US chooses diplomacy with Iran … but years late


On 24 November 2013, the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, UK and US plus Germany) agreed a Joint Plan of Action [1] with Iran about its nuclear programme.


The Plan of Action contains an interim agreement lasting six months and defines the principles on which a long-term agreement will be based.  For details of these, see my article The US U-turns and accepts that Iran will have uranium enrichment facilities [2].


The P5+1 have now reached agreement with Iran about a timetable for putting into effect the various measures set out in the interim deal [3].  Implementation began on 20 January 2014 and it is scheduled to be completed on 20 July 2014.


The IAEA is responsible for verifying that Iran adheres to the timetable.  The IAEA confirmed on 20 January 2014 that Iran has ceased enriching uranium to 20% as required, which is the most significant measure in the interim agreement (enrichment to 5% is unaffected). 


In exchange for these measures by Iran, the US is committed to making a modest reduction in sanctions.  This includes suspending the ban on the supply of spare parts for civil aircraft and making it easier for Iran to buy pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.  In addition, Iran will be given back $4.2 billion of its own money (out of approximately $100 billion of Iranian funds that have been frozen under sanctions).  The first tranche of $550 million is scheduled to be handed over on 1 February 2014 and the last on 20 July 2014.



Deal could have been reached in 2005


Welcoming the implementation agreement, President Obama said that it was the first time in a decade that the Islamic Republic of Iran has agreed a nuclear deal of this kind [4].  That’s true, but the US has nobody to blame but itself for not reaching a deal much earlier.


A deal along the lines agreed last November could have been reached as long ago as 2005, when President Rouhani was head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (or at any time since) had the US been prepared to accept that Iran would have uranium enrichment facilities on its own soil.  That has always been Iran’s bottom line without which no deal was possible.


In negotiations with the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) in 2005, Iran made an offer under which it would retain enrichment facilities, but would put in place unprecedented transparency measures to reassure the world that its nuclear activities would always be exclusively for peaceful purposes.  That deal didn’t come to fruition because, at that time, the US insisted that Iran must not have enrichment facilities on its own soil under any circumstances – and the EU3 acquiesced.  A great opportunity was lost to reach a settlement when Iran’s enrichment programme was in its infancy.


(This is the central message of my recent book with Peter Oborne, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran [5]). 



Iran sanctioned


Instead, the US and its allies persuaded the IAEA Board to refer Iran to the Security Council about its nuclear activities.  And at the instigation of the US, the Security Council passed six Chapter VII resolutions, the first in 2006 and the sixth in 2010, demanding that Iran cease enrichment and various other nuclear activities. Four of these six resolutions included tranches of rather limited economic sanctions, rather limited because Russia and China opposed more severe ones.


However, over the past two years Iran has been subject to much more severe economic sanctions, unilaterally imposed by the US (and not endorsed by the Security Council).  These sanctions are the product of legislation passed by the US Congress in December 2011 at the behest of the Israeli lobby in the US.  It has been estimated that Iran has lost around $100 billion in oil revenue as a result.



Sanctions produced 19,000 centrifuges


American (and other) proponents of the present nuclear deal maintain that these sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table and, without them, the deal would have not have been achieved.  This is simply untrue.  What led to the deal was the US U-turn on Iran having enrichment on its own soil.  Without that there would have been no deal.  That sanctions brought about the deal is a convenient fiction, which is uttered repeatedly in order to cover up the fact that there has been a complete reversal of policy on the part of the US and its allies.


It is understandable that the US has reversed policy.  Since 2005, it has expended an immense amount of political capital dragooning the world into applying political and economic pressure on Iran in an attempt to force it to cease enrichment.  But, these efforts have failed abysmally: in 2005, there were no centrifuges enriching uranium in Iran; today, according to the latest IAEA report last November [6], around 19,000 centrifuges are installed and about 10,000 of them are in operation.  A graph in Annex II of this report, showing how the number of centrifuges has grown since 2005, is a testament to the abject failure of the US-inspired sanctions.


As Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is fond of saying, sanctions produced 19,000 centrifuges.



Nuclear policy didn’t change with Rouhani


It is sometimes implied that the deal was made possible by a change in Iran’s nuclear policy with the election of Hassan Rouhani as President in June 2013.  That is also untrue.  There was no significant change in nuclear policy upon his election.  His bottom line was the same as his two predecessors, Mohammed Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and had the US been prepared to meet that bottom line during either of their presidencies a deal could have been done earlier.


It goes without saying that the election of Hassan Rouhani has helped the Obama administration immeasurably in selling a rapprochement with Iran.  To do that, the old narrative that Iran was an aggressive state which refused to engage honestly with the West and was hellbent on developing nuclear weapons and wiping Israel off the map had to be jettisoned.  There could hardly have been a more convenient moment to jettison this than the replacement of the abrasive Ahmadinejad by the conciliatory Rouhani and his equally conciliatory foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.


But, there was no significant change in nuclear policy in Tehran.  Happily, there was a U-turn in Washington.



No weapons programme to be curtailed


The US has been arguing for the interim deal as a means of curtailing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons by diplomatic means and suggesting that if this diplomatic initiative fails then the US may need to take military action to do the job.


One could be forgiven for thinking that US intelligence believes that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme, when in fact it has been the settled opinion of US intelligence since 2007 that Iran hasn’t got one (and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has declared the possession of such weapons a “grave sin”).


Iran’s nuclear facilities are all under IAEA supervision and the IAEA has never detected any diversion of nuclear material from these nuclear facilities for possible military use.  Furthermore, US intelligence is of the opinion that Iran could not produce enough highly enriched uranium in its enrichment plants for one bomb (assuming it wished to do so) before this activity was discovered by the IAEA.  So, this deal wasn’t necessary in order to curtail an active Iranian nuclear weapons programme – none existed to be curtailed by this deal or any other means.


It is true that the deal has included additional transparency measures – as a result of it, IAEA will have more access to Iran’s nuclear (and other) sites, including daily access by IAEA inspectors to the enrichment plants, and will be supplied with more advanced information about Iran’s plans for new nuclear facilities.  So, the IAEA’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities will be enhanced.


But, broadly speaking, these levels of access and reporting were available to the IAEA in 2006, before the US started the process of getting sanctions imposed on Iran in a futile attempt to force it to abandon enrichment – and even more transparency measures were contained in the offer made by Iran in 2005 and rejected by the US because it involved the continuation of enrichment.


Having said all that, the fact that the US administration has chosen diplomacy – albeit nearly a decade late – and is arguing against military action is to be welcomed.



The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (S. 1881)


Will the interim agreement be implemented successfully?  Will a long term agreement be reached?  The prospects look very good for both.


An immediate threat to the agreement – that the US Congress will enact legislation imposing additional nuclear-related sanctions on Iran – seems to be fading.  In the interim agreement the Obama administration made the following commitment:


“The US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”


This commitment obliges Obama to veto any legislation passed by Congress imposing additional sanctions.


A Bill currently before the US Senate, The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (S. 1881) [7], would impose additional sanctions, but only if Iran fails to implement the interim agreement or to negotiate a final agreement.  This may not breach the letter of the agreement, though it is bound to put the future of the agreement in jeopardy.


It is being sold by its co-authors, Democrat Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, and Republican Mark Kirk, as offering a helping hand to the administration by strengthening its hand in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.


It is difficult to counter this proposition, if one asserts, as the administration does, that a previously unwilling Iran was forced to the negotiating table by the sanctions imposed by Congress in December 2011.  If that were the case, then it follows that further sanctions would reinforce Iran’s willingness to negotiate and would increase the likelihood that it would accept less favourable terms.


In fact, Iran has not been forced to negotiate by sanctions.  It was prepared to endure sanctions over many years in order to achieve international acceptance of its right to enrich uranium.  It looks as if its endurance is about to pay off.



Bill goes further than new sanctions


The Bill goes a great deal further than imposing additional sanctions.  It also requires that in any final agreement Iran cease uranium enrichment completely (which is what Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding): such a provision would make reaching a final agreement impossible.  The Bill also expresses the view that


“if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;”


The Bill is being promoted by AIPAC, the pre-eminent Israeli lobby organisation in the US [8].   Its co-authors, Senators Menendez and Kirk, have been two of the biggest recipients of campaign funding from AIPAC-related political action committees (PACs) [9].  According to the AIPAC website, at the time of writing the Bill has 59 co-sponsors (16 Democrats and 43 Republicans) out of the 100 senators.  All but 2 Republican senators support it.


Nevertheless, it is not clear that the Bill will be voted on, let alone passed, by the Senate.  The Obama administration is lobbying fiercely against it, arguing that putting it into law would likely bring diplomacy to an end and implying that, in those circumstances, the only way to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons would be by the US taking military action.


The White House has gone so far as to hint that some supporters of the Bill want military action – see, for example, the following from a statement by Bernadette Meehan of the National Security Council is typical of the argument being made by the White House:


“If Congress passes this bill, it will be proactively taking an action that will make diplomacy less likely to succeed. The American people have been clear that they prefer a peaceful resolution to this issue. If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.” [9]


There are signs that this is having an effect in detaching some Democrat senators who have supported the Bill up to now in order, they say, to help the administration in its diplomatic efforts.



Mainstream media against Bill


Five major mainstream newspapers New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Minneapolis Star Tribune have published editorials against.  Rarely has AIPAC-sponsored legislation taken such a battering from the US press.


A New York Times editorial on 13 January 2013 spoke of “dangerously misguided forces, including leading Democrats and Republicans in Congress, … working to sabotage” the nuclear deal, which it described as “an undeniably important step toward the peaceful resolution of a serious dispute” [10].


On 15 January 2013, the Washington Post wrote that “pursuing negotiations on these terms, though risky, is preferable to unrestrained Iranian enrichment and a slide toward war.” [11]


Even long term supporters of Israel are expressing doubts.  For example, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in his Bloomberg column on 14 January 2013:


“What it [the Bill] could do is move the US closer to war with Iran and, crucially, make Iran appear -- even to many of the US’s allies -- to be the victim of American intransigence, even aggression.” [12]



Feinstein’s speech


10 senior Democrats who chair Senate committees have backed the administration in opposing the Bill [13].  One of them, Diane Feinstein, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, made a very powerful and coherent speech against the Bill in the Senate on 14 January 2013, a speech which looked forward a rapprochement with Iran going much further than just nuclear issues.  It’s well worth reading in full.  Here’s a small extract:


“The fact is we have reached agreement and that action is just about to take place, and we are going to jaundice it, we are going to hurt it, and we are likely to collapse it by passing additional sanctions …


“How does that make any kind of common sense? It defies logic, it threatens instant reverse, and it ends what has been unprecedented diplomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war.” [14]


On the Bill’s assertion that the US should support Israel if it took military action against Iran, she said: “While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war”.


It is a testament to the enormous power of the Israeli lobby that 59 out of 100 US senators put their names to the proposition that the US should go to war at a time and place of Israel’s choosing.  This is a rare occasion in which a senior US lawmaker has bluntly rejected that proposition in public.  It could be a sign of the times.


*  *  *


In the unlikely event of the Bill being passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, it is certain that Obama will veto it.  The commitment in the interim agreement obliges him to do so.  Theoretically, a presidential veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in each House.  But, that is extremely unlikely – very few Democratic senators are going to vote to torpedo a major foreign policy initiative by a Democratic president, in which he has invested a great deal of capital.



Iran will get what it wants


The Plan of Action agreed with the P5+1 last November abandoned the requirement that Iran should cease enrichment forthwith and stated that the final agreement to be negotiated in the coming months will be based on the following principles:


·         Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein”


·         “A mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme”


·         “The comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions, as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran's nuclear programme”


These principles encapsulate Iran’s nuclear policy objectives.  In view of this, Iran has a strong interest in seeing the process set out in the Plan of Action through to a successful conclusion.  It’s a near certainty therefore that Iran will implement the interim agreement meticulously and will negotiate a final settlement in a co-operative spirit while insisting that these principles be adhered to.


Now that it has embarked on a process of rapprochement with Iran, the US has also got a strong interest in seeing this process through to a successful conclusion.  A major diplomatic failure to add its long run of military failures in recent times would be a major blow to US standing in the world.  For that reason, the odds are that it will not make unreasonable demands of Iran and that a final agreement will be negotiated - and successfully implemented.



David Morrison

21 January 2014