High Stakes for Upcoming Nuclear Negotiations With Iran

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany – will resume in Istanbul, Turkey, on Jan. 21. Although Turkey, which together with Brazil signed an agreement with Iran last May to store a significant portion of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) on its soil to be safeguarded there by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will host the meeting, it will not be a partner to the negotiations.

In an interview with the BBC in December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “They [Iranians] can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations,” implying that the United States has finally accepted the inevitability of Iran enriching uranium on its oil. But the main goal of the U.S., namely, the suspension and eventual elimination of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, does not seem to have changed. Thus, insisting on this goal and continuing to pursue it will only doom the upcoming negotiations.

The negotiations are to be resumed at an unusually opportune time. Domestically, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is under tremendous pressure. Economically, its performance has been dismal. Iran’s annual rate of economic growth is so embarrassingly low – less than 1 percent – that it has been treated as a state secret. With the elimination of government subsidies for major commodities, ranging from gasoline, water, electricity, and fuel to wheat and rice, the price of practically everything has been skyrocketing. Most analysts predict that the huge inflationary pressure may lead to political unrest by this summer. The sanctions imposed by the UNSC and by the U.S. and its allies have also been biting.

Corruption has been rampant, and even Ahmadinejad’s first vice president (Iran has eight), Mohammad Reza Rahimi, has been implicated in a major corruption case. In addition to the opposition Green Movement, many in the conservative/hard-line camp have been criticizing Ahmadinejad, leading him to fire many of his advisers and attack his opponents.

Politically, repression of the opposition has continued unabated. Many activists, including university students, attorneys who defend political prisoners, defenders of human rights, and journalists have been detained and given long jail sentences after show trials. At the same time, the behind-the-scenes power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has continued and has been heating up.

Under such conditions, Ahmadinejad and his inner circle appear to be eager to reach a compromise with the United States over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. After getting reelected in what many consider a fraudulent election in June 2009 that gave rise to the opposition Green Movement and took the nation into a deep crisis from which it has yet to recover, Ahmadinejad sees the possible agreement as a way of gaining some credibility with a segment of the population and lessening the impact of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran.

It was Ahmadinejad’s close aide and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili who negotiated the preliminary agreement in October 2009 with the IAEA, the U.S., and France for swapping a major portion of Iran’s LEU with fuel for Tehran’s research reactor, which provides medical isotopes for 850,000 patients annually. Although the agreement was first blocked by Ayatollah Khamenei, it eventually resulted in the tripartite agreement with Turkey and Brazil, which the U.S. rejected.

But the appointment of Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), as the interim foreign minister is a clear signal by Ahmadinejad that he wants to reach an agreement with the United States and its allies. Although he fired former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as part of his power struggle with Khamenei, and even though Ahmadinejad and Jalili are close, the appointment of Salehi is very telling. Credible reports in August 2009 indicated that Jalili was Ahmadinejad’s first choice as the foreign minister for his second administration, but his appointment was blocked by Khamenei.

Salehi, the moderate, MIT-educated head of the AEOI, knows every detail of Iran’s nuclear program. He has stayed out of the political chaos that has engulfed Iran for the past several years. At the same time, there was no indication that Salehi was politically close to the hardliners and Ahmadinejad or that he has any political ambitions of his own. An academic source in Tehran told me that Salehi has said privately that he accepted the appointment because he wants to get Iran out of the current impasse with the West. Therefore, Salehi can negotiate with the P5+1 from a position of knowledge and authority.

Internationally, the conditions are ripe for reaching an agreement with Iran. Stuxnet, the computer virus presumably designed jointly by Israel and the U.S., has inflicted serious damage on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, putting out of commission at least one-fifth, and possibly a much larger fraction, of Iran’s centrifuges. The damage has been so severe that it prompted Meir Dagan, who recently ended his tenure as the chief of Israel’s Mossad, to declare that Iran will not be able to make a nuclear bomb before 2015, even though there has been no evidence that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program to begin with. This is a stunning admission by the head of the intelligence agency of a state that has been making dire predictions over the past 25 years about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus, even the bogus urgency with which Iran’s nuclear program has always been debated has dissipated.

If by imposing sanctions on Iran and pressuring others to impose their own set of sanctions the U.S. hopes that the consensus within Iran regarding its nuclear program will develop fissures, it could not be more wrong. All of Iran’s political factions, from the hardliners to pragmatic conservatives to the leaders of the opposition Green Movement agree on Iran’s fundamental right to enrich uranium in the framework of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Iran’s Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

When the Geneva agreement for a fuel swap was reached in October 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition leader, called the agreement “astonishing.” In other words, Mousavi was opposed to even the fuel swap, let alone giving up Iran’s rights under the NPT. In fact, it was during Mousavi’s premiership in the 1980s that Iran’s nuclear program was restarted, and he was a leading proponent of it. The difference between the opposition Green Movement and Ahmadinejad’s approach to foreign policy, and in particular Iran’s nuclear program, is that the former advocates a rational policy devoid of rhetoric and bombastic proclamations of the type used by Ahmadinejad, but based on two principles: protecting Iran’s true national interests through a constructive policy based on dialogue, and taking away any excuse from the warmongers and the Israel lobby in the U.S. for advocating military attacks and tough economic sanctions against Iran.

Writing on the foreign policy that the opposition Green Movement must advocate, Rajabali Mazrooei, an important reformist figure, put it the following way: “A principle of the policy must be Iran’s right to develop and have access to the technology for peaceful use of nuclear energy, within the framework of international laws and treaties. The right to the technology for nuclear energy must not supersede other national rights, and in particular the fundamental rights of the citizens. The Green Movement must oppose any military attacks on Iran’s territory.”

It is also clear that Iran must also make major concessions in order to make an agreement possible. Chief among them is ratifying and implementing the provisions of the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, which would give the IAEA the authority for intrusive inspections and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran did implement the Protocol, on a volunteer basis, from October 2003 to February 2006. The agreement for swapping Iran’s LEU with fuel for reactors can also be used as a basis for future swaps. Thus, the basis for a comprehensive agreement already exists. If such an agreement is reached, not only will the world benefit, but so will the Iranian people.

Iran’s democratic movement is strongly against any sanctions or military threats. The West should negotiate with Iran in good faith, stop making threats against it, and recognize its rights under the NPT. The West must remind the Ahmadinejad administration that, just as it correctly proclaims Iran’s rights under the NPT, it must also abide by its obligations under the international human rights agreements it has signed. Iranian hardliners have proven to be vulnerable to international pressure when it comes to their violations of human rights.

Only when Iran is not under the threat of foreign powers, and its rulers are held accountable by the international community for their mistreatment of the Iranian people, will it be able to realize its immense potential for becoming a model of democracy in the Middle East. To achieve this, the West should not do anything to divert attention from the catastrophic failures of the Ahmadinejad government.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.