- The Build-Up to the Washington-Tehran Nuclear Negotiations
Part IV: The Washington-Jerusalem-Buenos Aries-Tehran Quadrangle
Where has Howard been going with this series? The trajectory has been simple if somewhat roundabout. I began with the brouhaha over Netanyahu’s planned visit to Washington to address a joint sitting of both houses of Congress, a visit that was against the explicit preferences of the Obama administration. My thesis was simple. I argued that Netanyahu openly risked a further breach with Obama because he deeply believed that the Washington-Tehran negotiations were more than just misguided, but were leading the West into a terrible cul-de-sac.
I wanted to convince my fellow liberals that this was not a deep division between Israel and America, but that the response to the planned visit was a manifestation of the deep divisions between Israel and the Obama administration over the Iran talks. Netanyahu was not coming to Washington either to poke Obama in the eye OR to advance his election prospects in the coming Israeli elections. This cynical interpretation of Netanyahu’s motives mischaracterized the serious issues at stake. Further, the risks of going to Washington against the wishes of the U.S. President were more likely to jeopardize his election chances than enhance them.
To give some foundation to an alternative Republican and Israeli right-wing view of Iran, I took a side journey via the fracas in Buenos Aries over the investigations into the 1994 blowing-up of the Jewish cultural centre by Iranian agents and the charges that the present Argentinian administration was undercutting that investigation via a side deal with Iran. Those charges came to a head on Friday when the federal prosecutor in Argentina, Gerardo Pollicita, formally requested that charges be brought against Argentina’s current President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for obstructing an investigation into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish centre in Buenos Aires. This is unprecedented. Though I hope the backgrounder on Argentinian fascism and anti-Semitism helped provide some depth of understanding to the issue, my main angle was to document the Buenos Aries-Tehran connection and focus on the treachery of even the so-called moderates in the Iranian government. I did not discuss my suspicions that either the Argentinian intelligence service or, more likely, Iranian agents, were responsible for the death of thee prosecutor, Albero Nisman.
Iran will certainly manipulate and negotiate, but this regime, except, ironically, when the extremists have been in power, has always been able to hide behind lies. Yet the Prophet taught: “Be honest because honesty leads to goodness, and goodness leads to Paradise. Beware of falsehood because it leads to immorality, and immorality leads to Hell.” Surah 40:28 of the Quran reads, “Truly Allah guides not one who transgresses and lies.” However, for the conciliation among and between people and peoples, lying is preferable to telling the truth, especially when it is in service of the good. The Prophet says: “He is not a false person who (through he lies) settles conciliation among people, supports good or says what is good.” Lying is NOT even the exception in Islamic, let alone Iranian, foreign policy, but a norm. The great statesman, Anwar Sadat, was a master of deceit in service of the good, and good did finally emerge from the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Egypt finally agreed to a peace with Israel. But if the Other is the embodiment of evil, lying is not only permitted but encouraged, for The Good requires extermination of a disease. And it is the end point, the telos, that determines the worthiness of a lie.
In contrast to Islam which incorporates lying into diplomacy, Machiavellianism is an outlier to Christian teaching. However, it is a central element in Western foreign policy. Even Machiavelli, who was no Machiavellian but a humanist, believed that, although religion served a useful purpose in providing social order, the rules of morality were disposable when security was at stake. If the moral universe taught by Christianity was allowed to trump all other principles, then Christians would become passive and impotent allowing evil men to rule the world. In Islam, by contrast, lying becomes a virtue not a necessary prerequisite for survival as much as it may harm your chances for entry into heaven. Allah may prohibit lying, but his Prophet taught that there were exceptions. When the powerful Jewish tribal leader, Kaab Ibn al-Ashrf of the tribe of Banu al-Nudair was aligning with his enemy, Mohammed had a spy infiltrate his entourage, win his trust and assassinate him. A practice integral to the foreign policy of all countries is religiously sanctioned in Islamic ones. In that sense, Islam is less hypocritical than Christianity. Allah may not sanction lying, but if the intention is lofty, it is the intention in your heart that counts.
In Judaism, when the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of the Day of Atonement (or when Joshua fought the battle of Jericho to make the walls come tumbling down), one of the four sounds made is tekiah. It is a plain deep bass sound with an abrupt ending, often interpreted to be the base line of the Jewish character – blunt and to the point. It is the sound that also stands for forgiveness for your debts. The almost identical Arabic word, Al-Takeyya, in Islam refers to the right to be deceptive in signing any accord when the intention is to serve the higher interests of Allah. Al-Takeyya means to prevent or guard against. The principle of Al-Takeyya conveys the understanding that Muslims are permitted to lie as a preventive measure against anticipated harm to one’s self or fellow Muslims.
In the above sense, it is at the very least understandable that Netanyahu and the Republicans fear a treacherous Iran, and that belief might have a deep rational foundation. It is also why Obama can be excused for being so Machiavellian – though he is not very good at it – in trying to cut a deal that will avoid having to go to the Senate for approval as long as possible. (See Michael Doran’s Republican-oriented but astute and excellent analysis of the U.S.-Iran negotiations – http://dev.mosaicmagazine.com/author/michael-doran/; Doran is a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. For his more general critique of Obama’s Middle East policies, see: http://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/2014/07/the-new-middle-east-war/)
All this must be seen in my own continuing analysis of the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in which I both tried to dispense with some of the misrepresentation of the negotiations by its critics while retaining a supportive but skeptical appreciation of the process itself. My last blog was published on my wordpress website, howardadelman.com, on 21 November 2014 entitled, “Iran: Three Days Before the Nuclear Negotiations Deadline.” That was my latest attempt to keep readers informed in an attempt to provide a balanced interpretation of those negotiations. After summarizing the build-up to the current negotiations, the agreements thus far, the current status, the divisions facing both sides, the significance of the negotiations and agreements reached, and current prospects, I will return to Netanyahu’s coming visit and the deep split within Washington over the negotiations.
There is absolutely no debate over the importance of these negotiations for the Obama administration. The discussions are, by far, the most important foreign policy initiative of his second term. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication, said that the nuclear negotiations with Iran are “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy.” Though the process began much earlier, the negotiations are underway at a time when Obama has been in his weakest position in relationship to Congress where the Republicans now hold a majority in both houses. On the other hand, Obama has nothing to lose. He does not face re-election. But his weak position vis-à-vis Congress also restricts what can emerge out of the negotiations.
For both Tehran and Washington recognize that the Obama administration cannot deliver on the possibility of permanently lifting sanctions, but will only be able to offer a series of six month waivers. This has a double effect – it weakens what the administration can extract from Tehran at the same time as it frees Washington up in making an agreement without Senate approval. The Arab Spring, the military withdrawal from Iraq and, ironically, in the wake of the latter, the explosive rise of Islamic State that has led to a covert cooperation between Washington and Tehran to confront this menace, have all facilitated holding negotiations and the progress thus far, without even taking into consideration the economic pressures the sanctions have posed for Iran, especially difficult in a time of rapid and extreme declines in oil prices.
Two other regional changes have also been helpful. John Kerry’s tremendous efforts to push forth an Israeli-Palestinian deal tanked, and tanked badly. Since the administration blamed Netanyahu’s stubbornness more than the immobility from the side of the Palestinian Authority, the Obama administration felt far freer in its opening to Iran. Second, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia consistently and persistently urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program. Abdullah felt so frustrated with Washington that he opened his own diplomatic track to Tehran and last March issued an unprecedented invitation to Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit Saudi Arabia. These two major rivals in the Middle East, these two leading heirs of the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam respectively, these two countries so deeply buried in a cold war, these two who are in such opposite corners vis-à-vis Assad’s regime in Syria, suddenly took a totally unexpected approach to the rivalry with Iran, not because Saudi Arabia had suddenly fallen in love with Iran, but because it had lost all trust in the ability of America to back it in its conflict with its main rival.
Further, Saudi Arabia was staring at an Iran that, with its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad holding on in Syria, the Shiites now dominant in Iraq, and Bahrain and Yemen also under Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields were surrounded. King Abdullah is now dead. Defence Minister Prince Salman, who was named as Abdullah’s successor back in June of 2012 after the death of Salman’s two older brothers, was also named Deputy Prime Minister while continuing to hold the defence portfolio. Previously, he had been the orchestrator of the new policy. He is now king.
The Obama administration chose to revive diplomacy rather than war. This fits in with its efforts to wind down military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration also embraced diplomacy because, as it analyzed the situation, sanctions may have had a devastating effect on Iran, but these were considered insufficient to bring Iran to its knees. All they could do was bring Iran to the negotiating table. As well, the sanctions were interpreted as having a perverse effect, reinforcing Iranian resistance while, at the same time, undercutting the so-called moderates now in positions of power.
Let’s review the essential elements and backstory in Obama’s negotiating strategy with Iran.
- The strategy is not just about containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions; it envisions reinstating Iran, the sponsor of terrorist regimes like Hezbollah and Hamas, the backbone of the repressive Assad regime, and the Shi’ite spoiler in Iraq – not to speak of Bahrain and Yemen – back into the international system of nation-states as a full participating member instead of enhancing its international isolation.
- Obama not only aims to accept Iran back into the community of nation-states as a full member, but he would recognize it as a regional power: “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” because “if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication…inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power.”
- The policy was intended as a resurrection of the “grand bargain” that Iran purportedly offered the U.S. at the beginning of the 21st century but which George W. Bush had dismissed out of hand.
- This was even part of a much larger strategic vision that intended to bury Henry Kissinger’s policies of a global balance of power and replace it with a positive sum game with very decentralized loci of power – incidentally, precisely the phrase repeated in the Ayatollah’s guideline for the negotiations. In Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009, he said, “our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation…No balance of power among nations will hold.”
- The policy had excellent bi-partisan credentials since it was the fourth plank of the 2006 strategic plan of the Iraq Study Group’s chaired by Howard Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton in which withdrawal from Iraq, reinforcing the troops in Afghanistan, and reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were the first three planks.
- In this new world of multi-centred strategic blocs, Iran would become a significant player in eradicating the real danger of radical Islamicists.
- In inflating the Islamicists, the repressive policies of the Ayatollahs in Iran against the Bahá’is and the dissidents of the June 2009 Green Movement could be ignored even as Obama acknowledged and offered verbal recognition to their insistence on rights.
- Just when Obama was offering his invitation and open hand instead of a clenched fist, Tehran began to operationalize its secret underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) near Qom, after it was revealed to the IAEA by Iran on 21 September 2009, but that information was only released after it was discovered and documented by Western intelligence services, based, in part, on information from Israel’s Mossad, which had installed a listening device in the Fordow plant, a device discovered after the September 2012 explosion in the plant; Iran’s failure to inform IAEA was in blatant violations of its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its 2003 agreement with IAEA;
- In 2009, Iran told the IAEA that the 16 cascades of 3,000 centrifuges were to be run to enrich U-235 up to 5%; instead, they were operating to enrich U-235 to 20% bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Further, though required to give 180 day advance warning to IAEA in September 2011 of implementing the upgrading, they starting the upgrading in three months in December of 2011.
- As a result of the 2009 betrayal, Obama introduced the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) as the foundation for an escalating program of sanctions against Iran to pressure Iran to enter into negotiations.
- In July 2009, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal reiterated its belief to Hilary Clinton, then Secretary of State, that negotiations with Iran will not lead to a dismantling of its military nuclear program and that the only way to deal with Iran was “to cut off the head of the snake,” a position later repeated directly to Obama by King Abdullah.
- In March 2010, in a culmination of disputes between Israel and Washington, bad blood between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel clotted over discussions on Israeli settlements when Obama abandoned a private meeting with Netanyahu and left him stewing while Obama joined his family for dinner.
- In 2011, Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, informed the U.S. as well as the world that Iran was approaching a “zone of immunity” making its nuclear program impervious to Israeli military attack and time was short before Israel would have to strike.
- In 2012, Obama, feeling betrayed again by Iran, not only Iran’s nuclear program, but over its support for the Assad regime in Turkey, blew up and threatened appropriate aggressive retaliation, echoed both by France and Israel.
- The U.S. reassured Israel that it was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and, at the same time, increased its military and intelligence cooperation with Israel.
- At the same time, Obama reached out to Tehran by refusing to arm the rebels in Syria seeking to bring down Iran’s satrap, Assad; this, in turn, lead to secret bilateral meetings between Jake Sullivan, Hilary Clinton’s director of policy planning, and Iranian foreign affairs and defence officials in the Ahmadinejad regime.
- November 2012, Obama is reelected.
- In 2013, many Track II and backchannel meetings with Iran were held.
- In April 2013 in the meeting of the P5+1 with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the basis of the deal to enter negotiations was put in place: sanctions relief in return for Iran degrading its 20% enriched nuclear bomb grade U-235 to 5%, while allowing more uranium to be enriched to 5%, instead of, as UNSC sanctions required, ceasing all processing and enrichment of U-235.
- Critics lambasted Obama for not insisting on a cessation of all enrichment processes.
- Washington was convinced that its carrot and economic stick approach helped facilitate the election in Iran of “moderates” led by Hassan Rouhani in Iran in June 2013.
- When Khamenei offered Obama his hand and a promise to negotiate, though opposed by both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Obama withdrew the military threat and acquiesced in more moderate sanctions; Obama accepted Tehran’s offer to degrade or, alternatively, transfer the 20% enriched uranium to Russia. Israel regarded itself as betrayed by the policy turn to engagement without Iran agreeing in advance to dismantle its nuclear capabilities as allegedly promised to Israel.
- As Israel held off from bombing Fordow and other nuclear production sites in Iran, the U.S. reassured Israel that sanctions would not be lifted until Iran’s nuclear capability was dismantled.
- CISADA proves even more effective than anyone had thought and Iran was quickly in dire economic difficulty.
- In November of 2013, the five permanent members of the Security Council, P5 +1 (Germany), agreed on a Joint Plan of Action in dealing with Iran.
- Senate hawks, mostly Republican and Democratic, and Obama Democratic doves, had very different goals in the ensuing negotiation; the first wanted to use Iran’s weakened position to force Iran’s hands into the fire to accept the need to dismantle its facilities, while the Democratic doves were willing simply to accept a lower degree of enrichment, leaving Iran with its core production facilities intact, in an effort to keep Iran’s breakout time at over a year instead of the three months that many believe Iran had achieved.
Tomorrow: The Joint Plan of Action: Terms and Results