I try to review the situation in the Middle East once a year so that I can update myself more systematically than through passive reading. Anyone else is invited both to read and respond to what I write. Admittedly, my perspective looks at the countries of the Middle East from an Israeli perspective, which in itself causes some distortion. But any perspective does.
I begin with Iran because the possible threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power is, by far, Israel’s foremost foreign policy concern. Further, the division between the United States and Israel over the West Bank and East Jerusalem pales in significance compared to the differences the two allies have over negotiations with Iran. As everyone knows, Israel has been very critical of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. The deadline for a deal is only a week away (24 November) and part of the guesswork is whether that deadline will be extended once again.
However, that deadline has become more significant and more pressing since the recent midterm Republican sweep in the US congressional elections. On the one hand, there are those who urge Obama to get the deal signed before it can be vetoed by the Senate. Already Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez are threatening to target Iran’s oil industry with new sanctions unless the agreement includes ironclad conditions that will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Iran remaining a threshold nuclear power, even if the period for achieving the production of a bomb is extended to a year, is insufficient for these strong opponents of the Iran negotiations. At the same time, there are others who urge Obama to demonstrate clearly that he intends to work closely with Congress using the Iran portfolio as an example.
Obama’s problem is that many members of both Houses, including many democrats, believe that this administration has already given away the store and is willing to allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear power, and with far too short a timeline. The Obama administration has insisted that Iran’s timeline for making a nuclear bomb will be at least one year. Critics who claim to know the terms of the deal in the making insist that it is only six months. This is certainly the view of the Israeli government and even of members of the Knesset from the Labour opposition. The two extremes – a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities versus a hands off approach to Iran’s nuclear program – are both off the table for the present. What is at stake is the degree of conciliation the US is willing to concede to Iran. Further, the deal appears to depend on Congress passing legislation to lift the sanctions or whether the Iranians are willing to accept a Presidential executive order to “suspend” the sanctions in stages, which seems the best that the White House can deliver at this time.
The Iranian government has its own pressures. On the one hand, the new government clearly wants the economic sanctions lifted. On the other hand, demands for a total stop to their nuclear enrichment program crosses a red line that they refuse to pass. Last month, and without telling his allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, President Obama sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggesting re-establishing diplomatic relations as well as cooperating on combating the extremist Sunni jihadists in ISIS. A week ago, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, confirmed that Obama had indeed sent not only this letter, but several others in the past, and that the Supreme Leader has responded to Obama’s overtures.
Many suspect that Khamenei is angling for another extension of the talks, partly in the belief that Obama has become a lame-duck president and partly because he believes he has already won on two key principles: 1) ensuring the right of Iran to enrich uranium and 2) preventing any inspections of the military aspects of its nuclear program. Some in America in favour of the negotiations also support an extension since they believe that falling oil prices, the threat of even more sanctions and new instances of sabotage of the nuclear program will together eventually bring Iran to its knees.
Though the contents of either Obama’s overtures or the Iranian response were not revealed, Shamkhani did assert that the American public positions were inconsistent with what the Americans said in private while the Iranian public and private positions were perfectly congruent, that a red line for Iran excluded visits of the International Atomic Energy Commission to military as distinct from nuclear sites, that the key regulations of any agreement should only be in conformity with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He reiterated Iran’s frequent charge that American foreign policy was created and controlled by Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi, the top Iranian official tasked with the day-to-day negotiations, openly declared that the Supreme Leader was fully in support of the negotiations that had taken place. Since the nuclear issue was under the Supreme Leader’s control, it was unlikely that the negotiations could have proceeded at all without his approval.
While the formal leader of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has kept a lid on any leaks, last Friday’s prayer leader, Ayatollah Movahedi Kermani, took the same position as that of the White House, insisting that no deal is better than a deal forced upon Iran by American aggression. Further, Fars News editor Seyed Yasser Jabraeili in Tehran, often used as a spokesperson for the Supreme Leader, indicated that the terms of the nuclear part of the deal had been agreed and only the timing of lifting of sanctions remained. Jabraeili also indicated that Iran was wary of Obama’s ability to bypass Congress and conclude the deal through executive order since the Iranians were well aware that Congressional approval was required to lift the sanctions.
The issue seemed to be whether the Iranians would be satisfied with just a “suspension” of sanctions and not their authorized removal by Congress. A permanent rollback of the nuclear enrichment program only for a temporary relief from sanctions was certainly unacceptable, at least to the conservatives in Iran. However, the latest sign that the more radical Iranians are still under siege and in retreat was the confirmation by the Iranian Supreme Court of the disbarment for five years of the former all-powerful Tehran prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who was held responsible for the torture and death while in prison of three dissidents in 2009.
With the tremendous recent growth of ISIS and with increasing clandestine cooperation between the US and Iran on this portfolio, the Iranian government is being pulled in two very opposite directions – towards a deal with the Americans propelled by the latter issue, and for the potential of reversing their tentative steps towards moderation given the resurrection of the status of the Republican Guard in government eyes as the martyrdom of their young child soldiers fighting and dying in the struggle with the radical Jihadist ISIS sect fills the pages of Iranian newspapers.
How then do you square the circle? If one side insists on absolute guarantees that Iran will not and cannot become a nuclear power while the other side insists on retaining its enrichment program in some form as a matter both of national pride and a key strategic concern so that the program can be rekindled in a relatively short time to enable Iran to build nuclear weapons, then the only possible deal approaches the goal of minimizing the prospect of Iran quickly moving to become a nuclear power without absolute guarantees while inducing Iran to move closer to the West by significantly removing the harsh sting of the sanctions. This is the crux of the debate – not absolutes, though there are also absolutists on both sides of the issue.
White House scuttlebutt has suggested that rapprochement with Iran is to the Obama’s last two years in office what Obamacare was in his first two years. However, given Congressional control over the purse strings, in particular, over the lifting of sanctions, the White House will have to be quite ingenious in structuring the deal to avoid a rejection of any Iranian deal by Congress. The very idea of congressional avoidance enhances fears by Senators, particularly Republicans, that Obama will sell Israel down the Potomac and make a mushy deal with the mullahs of Iran. For in Obamaspeak, America will extend a hand if its Middle Eastern enemies unclench their fists. For Obama’s opponents, the signs have been clear for years by significant omissions on the Iranian file – the structure of the nuclear negotiations to exclude delivery systems and the failure to link the negotiations with issues of domestic civil rights.
The White House hand was strengthened by two developments in Israel: 1) the failure to conclude a deal with Abbas when Kerry was mediating, and 2) Netanyahu’s risk adversity and the failure to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities 2-3 years ago when such a military attack had some chance of success, though many inside the military-intelligence services in Israel were skeptical. Of course, Obama’s extremist opponents insist that this is what Obama intended all along – to sell out Israel for a deal with Iran which effectively leaves Iran with de facto control over Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and, most importantly, Iraq, as well as the ability to acquire a bomb 6 months to a year after the sanctions are lifted. That means that the nuclear negotiations are not a single track effort. They have significant repercussions for the region including the stabilization of Iraq, the advancement of peace in Syria, strengthened support for Afghanistan in transition, and, dearest of all to Israel, keeping the Lebanese border with Israel quiet.
This is not helped with the Europeans being in total disarray. France, under a socialist president, has taken a hard line on negotiations with Iran while the rest of Europe are biting at the bit to resume economic relations on a significant level with Iran. Russia, which at this time does not need new completion for the sale of its oil, is cynically working to extend the negotiations and delay any early lifting of sanctions. Amidst all this squabbling, Obama is accused of being in league with the devil if he is not Satan himself, for embracing a long term adversary, undercutting long term allies, Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and abandoning any hope for those suffering persecution from the mullahs, such as women and the Baha’is.
Even if one avoids this satanic caricature, even supporters of Obama agree that, given the stalemate on the Palestinian-Israeli front, Obama still has two full years to establish his legacy in foreign policy by doing an end run around Israel and concluding a deal with Iran. And there’s the bind! For if the deal is too generous to Iran, there will be an uproar in America and not just in Congress. If the deal is too severe, there is no possibility Iran will sign on. So what are the signs that a deal is possible or impossible, and what are the implications if such a formula can be devised? And what can Israel do to ensure that such a deal is not concluded, or, if concluded, it will truly serve Israel’s interest by de facto ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is dead?
I suggest that there is nothing Israel can do to ensure that a deal can be made which ensures that Iran will not and cannot build a bomb. For the only issue in the negotiations is the time it would take for Iran to restart its enrichment program to produce a high enough grade of nuclear material to make a small number of nuclear bombs. However, Israel can be a spoiler. First, it can do so by exposing the hypocrisy of Obama’s supporters on this issue domestically in America and in the continent of Europe. For Netanyahu is clearly correct when he denounced the Europeans for giving Iran a pass when it sent a boatload of long-range missiles to Gaza on the Klos-C which, fortunately, the Israeli navy intercepted.
The most instructive indicators have not been the postures that either Netanyahu or Obama have adopted, but the actual behaviour and words of the respective parties in the negotiations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has almost completed its decommissioning of 20% enriched uranium, but still possesses enough necessary to build one bomb. On the other hand, critics have charged that the Iranian nuclear program has been recently enriching its uranium to 8% instead of the benchmark 5% established in the de-enrichment program.
The most authoritative source on the progress of the negotiations has been ISIS (not the radical Sunni Jihadist group but the Institute for Science and International Security) and its 7 November analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard report. (http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/ISIS_Analysis_IAEA_Report_7Nov2014-Final.pdf) ISIS concluded that:
1. There has been no progress on controlling or limiting Iran’s ability to militarily deliver weapons; there has only been progress on limitations on the nuclear enrichment program itself (this explains why White House leaks have suggested that the agreement with Iran will only deal with controlling the nuclear enrichment program);
2. Activities at Parchin have undermined the ability of the IAEA to conduct inspections;
3. The Iranians have not fed its new much more advanced IR-5 centrifuges with UF6;
4. Iran has increased its stock of 3.5% LEU at a significant rate, but the rate of production of this low enriched uranium has not increased from 2012 and 2013 levels and, most significantly, Iran has kept its agreement with the P5+1 to cease production of 19.75% enriched uranium;
5. The number of 90IR centrifuge cascades have remained constant;
6. Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran agreed to halt installation of any additional centrifuges and to forgo enrichment in any of its new advanced carbon fiber-based centrifuges (IR-2m), though it would continue the normal rate of such installations; thus far, none of these have been fed with natural uranium hexafluoride;
7. By 19 October, 4,118 kg of uranium hexafluoride had been reduced to 3% enrichment;
8. A further 4,174 kg. of natural UF6 has been used to produce 553 UO2;
9. 1,506 kg. of UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 have been included in the conversion process;
10. Numbers 7&8 rates are lower than 2013 or 2012 rates of conversion;
11. Though Iran significantly reduced its 20% LEU oxide needed to produce weapons grade uranium, and 25% of the LEU oxide (17.1 kg) has been decommissioned, enough stocks remain to produce one nuclear weapon;
12. More significantly, 39 kg. of the near 20% LEU is already available to the Tehran Research Reactor 17%, or another 18kg of that 20% LEU has been irradiated.
In summary, there can be no expectations that Iran will limit its developments of the military hardware to deliver nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Iran, with minor exceptions, has been true to its word that it would comply with IAEA guidelines. However, even as it has conformed to serious reductions in both its stockpiles of 19.75% enriched fuel and the number and capacity of its centrifuges in operation, Iran still retains enough fuel to make one nuclear weapon and the capacity to gear up to full production of the required uranium in a matter of a year and perhaps even six months.
I suspect now that there may be a deal, that Obama will only suspend sanctions and not formally reverse them, that Iran will continue its military developments independent of international oversight, and that, although Iran will have significantly reduced its ability to make nuclear weapons, it will remain a threshold nuclear power, but one where the time taken to become one will have been extended by as much as an additional nine months and the continuing presence of IAEA inspectors will further limit Iran accelerating such a program.
Hardliners, and even some open to negotiations with Iran, will denounce such a deal. Those who believe in strengthening the moderate camp in Iran and encouraging Iranian engagement with the West will defend such a deal while remaining aware that it has significant risks.