As the pendulum swings wildly between unexpected rapid success and unexpected rapid falling apart at the P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Geneva, media reports continue, in virtually every article, to remind us of the fragility of diplomatic efforts due to "hardliners" both in America and in Iran. But, to imply an equality between the two groups by arbitrarily applying the same label is to dangerously misrepresent the truth and irresponsibly ignore the history.
The "hardliners" share but one thing in common: they are both suspicious of their respective presidents’ intentions. But the aims of their suspicions are opposites. American hardliners think their President is naïve to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran and hope to sabotage it; Iranian hardliners think their President is naïve to trust the Americans by believing that they won’t sabotage it.
Despite the constant references to the new world ushered in by the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, the deal that the western media presents as a groundbreaking proposal is really the same proposal Iran has always brought to the table. Iran is willing to stop all enrichment of twenty percent uranium, convert their existing twenty percent uranium into fuel plates for medical isotopes and ratify the Additional Protocols of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which authorize more intrusive and proactive inspections of Iranian nuclear sites. In return, Iran asks for recognition of its right as a sovereign nation and as a signatory to the NPT to enrich uranium for energy and medical purposes and for the removal of sanctions. In 2003, as part of a larger proposal, Iran also offered to sign the Additional Protocols and asked for the recognition to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and for the end of sanctions. Iran has always had as a condition of any agreement with the West the recognition of its right to enrich uranium for energy and for medical isotopes under the NPT. Iran experts Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett say that, based on their discussions with Iranian officials, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has given his current diplomats great flexibility in negotiating a settlement but has directed them not to compromise on Iran’s sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.
American hardliners, however, have recently denied this basic Iranian condition for an agreement. Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and the U.S.’s senior negotiator in the current talks with Iran, who is not necessarily seen particularly as a hardliner, declared recently before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "It has always been the US position that Article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not speak about the right of enrichment at all. . . ." This interpretation of the NPT has been picked up and echoed by members of Congress. Democrat Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, protested recently that "I forcefully reject any notion that Iran has a ‘right’ to enrich."
Several other members of Congress have repeated the demand that Iran be denied the right to enrich. House majority leader Eric Cantor has passed verdict that "Any deal that does not require a full and complete halting of the Iranian nuclear program is worse than no deal at all." The Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Howard McKeon lamented that ending sanctions "without a guarantee that Iran will end its nuclear program is foolish."
That the American hardliners’ ideology has infiltrated the Western P5+1 negotiating team is suggested by reports coming out right after this past weekend’s disintegration of the promised preliminary agreement that, at least publicly, the diplomats from the other five countries were not angry with France for breaking ranks on the potential deal, but for breaking protocol and announcing the failure prior to the final press conference. It appears that the six countries may have been in agreement about questioning Iran’s "right" to enrich and about questioning the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Though originally presented as France’s breaking ranks with the other five countries, no one but Iran has publicly criticized France, and John Kerry has said "The French signed off on it, we signed off on it" and that "We’re grateful to the French for the work we did together."
But the American hardliners are wrong, and the Iranians are right. The NPT is unambiguous, and the American "position," as Wendy Sherman calls it, is less an interpretation than a wish. Article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s clearly states that "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty." As a signatory to the treaty, Iran unequivocally has the "inalienable right" to use "nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," including for energy and for medical isotopes. So insistence by hardliners in Congress that sanctions stay in place until all Iranian enrichment ceases is, as Iran insists, illegal. So Rouhani is justified in his insistence that "For us there are red lines that cannot be crossed. National interests are our red lines that include our right under the framework of international regulations and [uranium] enrichment in Iran."
But while American hardliners are wrong about their claims, the Iranian hardliners are historically justified in their claims that the Americans will sabotage the talks and will never make a fair deal with Iran. While talks progress more positively than they have in a decade and a deal seems possible for the first time, American hardliners continue to press for sanctions on Iran and continue to raise the bar of what would constitute an acceptable deal.
Several Congressmen from both parties have suggested not only maintaining sanctions but enhancing them with new, harsher ones.
Democrat Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that "I think that the possibility of moving ahead with new sanctions, including wording it in such a way that if there is a deal that is acceptable that those sanctions could cease upon such a deal, is possible. . . . At the same time, it’s also an incentive to the Iranians to know what’s coming if you don’t strike a deal." In other words, Menendez proposes not easing the existing sanctions if there is a deal, but creating new sanctions that will be ended if there is a deal.
Stephen Zunes says that Menendez is also one of a bipartisan group of influential Senators who, in the lead up to this round of talks, signed a letter calling for a harder line of sanctions "unless Iran agrees to fully suspend its nuclear processing." The group also includes Republican hardliners John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The letter adds that "we affirm that a credible military threat remains on the table and we underscore the imperative that the current sanctions be maintained aggressively."
And Senator Tim Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, says that he has the go-ahead from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to start final preparations for a bill to introduce new sanctions on Iran.
And the Western hardliners not only insist on maintaining, or even escalating, sanctions on Iran until Iran agrees to a deal, they also keep raising the bar on what constitutes a deal. Just as Iran was about to agree to a deal with the P5+1, the P5+1 raised the bar on the deal. Now the Iranians had to agree not only to suspend all enrichment of twenty percent uranium, convert her existing twenty percent uranium into fuel plates and ratify the Additional Protocols of the NPT, they also had to stop work on the Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor. The reactor in Arak, which does not use enriched uranium, would produce plutonium as a byproduct. The West suddenly introduced the demand that stopping work on the Arak plant be included in any deal because the plutonium could potentially be used as an alternative material for building a bomb. However, the Guardian reported that Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan American organization that provides information for arms control policy, says that this new Western demand is an unnecessary obstacle. Kimball says that it will take a year to complete the plant and another year for the plant to produce plutonium, putting the potential for bomb material two years into the future. Furthermore, Iran would need to build yet another facility to separate the plutonium so that it could be used for a weapon. Kimball says that Iran does not have such a reprocessing plant. He adds that Arak would be under International Atomic Energy Association safeguards the whole time. Kimball concludes by saying that "France and the other . . . powers would be making a mistake if they hold up an interim deal that addresses more urgent proliferation risks over the final arrangements regarding Arak."
So when the West set its demands, and Iran agreed, the West increased its demands. The new deal would not guarantee Iran the right to enrich uranium and take away the right to build a reactor in Arak that does not use enriched uranium. But that takes away Iran’s guarantee of a nuclear program at all. But since the West has denied Iran access to enriched uranium for medical isotopes before, Iran cannot agree to a deal that denies it the right to produce medical isotopes either from their uranium plants or from Arak. The new P5+1 offer raises the bar so high that it is impossible for Iran to accept, effectively sabotaging any deal with Iran.
And that is just what Iranian hardliners have been waiting for to happen. They have seen it too many times before.
Rouhani is a protégé of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. In an attempt to improve relations with the United States, Rafsanjani intervened and used Iran’s influence in Lebanon to help win the release of American hostages being held in that country. President George H.W. Bush had promised Iran that if they used their leverage to help the U.S., it would "be long remembered" and that "goodwill begets goodwill." Iran kept its part of the bargain, but America sabotaged the deal. Bush did nothing in return. Instead, the Americans informed Rafsanjani that he should expect no American reciprocation. Rafsanjani continued to try, but America continued to make détente impossible.
Rafsanjani was succeeded by Seyyed Mohammad Khatami. Rouhani was secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator in Khatami’s administration. Like his predecessor, Khatami continuously attempted to do what America wanted so that America would grant Iran what it wanted.
In the wake of 9/11, Iran sided with America, cooperating with the US against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, who provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters once America and its allies invaded Afghanistan, was, at least in part, put together by Iran, who placed it in the hands of the Americans. Iran also offered its air bases to the U.S. and permitted the US to carry out search and rescue missions for downed US planes. The Iranians also gave the US intelligence on Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets. Iran was also crucial in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and offered their help in rebuilding Afghanistan’s army.
Not only did President George W. Bush offer Iran nothing in return, in exchange for Iran’s goodwill and crucial assistance, in January 2002, President Bush included Iran in his Axis of Evil speech. Khatami was stunned. And the hardliners who opposed his efforts used this speech of Bush’s as evidence that you can never negotiate a deal with the United States.
And that’s what they see again in the most recent P5+1 negotiations.
And though the American hardliners are wrong in their claims about the right to enrich uranium, the Iranian hardliners are right, in the historical context, about their claims about America. So, it is dangerously misleading to imply an equality between the two groups by applying the same "hardliner" label to each. The Iranian "hardliners" are only expecting America to sabotage the negotiations; the American hardliners are actually sabotaging it.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.
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