6.7.15

The Iran Talks: Waiting for Godot?


 Original Text in French at RT en Français.


The talks between Iran and P5 + 1, relaunched since president Obama's historic phone call to president Rouhani in September 27, 2013, stand today, a few hours from the self-imposed deadline of July 7, as a set of technical problems. However, behind this technical aspect hide fears and hopes resulting in regional and international reactions oscillating between classical Greek drama and the theater of the absurd. 

Indeed, the Iranian nuclear issue plays on an existential backdrop for some of the actors and their regional allies. The Islamic Republic of Iran wants, beyond the agreement and the lifting of sanctions it entails, some dignity and normality within the international community, through the recognition of its right to civilian nuclear power.  In contrast, the United States and Israel have always seen the Iranian civilian nuclear program as a preamble to the military nuclear program.  Israel's suspicions in particular  derive from the fact that this country has developed its own military nuclear program, to which it never admitted, without any control or verification. Israel continues to produce nuclear weapons, has never signed any international treaty on proliferation and is not subject to inspections by the United Nations Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA). 

The climate of suspicion accompanies the Iranian nuclear program since the advent of the Islamic revolution, despite the fact that it began under the Shah's regime with the blessing of the West. But the absence of a permanent dialogue and diplomatic channels between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Western countries, and the presence of permanent tensions, as well as Iran's recent rise as a regional actor, have strengthened the climate of suspicion against Iran. On the other hand, Iran is afraid to open up to countries like the US, France or the UK, who do not hide their ambitions of making Middle Eastern governments docile, often by force. 

In 2003, France, the UK and Germany, then closely followed by the United Nations Security Council (UN) and the United States (US), put pressure on Iran to stop enriching Uranium, even for purposes of Research and Development. In conjunction with the UN, a system of unprecedented inspections is established, to which Iran submits as a signatory of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thus, in 2003 and 2004, Iran voluntarily agrees to suspend its enrichment activities, although not in violation of the NPT, to calm suspicions and pressures. But in 2005, President Ahmadinejad announces the resumption of the nuclear program for civilian purposes. In fact, Iran has always insisted on the civilian dimension of the program and some commentators rightly point out that during the war with Iraq, Iran has never used weapons of mass destruction against Iraqis who have not hesitated to use their chemical weapons, developed with the help of the West, against Iranian soldiers. Iran has also repeatedly insisted on the existence of a fatwa issued by the father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, against the development of nuclear weapons. But the announcement of the resumption of the civilian nuclear program is not well received in Western capitals and by the members of the Security Council. They gradually impose a regime of unilateral and multilateral sanctions, increasing in severity, peaking in 2010 and 2012 with draconian and punitive economic sanctions by the US, along with a secondary sanctions regime to tighten the noose on Iran 

The culmination of the sanctions, and the feeling in Western capitals of their inability to alter the position of Iran on its civilian nuclear program, as well as a political change in Iran in 2013, open the possibility for the resumption of talks. The US establishes diplomatic contacts with the Iranians secretly as soon as August 2013, few days after the election of Rouhani. These contacts lead to a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in September 2013 in New York on the sidelines of the General Assembly of the UN, and a call from President Obama to President Rouhani. With the tacit approval of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ali Khamenei, the conditions are ripe to resume negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1. 

The premise of the Iranian side of the talks is simple: once the civil dimension of the nuclear program is accepted, Iran agrees to give guarantees to calm suspicions about a possible nuclear military program. Therefore, the task of the negotiators is to separate civilian and military dimensions through a process of reducing the Iranian nuclear issue to a series of technical problems; the amount and percentage of enriched uranium, the number of centrifuges, etc... The recognition of Iran's right to a civilian nuclear program is formalized at the beginning of the negotiations in Novembre 2013 in Geneva in what is called the preliminary agreement or the joint plan of action.  The joint plan of action results in a limitation of Iran's enrichment activities, a series of verification by the IAEA and partial lifting of sanctions unfreezing Iranian assets abroad. The subsequent goals of the talks, and not the lesser ones, were going to try to separate the civilian from the military dimensions of the program by implementing processes of verification and control. 

It is clear that reducing the Iranian nuclear issue, for long an  existential problem, to a series of technical problems, is done with the political will to reach an agreement and is made possible by a plethora of highly able scientists and engineers, as well as negotiators. But the existential aspect never left a negotiation arena that has become technical, bringing additional difficulties along the way, despite the fact that the main opponents to a deal with Iran, Israel and the Gulf monarchies, have raised their all-out barrage of objections from the start of the talks.  For it was not until a year and half and two missed self-imposed deadlines, that a framework for an agreement emerges in April 2015, but no final agreement. The framework agreement reduces the number of Iranian centrifuges, halts the construction of new enrichment facilities, poses constraints on the work in some reactors, provides for the monitoring of sites by the IAEA and the lifting of sanctions. Very quickly, the timing of the lifting of sanctions becomes problematic. The US wants to make it conditional on Iran's compliance while Iran expects nothing less than the simultaneous lifting of all sanctions, the timetable for the lifting of sanctions immediately becoming a thorny issue. 

Another thorny issue, which was added to the negotiations, and which was not present at the start, is that of a past and possible military dimension of the program (PMD).  According to investigative journalist Gareth Porter, this question was raised based on information provided by Israel to the US. Porter comes to the conclusion that the information about a possible past military dimension to Iran's nuclear program isn't confirmed by other intel agencies and goes against the religious beliefs of the Iranian leadership. Furthermore, assuming that a military nuclear program existed in the past, it is clear that it no longer exists because neither past IAEA inspections nor inspections requested during the negotiations have been able to demonstrate the existence of such a program. Then asking explanations about a past program is akin to asking Iran to prostrate itself accused and guilty, which goes against creating a productive climate for negotiations. 

But if excessive demands from the US and its ally Israel were to continue, or if these excessive demands were to prevent an agreement or prevent the US from being bound by a possible agreement via a political coup made against the agreement by a hostile and fiercely pro-Israel congress, it is not certain that other countries partaking in the negotiations will follow this path. Indeed, the unity of the P5 + 1 is admirable because their interests  vis-à-vis an agreement with Iran differ and diverge.  And the progress made until now is considerable to be squandered. 

Whatever the outcome of talks on July 7, or after July 7, which may emerge to be the case, there are already two major achievements. The first achievement is the indisputable right of Iran to civilian nuclear energy endorsed by all negotiators. The second achievement is rather psychological, it is the ability of the public, now that the negotiations have taken place, to separate reality from fears, therefore discrediting the propaganda against the Iranian nuclear program. As for the rest, and if we are to believe the latest statements made by John Kerry and Javad Zarif in Vienna on July 5th, it seems that we will have to wait again.
 
Since March 29th 2006