The “Istanbul 2” talks, held April 13-14, were successful because they met the short-term objectives of the major actors: President Obama, Supreme Leader Khamenei, Russia, China, and the EU. However, the long-term objectives of the players remain too far apart leaving the future as perilous as before.
The Obama Administration
The objective of President Barack Obama has been to prevent Israeli military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The previous talks (“Istanbul 1”), held in January 2011, between P5+1 and Iran, failed because of Iran’s preconditions. The failure of those talks led to serious sanctions which Iran’s leaders did not expect to materialize. Had the latest talks also failed, Israel would have used it as the failure of the diplomatic option and a justification for military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. An Israeli bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a disaster for Obama’s re-election prospects. The Israeli strikes would be used by former Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, to argue that Obama’s policy of talks with Khamenei was naïve and futile. Moreover, in retaliation against Israeli strikes, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), in all likelihood, would attack American targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as carry out terrorist operations on American soil. Americans are far more vulnerable to Iran’s asymmetric operations than Israel. The IRI would also try to close the Strait of Hormuz as well as attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. In addition, the IRI may use massive retaliation against oil facilities in pro-U.S. countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait. These actions would dramatically increase the price of oil.
Large numbers of American deaths, especially on American soil, as well as a dramatic rise in oil prices would greatly undermine Obama’s chance for re-election. Therefore, it has been essential for Obama to prevent Israeli military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israeli strikes would not solve the problem of the IRI’s nuclear weapons program. The only policy that has a high degree of certitude to prevent the IRI from completing its nuclear weapons program is the policy of regime change. Regime change can best be accomplished through two policies: (1) full boycott of Iranian oil causing economic collapse and leading to political collapse; or (2) the destruction of the IRI’s coercive apparatuses, which could pave the way for popular uprisings leading to the overthrow of the regime. The latter would require prolonged and massive bombings of the headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Basij, Ministry of Intelligence, and command and control. What appears clear to most observers is that Obama simply does not want to pursue this option before November 2012. It is not clear what Obama might or might not do if he is elected for a second term. Thus, Obama’s goal is to postpone any major operations in Iran until after the election.
To accomplish his goal, Obama needs to show progress in talks with the IRI. It is not necessary to have any actual substantial agreement. All that is needed is to show that there are talks, demonstrating that the diplomatic option has not yet been exhausted. Minor concessions by Iran would be helpful but they are not necessary. Such talks would be used by Obama to argue that there is no need for Israeli strikes or American military operations. As long as the IRI is willing to talk, one could argue that the door for diplomacy has not been closed. That is all Obama wants from these talks: more talks.
The Russian proposal of “step-by-step” and reciprocity has been embraced by the Obama administration, the IRI, and the P5+1. According to this proposal, the IRI would agree to some demands of the P5+1 in exchange for the easing of some sanctions. It is not clear to outside observers precisely which demands are to be accepted in return for the easing of which sanctions.
From what has been revealed publicly, it appears that the demands of the P5+1 include: (1) the IRI freezing enrichment activities above the 5% level in a verifiable manner; (2) the IRI agreeing to ship out its stockpile of uranium enriched to a 20% level in exchange for 20% enriched uranium pellets to be used for Tehran’s Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes; and (3) freezing further development of the Fordo uranium enrichment plant close to Qom, which is located inside a mountain. This agreement accepts the IRI’s 5% uranium enrichment programs.
It is clear that the P5+1 considers this agreement a stopgap or interim agreement as a confidence-building measure. What is not clear is what the ultimate objective of the P5+1 is regarding the issue of enrichment on Iranian soil. Four U.N. Security Council resolutions explicitly state the objective to be zero enrichment. The NPT would allow a signatory to have uranium enrichment on its soil (e.g., 5% or even 20%).
Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1, in her March 6, 2012 letter to Saeed Jalili (IRI’s lead negotiator) wrote that the confidence-building steps (i.e., the interim agreement or agreements to be negotiated in Baghdad and subsequent meetings) should lead to a permanent solution. The ultimate objective, however, remains contradictory. In Ashton’s words: “These confidence building steps should form first elements of a phased approach which would eventually lead to a full settlement between us, involving the full implementation by Iran of UNSC and IAEA Board of Governors’ resolutions. Our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with the NPT.”
There are two fundamental global achievements in regards to the IRI. First, there are four UNSC resolutions, which have established the consensus of zero uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. And second, there are strong sanctions already approved by the U.S. Congress on the Central Bank of Iran to be implemented on June 28, 2012 as well as the full EU boycott of oil purchases from the IRI to be implemented on July 1, 2012.
President Obama and the American negotiating team are willing to trade these two cardinal achievements in order to avoid a conflict with the IRI in the short term. President Obama has stated that if the IRI does not take advantage of these talks, then the sanctions would go into effect. In Obama’s own words: “In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks. I hope they do.” In other words, if the IRI would take advantage of the talks (Obama’s stated hope), then these sanctions would not be implemented. The same perspective was expressed by Gary Samore, special assistant to President Obama and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, and terrorism, who was present at the Istanbul talks as a member of the U.S. negotiating team.
A question is whether for the sake of political expediency (i.e., increase the likelihood of his re-election), Obama is sacrificing these unprecedented global achievements? If the IRI agrees to the agreement, it would not be easy for the U.S., the EU, and the UNSC to again craft such strong measures. The agreement will legitimize the IRI’s nuclear program and remove strong sanctions. Although Obama and the EU may consider this agreement to be “interim,” such an agreement or treaty will have the force of international law. The agreement will be an international treaty. The U.S. (under Obama or Romney) or the EU may wish to revisit the issue after the American election, and demand another round of negotiations in order to force the IRI to accept zero-enrichment. But what the Obama administration may consider an interim agreement may be considered the final agreement by the IRI. Various Iranian officials have insisted that zero-enrichment is unacceptable, but have said that freezing enrichment to the 20% level is acceptable. The IRI has no incentive to negotiate for another agreement which would force it to have zero enrichment. Khamenei needs time to complete its weapons program, and the interim agreement would serve that purpose whereas an ultimate agreement would not. The “interim” agreement is a huge victory for Khamenei and will help his regime weather the economic difficulties that will be unleashed this summer due to the sanctions.
If history is any guide, there are clandestine nuclear programs in Iran, which are as yet unexposed. The forthcoming respite will enable Khamenei to complete his nuclear weapons program. Many American officials seem to think that they could detect an Iranian initiation of the final steps to complete a nuclear device. Americans know what they know. Americans do not know what they do not know. The American intelligence agencies failed to detect the Iraqi nuclear program before 1991 (as proven by the UNSCOM subsequently) as well as failed to detect the dismantlement of Iraq’s WMD by March 2003. Not only did the American intelligence agencies fail to account for the North Korean nuclear program, but also failed to account for the nuclear programs in relatively open polities such as India and Pakistan.
Iran’s Nuclear Program
The IAEA has discovered the military dimensions of the IRI’s nuclear program. The November 8, 2011 IAEA report states:
43. The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the
development of a nuclear explosive device:
• Efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by
military related individuals and entities (Annex, Sections C.1 and C.2);
• Efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material (Annex,
• The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a
clandestine nuclear supply network (Annex, Section C.4); and
• Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of
components (Annex, Sections C.5–C.12).
44. While some of the activities identified in the Annex have civilian as well as military applications,
others are specific to nuclear weapons.
45. The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the above activities took place under a
structured programme. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a
nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.
The Russians also realize the magnitude of the nuclear threat from the IRI. Gen. Nikolay Makarov, the Chief of General Staff (Russia’s highest military official) explained the Russian position in an interview broadcast on April 25, 2012 on “Russia Today,” the state’s English-language television network. Asked whether “there is a growing atomic threat from Iran and North Korea,” Gen. Makarov stated: “The threat is always there…. No doubt if nuclear weapons fall into the hands of extremists, it will seriously compromise international security, so any scenario is possible if certain countries do acquire nuclear capabilities….We conducted a joint assessment with our US counterparts, which proved that this threat is a realistic one…. The very fact that we agreed to produce a joint anti-missile system implies that we recognize that the threat is there… What we say is, that we should work together to counter these threats.”
Most experts either suspected or knew about the military purpose of the nuclear program. The IRI’s clandestine nuclear program began in 1986 during the war with Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons on Iranians and the world refused to condemn him. The IRI has spent billions of dollars since 1986 on a nuclear program which has cost far more than any economic cost-benefit analysis could justify. The IRI’s nuclear program has been developed under the control of the IRGC, the regime’s ideological armed force. Despite major commitments, the IRI has not succeeded in completing its nuclear weapons program, yet. The primary reason for the IRI’s failure is that the overwhelming majority of Iranian scientists are not fundamentalist, so they have not cooperated with the regime in its nuclear program. Due to the highly sensitive and secret nature of the nuclear weapons program, the regime can only trust and rely upon those scientists who fully support the regime. Increased global vigilance since the clandestine program was exposed in 2002 and the subsequent sanctions have also undermined the ability of the IRI to complete its program.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s policy toward the P5+1 can best be described as “stalling,” that is utilizing tactics to gain time until his scientists finish the nuclear weapon. Khamenei did not expect the sanctions to be as strong as they were in 2011. However, the current sanctions are not severe enough to force Khamenei to change his calculations. Iran continues to sell oil, and with high prices it can muddle through. Only a full boycott of all oil sales would be strong enough to threaten the survival of the regime. As long as China and Russia oppose strong sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, Khamenei does not have to worry too much.
Another option that could spell trouble for Khamenei is Israeli military strikes. Khamenei wants to avoid Israeli strikes. Khamenei realizes that if Mitt Romney is elected, in all likelihood, the U.S. would use the military option and overthrow the fundamentalist regime. Having observed the ability of American military power to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam’s regime in Iraq, Khamenei realizes that the U.S. could easily overthrow his regime. Therefore, Khamenei wants to avoid a direct military confrontation with the U.S. If the IRI could develop nuclear weapons, Khamenei would not have to be concerned with either the U.S. or Israel using military options.
Khamenei cannot be certain what Obama would do if he is elected for a second term. As the plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. clearly shows, Khamenei believes that it is easy to push around Obama with little worry about a strong reaction. Thus, it is to the benefit of Khamenei to have Obama in the White House.
What Khamenei needs is time to complete his nuclear weapon. At this point, the IAEA and other countries have only found out about some of his clandestine facilities and programs. If history is a guide and the patter of deception holds, there are other clandestine facilities and programs yet to be discovered. Depending on how many facilities and programs have not yet been exposed as well as how far enrichment and other aspects of the nuclear weapons program have progressed, Iran may be a lot closer to possessing nuclear weapons than the IAEA or the U.S. assessment may indicate. Only Khamenei and a handful of others in Iran know the extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program and how close Iran is to possessing nuclear bombs. By declaring the talks in Istanbul successful, Khamenei succeeds in his policy of stalling and buying time. Iran’s team did not agree to any substantial concession. It only agreed to hold another round of talks on May 23. According to Press TV, the Iranian government’s official English-language television station, despite repeated U.S. requests for bilateral talks, the Iranian officials refused any bilateral meetings with American officials.
Russia and China
Both Russia and China consider the IRI a force to counter the American hegemony in the Middle East. Although both strongly oppose the IRI gaining nuclear weapons, they greatly fear the replacement of the current regime with democracy. A democratic Iran would distance itself from Russia and China and forge friendly relations with the U.S. and the EU. A primary foreign policy of a democratic regime in Iran would be to abandon the Islamic Republic’s aggressive policy of destabilizing various regimes in the region via extremist violent proxies. This would result in détente with Saudi Arabia and entente with Turkey, Kuwait, and probably Egypt. Russia and China, thus, oppose those measures which endanger the survival of the ruling regime in Iran. For similar strategic concerns, Russia and China have supported the Assad regime in Syria. They want to use the P5+1 talks to pressure the IRI to abandon its nuclear weapons program while opposing strong sanctions (which could cause the collapse of the Iranian economy and regime) as well as avoiding Israeli or American military options. Russia and China calibrate their policies to change the nuclear policy of the IRI without endangering its survival.
Among the P5+1, former President Sarkozy of France had and Prime Minister Cameron of the UK has been pursuing the strongest policies toward the IRI. They have also exhibited stronger policies toward Libya and Syria than has President Obama. Sarkozy and Cameron successfully pressured other Europeans to accept a full boycott of oil and gas from the IRI. The forthcoming full boycott of Iran’s oil will be put in effect on July 1, 2012 by the EU along with the American sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to be put in effect on June 28, 2011 as well as other sanctions. These are among the main reasons for Khamenei to enter into these negotiations. Talks for the sake of talks help Khamenei to complete his nuclear weapons program and present the world with a fait accompli. Cameron wants (as did Sarkozy) talks to lead to actual concessions from the IRI leading to a dismantlement of the weapons dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. They realize that Israeli strikes are not the solution. They also realize the weaknesses of Obama’s hand. They realize that Khamenei is stalling until he can complete his nuclear weapons program and are worried about the unknown aspects of the IRI’s nuclear weapons program. As such they want effective action sooner rather than later.
Germany has taken a back seat in the past few years in the P5+1 talks. Germany enjoys extensive trade relations with Iran and stands to lose greatly with sanctions against the IRI. Germans also wish to avoid military solutions. However, they realize the terrible danger the region and the world would be in if the IRI gets nuclear weapons. They hope that talks would convince Khamenei to abandon his nuclear weapons ambition, but talks have not produced nuclear disarmament of the IRI and are not likely to do so in the future. Hence, Germans oppose sanctions, oppose a military solution, want talks to succeed, and realize that talks are not likely to succeed. Due to these internal logical contradictions in their policies, Germans have taken a back seat. They know that their wishful hopes are not realistic policies.
Outside of the P5+1, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are the main players. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already criticized the decision of holding more talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad instead of making a decisive agreement during the April 13-14 talks in Istanbul. The leaders of Saudi Arabia have been characteristically silent. In all likelihood, they will express their displeasure and opposition to various governments confidentially. The agreement by Saudi Arabia to increase their oil output to compensate for the loss of Iranian oil due to the forthcoming sanctions has been a primary reason for the success of the sanctions. However, the leaders of Saudi Arabia could not be anything but extremely worried about Obama’s weak policies toward Iran.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has played a major role attempting to build a bridge between Iran and the P5+1 to resolve the conflict diplomatically and to prevent a war in the region. Despite serious differences between Erdogan and Khamenei over Syria and Iraq, the Turkish prime minister has attempted to play the honest broker on the nuclear issue between Iran and the P5+1. Exasperated by the IRI’s tactics, Erdogan criticized the “insincerity” of Iran’s foreign policy leading to the Istanbul 2 talks. The IRI had demanded a change of venue from Istanbul to Baghdad, Damascus, or China. With the change of venue for the May 23 talks to Baghdad, Iran has effectively undermined the role of Turkey. Earlier, Khamenei’s policy was to use Turkey and Brazil to counter the U.S. and undermine the consensus against Iran. Now, Khamenei fears the rise of Turkey as a power that could undermine Iran’s allies in the region such as the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Maliki government in Iraq.
Istanbul 1 showed the IRI’s true intensions to avoid serious negotiations and concessions. Four U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding the IRI to suspend uranium enrichment have been ignored by the IRI. The economic sanctions that were enacted by the U.S. Congress (over the objections of the Obama administration, which sanctioned the Central Bank of Iran, and other companies that purchase oil from Iran) in December 2011, the EU’s forthcoming boycott of oil from July 1, 2012, and the Israeli military threats compelled Khamenei to agree to the Istanbul 2 talks. Khamenei will continue to use stalling tactics until his scientists have completed his nuclear weapons program. Istanbul 1 was about policy whereas Istanbul 2 was about politics.
The forthcoming talks will be a combination of policy and politics. The primary drivers will be: (1) the degree of progress in the clandestine nuclear programs in Iran; (2) the ability of various entities to discover Iran’s clandestine programs and the world reactions thereof; (3) the Israeli perceptions of these; (4) the Obama administration’s ability to restrain the Israelis from making premature military strikes; (5) the policies pursued by France, the UK, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia; and (6) the prospects of the Obama administration changing its weak policies to strong ones. If the current trends continue, we should neither expect the resolution of the IRI’s putative nuclear weapons program (e.g., suspension of all enrichment activities and dismantlement of the program) nor a war until months after the American presidential elections. The current situation, however, is extremely tenuous and volatile, and may not last for long. The status quo is ripe for drastic and dramatic changes sometime in 2013 or 2014.
*Masoud Kazemzadeh is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Sam Houston State University in the U.S.A.
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