Face this fact. If Iran tomorrow announced a complete halt of its uranium enrichment program and ordered an immediate dismantling of its nuclear facilities under the full supervision of an IAEA safeguards army of inspectors … we would still not cut the Islamic Republic any slack.

We would likely move to churn out IAEA General Assembly and UN Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran implement the Additional Protocols of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) so that we could look inside every crevice and under every boulder in that country to assure ourselves that there wasn’t a “secret” weapons program.

And still we wouldn’t be satisfied.

Our core problem is not with Iran’s enrichment program or it’s recently revealed Fordow nuclear plant buried under a mountainside. The central issue clogging up our hotlines is that we do not trust Iran. And they do not trust us.

Some background first:

After disclosing the existence of the Fordow facility in September, Iran invited the IAEA to conduct a full inspection of the site. In advance of the highly anticipated report on its findings, IAEA Director General Muhammad ElBaradei told the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen that inspectors had found “nothing to be worried about. The idea was to use it as a bunker under the mountain to protect things,” he explained, referring to Iran’s claims that the plant would act as a back-up facility if Israel follows through with threats to attack the country’s primary enrichment site at Natanz. “It’s a hole in a mountain,” concluded ElBaradei.

Then the report came out and the mud-slinging started. The Associated Press, quoting unidentified western “diplomats,” stated in a widely-cited article that the plant “appears too small to house a civilian nuclear program, but is large enough to serve for military activities.”

The actual IAEA report released on November 16 concludes nothing of the kind. The report describes the facility blandly:

The Agency confirmed that the plant corresponded with the design information provided by Iran and that the facility was at an advanced stage of construction, although no centrifuges had been introduced into the facility. Centrifuge mounting pads, header and sub-header pipes, water piping, electrical cables and cabinets had been put in place but were not yet connected.

It all matched up not only with Iran’s pre-inspection description of the Fordow site, but that of “other member states” – western countries that had been aware of the facility for years.

However, the IAEA report warns Iran that it’s delayed disclosure of Fordow “gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities in Iran which had not been declared to the Agency.”

And while Tehran has not responded publicly to this specific query, it has often raised its own questions of why – after more than two dozen IAEA reports on its nuclear program, an inspector’s visit every two weeks for six years, and by far the most exhaustive inspection regime in the Agency’s history – it is still treated with suspicion and must bear the brunt of sanctions when it has clearly adhered to the required safeguards demanded of member states. Especially since most of the allegations about its nuclear program that prompt the ongoing IAEA inspections come from unfriendly countries with hidden agendas.

The AP article just added fuel to the fire by feeding into news reports everywhere that the Fordow facility was built for nuclear weapons production. Never mind that nobody actually backed up this claim. In fact, in an article on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, two specialists debunked that theory. While agreeing that Fordow was too small to be useful for enriching fuel for civilian nuclear reactors, the authors claim that it is even too small for military purposes.

“It would take four years to enrich enough natural uranium for just one bomb, hardly a viable breakout option.”

And not even a likely one, given that Fordow will be under IAEA safeguards and inspections the entire time.

P5+1 Talks:

On another track altogether, suspicions and mistrust continued in this vein. In October, Iran met with the five UN Security Council nations plus Germany – P5+1 – to address concerns over its nuclear intentions, among other things. In short shrift, the outlines of a deal were hammered out to alleviate western fears over the militarization of Iran’s enrichment program. The proposal was that Iran would hand over the majority of its domestically enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be processed further and returned to the Islamic Republic about a year later for use in a civilian capacity.

But there was no concrete agreement quite yet. The Iranian negotiating team had to head back home and get buy-in from various segments of the government. And the P5+1 started almost immediately demanding that Iran accept the proposal in full or deal with the consequences.

Back in Tehran, politics came into play. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared keen to push forward a deal to ensure for himself the international and domestic legitimacy he has lacked since the disputed June elections in Iran. But his opposition was just as eager to prevent him from claiming this victory. No matter the public rhetoric, rapprochement with the US is viewed as a big prize within the Islamic Republic, and the various domestic political factions are reluctant to let their opponents strike a deal easily. And so the wrangling began.

In the ensuing weeks, various reports flew out of the Iranian capital regarding the P5+1 proposal. Iran will not allow its stash of enriched uranium to leave the country. Yes, it will. Iran will not transfer its uranium to France, because France has reneged on similar agreements previously. Iran will agree to uranium storage in Turkey. Iran will only agree to the proposal if the uranium switch takes place simultaneously within its borders. And so forth.

During this time, the Obama administration has ceaselessly continued to threaten repercussions if Tehran does not agree to the P5+1 proposal by the end of the year.

ElBaradei remains firm on the issue that Iran’s current supply of enriched uranium must leave Iranian soil for this deal to work:

You need to move the material from Iran to defuse the crisis and open the space for negotiation. So, what we are asking Iran is to take a minimum risk for peace and to have an agreement not based on distrust but based on trust.

But the IAEA chief has also said: “there is total distrust on the part of Iran.” The Islamic Republic is a paranoid entity because of 30 years of western – and particularly American – attempts to isolate it. So Iran is now asking the P5+1 for “guarantees” – firm assurances that it will receive the agreed enriched uranium if it takes the risk of relinquishing its own store.

Is this guarantee request unreasonable – on any level? This is a unique opportunity to draw Iran back into the community of nations and even gain its assistance in addressing some of the US’s most pressing concerns in the Middle East – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, all neighbors of the Islamic Republic.

There is no trust between these two nations – that much is clear. But that is also one major reason these talks are even taking place – to build trust. Yet every tiny move is so distorted by both sides – in the media, through official statements, in diplomatic backrooms – that the possibility of compromise and cooperation is undermined at every turn.

Solutions to ponder:

The question arises: is there anything that Iran can do to that would actually assuage our fears over its nuclear intentions? And is there anything the US can do that will help a fragmented Iran take a trusting step forward?

Not as things stand. Shut off the cameras. Turn off the microphones. Stop the posturing. If a deal is to be had, both sides need to plug the leaks, de-bug the rooms and conduct actual, meaningful negotiations in complete privacy. An agreement can only be reached if it does not compromise either governments’ favorability with domestic constituencies – or diminish their international and regional standing.

Remove artificial deadlines. Open up other tracks in the P5+1 discussions – these nations have many issues to discuss. Take the heat off the nuclear track and allow the Iranian factions some quiet time to reach agreement on a deal that will suit the west. Identify easily resolvable issues and engage Iran constructively on these to build trust and achieve small successes. This will build confidence and goodwill amongst all parties.

Offer Iran a free-flowing supply of enriched uranium for civilian use. Help it build nuclear reactors. Give it complete access to all resources available to nations with longstanding civilian nuclear energy programs. And watch Iran’s economic and political incentives for developing its own nuclear resources fade fast. All while the IAEA and western nations enjoy unprecedented access to every nuance of Iran’s nuclear program – inspections, oversight, inventory control – the whole nine yards.

ElBaradei leaves the scene:

On November 30, the Nobel Peace Prize winning IAEA chief leaves his post after a long and illustrious tenure. ElBaradei, who opposed the US’s invasion of Iraq on the grounds that his team had not identified any evidence that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction, has been a careful, impartial player in the highly charged political environment surrounding Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. His departure does not bode well for the future of negotiations, and he has pressed Iran to accept a deal quickly.

In May, speaking to Newsweek magazine, ElBaradei described Iran and its negotiating team thus:

The Iranians have always been extremely well briefed on the details. They know what they want. They are excellent on the strategic goals, excellent on waiting for the right price. I don’t want to make them sound like superhumans; you do see a lot of infighting among them. And part of it is about who is going to get credit for finally breaking out of this 30 years of fighting and confrontation with the United States. Everybody is positioning himself to be the national hero who would finally put Iran back onto the world map as part of the mainstream. They are not like the stereotyped fanatics bent on destroying everybody around them. They are not.

The Iranians will have to reign in their factionalism for any deal to work, but the P5+1 need to give them time and incentives to do so.

First published: November 27, 2009, Huffington Post

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