed in 2010. In a statement on Nov. 23, 2012, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, specifically cited “present conditions in the Middle East,” which was a clear reference to the Arab Spring, as one of the reasons why this situation was not ripe to pursue this line of policy.
But there is something far more fundamental missing in these proposals to use a nuclear free zone in the Middle East as a means to draw Iran into a compromise. The whole idea that Iran’s determination to get nuclear weapons has something to do with Israel is completely wrong. The Islamic republic renewed Iran’s nuclear program in the 1980s as a result of its bitter experiences during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) when the Iranian army was repeatedly attacked by Saddam Hussein’s forces who used chemical weapons. Israel was not a factor in its considerations.
But after the Iraq-Iran war, Tehran acquired new motivation to seek nuclear weapons: its determination to become the hegemonic power in the Middle East after the defeat of Iraq. A few years after he assumed the position of supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a revealing interview published on July 7, 1991 in the Iranian daily Ressalat, in which he asked a rhetorical question: “Do we look to preserve the integrity of our land, or do we look to expansion?” He then answered himself, saying: “We must definitely look to expansion.” Khamenei is the commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces and hence his definitions of Iranian national strategy are essential to follow.
Iran’s quest for regional hegemony is still sustained to this day. Khamenei’s senior adviser on military affairs, Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi, who was the previous commander of the Revolutionary Guards, described Iran in 2013 as “the regional superpower” in the Middle East. He asserted in the same interview that a “new global power is emerging in the Muslim world.” Safavi’s successor as commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, was even more blunt in 2008: “Our Imam did not limit the movement of the Islamic Revolution to this country, but drew greater horizons.” Khamenei’s operational instrument for realizing these goals in the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, under the command of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani.
Iran’s expansionist agenda is evident in his statements as well. During 2012 in a speech about Lebanon and Iraq, Suleimani asserted: “These regions are one way or another subject to the control of the Islamic republic of Iran and its ideas.” Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament, who works as an adviser to Khamenei, described Bahrain in 2009 as Iran’s 14th province. In early 2013, an Iranian cleric close to Khamenei described Syria as Iran’s 35th province. Thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deployed on the ground in Syria to prevent the regime of Bashar al-Assad from falling and Syria leaving Iran’s sphere of influence.
In short, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is not for defensive purposes, but to help it realize its regional ambitions in the Middle East. Despite the efforts of Jalili, Mousavi, and a number of Western academics to divert international focus away from Iran exclusively, the fact is that the idea of bringing Israel into the disarmament equation does not alter by one iota Iran’s principle motivation to cross the nuclear finishing line and become a nuclear weapons state.
But if there is a country affecting the present dialogue between Iran and the West, it is not to be found in the Middle East. North Korea kicked out the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, produced weapons-grade plutonium, conducted three tests of its atomic weapons, and all the world could do was to increase sanctions. Today North Korea is threatening to use its nuclear weapons against the U.S. Any diplomat negotiating with Iran will have to take into account that Tehran could easily follow the North Korean precedent and withdraw from any future agreement, assuming, by the North Korean example, that it can get away with it. The West should harden its positions in negotiations as a result, but it is very possible that Iran and it supporters among certain Western elites will seek a new scapegoat for why the nuclear talks, under present conditions, are likely to fail.