Nuclear Negotiations With Iran Go On—And On And On

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on December 2, 2014

Fordow, an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility near Qom—easily mistaken for the volcano lair of a Bond villain

Fordow, an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility near Qom—easily mistaken for the volcano lair of a Bond villain

It wasn’t exactly a nail-biting finish in the end was it? In Vienna on Nov. 24, the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators decided to extend for another seven months the “interim” deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), made in November 2013 on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, until June 2015. Conditions always favoured an extension but I was not absolutely sure that this is what would happen until Secretary of State John Kerry said on Nov. 21: “We are not discussing an extension.”

In October, I posted an evidence-and-analysis piece on President Obama’s attempted détente with the Iranian theocracy. I wrote that the options for how this round of negotiations would end came down to three:

  1. The “interim” deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), will be rolled over for another six months … and will, like so much else in the Middle East billed as temporary, begin to look permanent.
  2. A final deal is signed that is an Iranian victory in all-but name … with only the regime’s goodwill stopping them crossing the finishing line to a bomb.
  3. Iran’s dictator, Ali Khamenei, refuses President Obama both of the above fig leaves and breaks off negotiations.

I rather studiously avoided too direct an indication of which I thought because my primary argument was that the nuclear negotiations were only a small part of the Iran Question, being used by the Obama administration to further its goal of conciliating Iran, bringing Tehran into the regional order, creating a “balance” with the Gulf Arabs—which by definition means strengthening Iran because of Iran’s starting point—with the intention of withdrawing the United States from the Middle East.

With these incentives fixed in place, Iran being given ever-larger spheres of influence in the region and ever-more generous terms in the nuclear negotiations, in exchange for avoiding open “breakout,” at least on Obama’s watch, the specific means matter less.

That said, the options were listed deliberately from most likely to least likely. Option Three would be difficult even for the Obama administration to spin. The U.S. would then be faced with the dire choice that the Obama Team have done everything to avoid: publicly allow Iran to have The Bomb, or bomb Iran.

Option Two might at some point materialise, though it now seems unlikely since the incentives for Iran favour protracting this “interim” process, and the West has thrown away all its leverage, leaving the initiative with Iran. In the first place, Iran keeps accumulating concessions—financial, territorial, and political in terms of the legitimacy of its regime and its nuclear program. And secondly, these concessions are enabling Iran to complete its nuclear-weapons program and position Tehran to reap a “final” deal, should it ever come, that would effectively recognise Iran’s nuclear status, whether latent or blatant.


The most important concession made in the JPA framework is the sunset clause, a period after which all restraints—intrusive inspections, sanctions, etc.—are removed, whereupon Iran can “walk, not sneak, into the nuclear club.” It is a poison pill but it has now been accepted and the only disagreement is over the length of time a “final” deal should last.

This is hardly the only concession made, however:

1. The West has effectively dropped its demand for Iran to admit to past weaponisation work and turn over the documentation.

This is not a trivial point. David Albright, a leading expert on nuclear weapons, has explained: “You have to know the history … and there’s a risk that this agreement is going to push aside [demands for Iran to admit nuclear-weapons work], we would say throw the IAEA under the bus, and that is a very bad idea because if Iran is able to weaken the IAEA then how is the verification going to go in the future when it’s the IAEA that’s going to have to verify the long-term agreement.” Albright notes that “coming clean” for Iran need not be as comprehensive as South Africa but it will have to include being able to visit military sites like Parchin and Fordow.

At Parchin, Iran has shown signs of demolishing and burying incriminating evidence in a manner eerily reminiscent of the tactics of the Saddam Hussein regime, and Fordow was hidden until 2009 and is buried into the side of a mountain—not exactly indicative of good intentions. In short, without a full accounting of Iran’s weaponisation work, the IAEA, charged with enforcing a final deal, cannot actually understand what it is monitoring in Iran. This, too, is a wrecking amendment.

2. The West has ceased trying to enforce limits on Iran’s missile program, the delivery system for potential nuclear weapons.

United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1696 (July 2006) demanded that all States halt the transfer of materials related to missile technology to Iran, and resolution 1929 (June 2010) said “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons“. The missile program is no part of the negotiations.

3. The West has conceded to Iran a “right to enrich” uranium on its territory.

Six major UNSCRs, including the two mentioned above, said Iran was forbidden even a single centrifuge. This is an enforceable, verifiable demand, but the negotiators of the JPA said Iran needed a Potemkin nuclear program to satisfy its honour and domestic constituencies; now Iran is being conceded an industrial-scale program with between 4,000 and 5,000 centrifuges (Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)-liked media claim 6,000). Policing Iran’s use of thousands of centrifuges is next to impossible; if they have centrifuges on this scale, they effectively have a nuclear weapon. At one stage it was proposed by the Americans that Iran merely unplug the machines at Natanz: that was how low it got.

Former IAEA deputy director general Dr. Olli Heinonen has warned that Iran has many more IR-2 centrifuges, the more efficient second generation, than previously thought. In other words, even the best that can be said for the JPA—that it provides a short delay in the breakout time—will prove illusory thanks to the conditions being agreed to. Dissolving the uranium but leaving the centrifuges makes no sense: taking the products of enrichment while leaving the capability to enrich—plus the loophole where Iran is allowed to “continue its safeguarded R&D practices” to make its centrifuges more efficient—mean, as Albright has previously explained, that when these restraints are removed Iran can replace the first generation centrifuges with the second generation, and “make up for time lost more quickly.”

Add to this that “there has never been a time in the past fifteen years … when Iran didn’t have a hidden facility in construction,” and this is why the Israelis and Saudis insist on dismantling centrifuges, not merely limiting the number. Iran will always cheat even on the agreed number of centrifuges, but if that number is zero and Iran is forced to have its centrifuges in clandestine areas, the hope is that they would be few enough that they do not pose a danger. And again: zero is an enforceable number. If Iran were caught with any centrifuges, it would be a clear violation; now it will take weeks of verification to tell whether Iran has breached the terms.

Iran’s loading an advanced IR-5 centrifuge at the uranium hexafluoride gas at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant gives a premonition of where this cat-and-mouse game is headed. Albright’s organisation, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said that this “may be a violation of the JPA“. The reason we cannot know is because the technical implementation agreement, worked out in December 2013 and January 2014—the JPA was not enforced for two months after it was made—remain secret, which gives some idea of how the Obama administration imagines its deal would be received. This was a test from Iran, and the Obama administration failed; Washington was more determined to keep the talks going than admit the bad faith of its interlocutor.

4. The West has stopped pushing for the heavy-water plant at Arak to be converted to a light-water reactor, leaving Iran a plutonium short-cut to nuclear weapons.

5. There had been a possibility, however remote, that Israel would forcibly disarm Iran, which was leverage for the West; Obama neutralised this.

Senior Obama administration officials have boasted that “our pressure” stayed the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As I noted in October, the JPA meant that “Iran’s nuclear program was protected by American power and if Israel struck she could be accused of wrecking a new era of peace and co-operation.”

6. The West gave Iran sanctions relief at the very moment the decade-long process of building the sanctions wall had bitten.

The direct relief appears not have been as bad as first thought. Though initial predictions of $20 billion seem to have been fractionally overstated, the Obama administration’s claim of $4.6bn is not credible. This figure only takes into account access to frozen assets rather than earnings from sectors of Iran’s economy, such as minerals, from which the blockade was lifted by the JPA. The truth is that Iran got nearer $11bn in sanctions relief in the first six months of the JPA.

This direct relief was, however, the least of it. The sanctions relief created a strong psychological shift toward removing the rest of the sanctions, and formed an economic lobby within the West to buttress this intangible factor with more earthy means. It also gave Iran access to hard currency that it could use for terrorism, subversion, the suppression of human rights in Iran, and the nuclear program itself.


All of this has put Iran within touching distance of an undetectable breakout. So why has the Obama administration behaved this way?

One explanation is that President Obama feels that an Iranian bomb is inevitable—and perhaps not as apocalyptic an outcome as the Israelis think. Obama has effectively said he thinks the regime is rational. There is of course the proliferation risk—the Saudis have a nuclear bomb “on order” from Pakistan, and Egypt and Turkey will likely follow, with uncertain consequences in the Balkans—and what an ironic outcome that would be for the “nuclear zero” President, but this is why Obama has focussed on keeping Iran from an actual breakout, at least on his watch, without removing its capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons.

To stop Iran now, to dismantle its ability to fabricate nuclear weapons, would require a credible threat of force. While Obama maintains that “all options are on the table,” including a “military component,” should Iran continue to defy the “international community,” it is safe to say, especially in the wake of the “red line” fiasco in Syria, where Obama stood down partly to appease Iran and partly because of his disinclination to use force in the Middle East, that nobody really believes this. Simply put: Obama would rather a nuclear Iran if the only way to prevent it was by military action.

The clear fact that there will not be a military response if Iran continues to defy the West on its nuclear program, even to extent of the U.S. neutralising the Israeli threat, explains why Iran has all the leverage. If the initial premise of negotiations was America telling Iran, “Cut a deal that removes the nuclear weapons and we’ll lift the sanctions—or else,” the “or else” is now missing. The sanctions have been effectively unravelled and the threat of force is removed, so the tables have been turned: Now Iran says, “Pay up, or we’ll breakout.”

The JPA has not “definitely stopped Iran’s nuclear program from advancing,” as Obama claimed in his Nov. 23 interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC, nor has the JPA “actually rolled back” the program in a sustainable way. Obama instanced the dissolving of the stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium as an example of rollback, but then pointedly dodged the question of rolling back the number of centrifuges. At most this extends breakout by a few weeks but it does not stop it. The infrastructure to do a rapid breakout all remains in place, especially the thousands of centrifuges; merely removing the highly-enriched uranium does nothing when Iran can quickly recreate it. But this is the story of the JPA: While the West has made permanent and irreversible concessions to Iran, Iran has made temporary and easily reversible concessions to the West. The West pays Iran to delay its breakout, while Iran gets to continue to advance its infrastructure to shorten the breakout time.

It is also clear that Obama sees the nuclear issue as an obstacle to co-operation on more important matters like the Islamic State. If, however, the regional strategy is to make Iran a stakeholder, with a favourable balance of power with its neighbours—plus the removal of American hegemony and threats to the regime—and secure spheres of influence that make a bomb otiose, or at least push the need for breakout “further to the right,” i.e. into the future, a clue as to Obama’s internal strategy for Iran was given in his ABC interview.

A final deal would be “good for the people of Iran,” Obama said. “[I]t’s a big country with a lot of talent … [and] sophistication,” Obama added. Moreover, “Iran’s not like North Korea, a country that’s just completely isolated and completely dysfunctional. So they have the opportunity … to really thrive.”

President Obama has sounded this theme before. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in March, President Obama said:

“If … as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program those [moderate] voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or fifteen years or twenty years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.”

In this telling, Obama is pursuing a crafty long-term strategy of regime-alteration, which avoids war, avoids the kind of devastating sanctions that destroyed the socio-economic base for decent governance in Iraq, and positions the U.S. best to reap the benefits of this emerging elite, which will see the wisdom of the policies that empowered them against the hardliners.

Leaving aside the very serious doubts about the gradualist strategy of removing autocracies, even on this telling, it notably makes the U.S. not the representative of the “international community” trying to bring a lawless tyranny into line, but instead a faction inside Iran’s regime, which the U.S. then has an interest in perpetuating. And this of course is what President Obama has based his strategy on: a conviction that Iran’s powerless president, Hassan Rowhani, is a moderate who is determined to reach an accommodation with the West.

Iran has skilfully played on the West’s “mirroring” tendencies. Rather than a dictatorship ruled by Khamenei and his Guard Corp, Iran has presented itself as having a pluralist political system not dissimilar to the West. The problem then becomes the “hardliners,” who supposedly exist on both sides—the IRGC and Khamenei for Iran, and Congress, the Saudis, and the Israelis for the U.S. (see below). The absurdity of the implicit comparison between Qassem Suleimani and John McCain never gets reckoned with, nor the fact that Rowhani is where he is because Khamenei wants him to be.

Economist cartoon showing Obama restrained by his hardliners (the Jewish-controlled Congress) and Rowhani restrained by his hardliners

Economist cartoon showing Obama restrained by his hardliners (the Jewish-controlled Congress) and Rowhani restrained by his hardliners (the IRGC and Ayatollah Khamenei)

The argument against trying to play at Iranian internal regime politics, however, is irrefutable: we simply do not know enough to play this game. In my judgment, the evidence is that the “moderation” of Rowhani—like the moderation of his mentor Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—is a fiction. Rowhani believes his greatest achievement was splitting the Europeans and the Americans between 2003 and 2005 to allow the advance of the nuclear-weapons program without the punishing sanctions the combative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought on Iran after that. Further, Khamenei has consolidated an autocracy after 2009 based on the rule of the Guard Corp and a 5,000-man staff in his personal office that shadows the ostensible ministries and controls them: whatever scope there was for moderates like Mohamed Khatami—and there wasn’t much: by his second term (2001-05) he was powerless—it is gone now. But say I’m wrong about this—as I could easily be—this makes my point exactly: it’s a fool’s errand to be trying to manipulate the balance of power in a ruling elite where the intentions of the players are so opaque to us.


The JPA will now surely last until the end of the Obama administration, with a ritual tribute being made to Tehran every half-year to avoid it openly crossing the nuclear threshold, all while Iran completes the infrastructure to become a latent nuclear power, continues its suppression of human rights at home, its regional subversion, and its global terrorism. Since the Obama administration has placed its bet on the opposition within the regime, rather than the opposition to the regime, a strategy as impractical as it is immoral, it has consigned Iran to the perpetual rule of corrupt, unelected bullies. In the meanwhile the administration will look to complete its “silent partnership” with Iran in the region, beginning with the campaign against the Islamic State (I.S.), where co-ordination with Iran, and “Iranian-backed ‘state institutions’,” has been presented as a necessity since Iran’s forces on the ground are the most capable and willing to confront the takfiris. This strategy has alienated America’s regional allies, who find their interests ignored as Iran is accommodated, and reduced the chances of destroying the I.S. and stabilising Syria and Iraq. That, however, is a subject for another post ….