Iran, six big powers seek to agree basis for final nuclear accord

n13-iconReuters reports: Six world powers and Iran strived at a second day of talks in Vienna on Wednesday to map out a broad agenda for reaching a ambitious final settlement to the decade-old standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want a long-term agreement on the permissible scope of Iran’s nuclear activities to lay to rest concerns that they could be put to developing atomic bombs. Tehran’s priority is a complete removal of damaging economic sanctions against it.

The negotiations will probably extend at least over several months, and could help defuse years of hostility between energy-exporting Iran and the West, ease the danger of a new war in the Middle East, transform the regional power balance and open up major business opportunities for Western firms.

“The talks are going surprisingly well. There haven’t been any real problems so far,” a senior Western diplomat said, dismissing rumors from the Iranian side that the discussions had run into snags already.

The opening session on Tuesday was “productive” and “substantive”, they said. “The focus was on the parameters and the process of negotiations, the timetable of what is going to be a medium- to long-term process,” one European diplomat said. [Continue reading...]


The danger of new Iran sanctions

Colin H. Kahl writes: The Geneva “interim” agreement reached in November between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) freezes Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief, with the goal of enabling further talks to comprehensively resolve one of the world’s thorniest challenges. Yet despite the landmark accord, more than two dozen Senators introduced legislation on December 19 to impose new oil and financial sanctions on Iran. The Senate could vote on the measure soon after it returns from recess in January. Powerful lobby organizations are mobilized in support of the bill, and it could certainly pass.

The legislation defies a request by the Obama administration and ten Senate committee chairs to stand down on sanctions while negotiations continue. It also flies in the face of an unclassified intelligence assessment that new sanctions “would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.” Proponents of the bill note that the proposed sanctions would only come into force if Iran violates the Geneva agreement or fails to move toward a final deal, and would not kick in for months. But the White House warns that enshrining new economic threats in law now runs counter to the spirit of the Geneva pledge of no new sanctions during negotiations, and risks empowering Iranian forces hoping to scuttle nuclear talks. The legislation also defines congressionally acceptable parameters for a final deal that Iran experts almost universally believe are unachievable, namely the requirement that Iran completely dismantle its uranium enrichment program. For these reasons, the administration believes the bill represents a poison pill that could kill diplomacy, making a nuclear-armed Iran or war more likely.

Sanctions hawks disagree, arguing that the legislation will enable, not thwart, diplomatic progress. “Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table,” Senator Robert Menendez, the bill’s leading champion, contends, “and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table.”

But this logic badly misreads the historical effect of sanctions on Iranian behavior and under-appreciates the role played by Iran’s fractious domestic politics. A careful look at Iranian actions over the past decade suggests that economic pressure has sometimes been effective, but only when it aligns with particular Iranian political dynamics and policy preferences. And once domestic Iranian politics are factored in, the lesson for today’s sanctions debate is clear: the threat of additional sanctions, at this critical juncture, could derail negotiations toward a peaceful solution. [Continue reading...]


Which Iran will we choose?

Trita Parsi, Bijan Khajehpour and Reza Marashi write: The historic interim agreement between the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran over its nuclear dispute is not just about enrichment, centrifuges and breakout capabilities. Ultimately, it will help determine who and what will define Iran’s foreign and domestic policies for decades to come. Will it be the security-oriented, confrontational and internally repressive orientation preferred by the Iranian hardliners? Or will the more cooperative, moderate and win-win approach favored by President Hassan Rouhani and the majority of the population take root and prevail?

In a new report published today (“Extending Hands and Unclenching Fists“) — which relies on in-depth interviews with senior Iranian political officials, intellectuals and members of business community — we show that the West can weaken the hardline Iranian narrative of confrontation and resistance and facilitate a comprehensive nuclear deal by collaborating with Iran on scientific projects that carry no proliferation risk.

For the U.S. and Europe, this means augmenting a successful nuclear deal through other areas of mutual interest can help usher in a more cooperative and less threatening Iran whose domestic political liberalization positively impacts the Middle East as a whole. In the past, we have seen Iran take important steps in this direction, but without reaching the desired results.

The 2013 presidential election unexpectedly catapulted centrist leaders into power that have sought an opening to the West on numerous occasions. Such efforts include the 2001 collaboration with the U.S. in Afghanistan, the 2003 Grand Bargain offer, and the 2005 offer to limit Iran’s enrichment program to 3,000 centrifuges (Iran currently has 19,000). These offers were all made prior to the West imposing crippling sanctions. By rejecting this outreach, Washington strengthened the hand of Iranian hardliners who believe the only way to compel the U.S. to deal with Iran is not by sending peace offers, but rather by resisting American power. [Continue reading...]


The many enemies of a deal with Iran

Christopher Dickey writes: “Black swans” are the unlikely and unforeseen events that change the world. Mathematical probability cannot predict them and conventional wisdom is blind to them, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, wrote six years ago when he coined the term. They seem to come out of nowhere, like the airliners of 9/11. But anyone who has a feel for the ever-deceptive volatility of the Middle East can see that right now the black swans are circling like vultures.

Their dark wings can be glimpsed in random headlines: a mysterious American disappears during on an off-the-books mission for the CIA. Members of a cult-like Iranian opposition group are slaughtered in Iraq even as their leaders forge close ties to famous American politicians. The worsening U.S. relationship with its old ally Saudi Arabia is threatened by renewed questions about the complicity of Saudi officials in the 9/11 attacks. Those are just a few of the sinister bits of information floating around the chaotic region these days.

None of these developments are certain to provoke cataclysmic change and, probability-wise, they probably won’t. But the region is so on edge, with Libya crumbling, Egypt in turmoil, and Syria tearing itself apart, that, like the act of a single assassin in Sarajevo in 1914, one unforeseen incident can bring on a cascade of catastrophes.

Let’s set the scene by looking at the Iran talks: The Obama administration has made those negotiations, to stop the mullahs from acquiring atomic weapons, a top priority. But last month’s breakthrough accords between Iran and the United States (plus France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China) are “just interim,” as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reminded the World Policy Conference in Monaco on Saturday. A final deal isn’t due for six months, if then.

The Iranians now have most of the know-how and most of the radioactive stuff they need to build a bomb. Will they truly and definitively step back from that threshold? Fabius, whose skepticism stalled the Geneva accords for a time, says he is skeptical still.

If the talks fail, the chances increase dramatically that the United States will get dragged into a new war in the Middle East, most likely alongside Israel. The objective of the surgical attacks that have been talked about would be to stall the Iranian program for just a few years—perhaps a very few years. But in response to such an action, it’s likely the Iranians would pursue a much more secretive effort without any United Nations inspectors to track it, and they’d eventually wind up with the bomb.

The only way to be 100 percent sure they won’t go down that path would be to change the regime. That was the logic behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and we know how that went. [Continue reading...]


Three months in Rouhani’s Iran

Farideh Farhi writes: I have recently returned from a three-month trip to Iran. I arrived in Tehran in early September before the famous Rouhani/Obama phone call and departed last week as the mood was turning more skeptical regarding the potential for some sort of final nuclear deal, which, in the words of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, would “normalize” the status of Iran’s nuclear program if it were to happen.

Frankly, sitting in Tehran, it was hard to listen to various Obama administration officials’ frenzied explanations to the US Congress and Israeli government regarding how, even with the first-step agreement, Iran will remain in dire straits. It was hard to listen without becoming skeptical about the US political environment allowing an agreement that would also be acceptable to Iran. From the receiving end of all the nuclear chatter, the whole American demeanor on Iran appears imperious, even outright uncivilized; like people speaking calmly about the taking of others’ lives and imposing further economic misery on them as options that are still very much on the table.

As I write this, news has broken that the Iranian experts engaged in talks in Vienna over the first phase of the “Joint Plan” were abruptly recalled to Tehran in reaction to the blacklisting of 19 Iranian companies by the US Treasury Department — a move that both Iran and Russia said violated the “spirit” of the Geneva accord. The spokesperson of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Marzieh Afkham, in describing the “unconstructive moves” by the Obama Administration, regretted “serious confusion in the approach, decisions, and statements of US officials.”

When I was in Tehran, Iranian officials of various political persuasions were rather soft in their reaction to all the hard talk coming out of Washington. Several officials, including key members of the Parliament, expressed their understanding of the Obama administration’s predicament in trying to sell the Geneva agreement to the US Congress. Talk about continuing pressure on Iran did provide ammunition to folks like Hossein Shariatmadari, the hawkish chief editor of the well-known Iranian daily, Kayhan, but Washington’s verbal assaults were mostly tolerated, even if Foreign Minister Zarif acknowledged that they were making his efforts to maintain support for the agreement difficult. But it appears that the latest Treasury Department move, which followed a rather harsh op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by David Cohen, the Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, made looking the other way difficult. Lest we forget: Iran also has domestic politics. Unlike its reception in Washington, the Iranian nuclear agreement was mostly greeted positively in Tehran given the general consensus that it’s time to resolve the nuclear imbroglio. But there are limits to what Tehran can ignore.

I am inclined to view this event as an “enough is enough” public statement directed at Congress and aimed at limiting further moves by the Treasury Department. Both the Obama and Rouhani administrations have raised the stakes in the talks high enough to prevent unraveling at this early stage. Nevertheless, the chances of this are quite high, particularly if the Iranian context for the decision to engage in talks in the current manner is misunderstood or willfully misconstrued. [Continue reading...]


Iran nuclear talks hit snag after U.S. expands commercial ‘blacklists’

Reuters reports: A breakthrough agreement to end a standoff over Iran’s nuclear program appeared to face its first major difficulty on Friday with Russia warning that a U.S. sanctions move could “seriously” complicate its implementation.

Russia, which along with the United States is among the six world powers which negotiated the November 24 interim accord with Tehran, echoed Iran’s criticism by saying Washington’s sanctions decision violated the spirit of the deal.

Moscow’s statement came after diplomats said Iran had interrupted technical talks with the six nations in Vienna over how to implement the agreement, under which Tehran is to cap its nuclear program in return for limited sanctions easing.

The developments highlighted potential obstacles negotiators face in pressing ahead with efforts to resolve a decade-old dispute between the Islamic Republic and the West that has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.

Several Western diplomats insisted the inconclusive outcome of the December 9-12 expert-level discussions in Vienna should not be seen as a sign that the political deal hammered out nearly three weeks ago was in serious trouble.

But Russia made its concerns clear a day after the United States blacklisted additional companies and people under existing sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such aims.

“The U.S. administration’s decision goes against the spirit of this document,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, referring to the Geneva agreement between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

“Widening American ‘blacklists’ could seriously complicate the fulfillment of the Geneva agreement, which proposes easing sanctions pressure.” [Continue reading...]


Revolutionary Guards chief criticizes Iran’s FM

The Associated Press reports: The head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards rebuked the country’s foreign minister Tuesday over comments he made about the military’s ability to withstand a potential American attack.

The criticism against Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to be part of the broader political pushback by Iranian hard-liners against moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration.

The latest spat revolves around comments Zarif made last week to students at a Tehran university, where he said a U.S. military attack could paralyze Iran’s defensive system.

On Tuesday, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari dismissed Zarif’s remarks, saying the foreign minister “has no expertise in the field of defense,” and “his comments comparing the military power of Iran and the United States were incorrect.”

Speaking at another Tehran university, Jafari said the U.S. could only destroy up to 20 percent of Iran’s missile capability if it bombs the country heavily, according to a report Tuesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Zarif has also faced pressure in parliament over his remarks. Dozens of lawmakers asked Rouhani Sunday whether the foreign minister should lose his job over the comments. [Continue reading...]


Iran’s FM says sanctions would kill nuclear deal

Time magazine: In a wide-ranging interview with TIME in Tehran on Dec. 7, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke to writer and Iran expert Robin Wright about how the Geneva nuclear deal came together, how the government has to appeal to Iran’s own parliament not to undermine the interim pact, and how any new sanctions passed by the United States Congress would kill the deal. The agreement, reached between Iran and six world powers in November, calls for a freeze on parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. It is meant to pave the way for a final settlement between Iran and the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is for civilian purposes only; world powers fear that it has a military component. Speaking in the ornate Foreign Ministry building, Zarif also indicated that Iran might not be wedded to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a long-time ally, and he said that Iran hoped for a “duly monitored” democratic election in Syria. Iran’s most high-profile cabinet official warned that the deepening sectarianism playing out in Syria does not recognize borders and has implications “on the streets of Europe and America.” [Continue reading...]


Israel lobby changes tactics on Iran deal

JTA reports: When it comes to the deal between Iran and major powers, Israel and the pro-Israel community are retreating from a strategy of confrontation and working instead to influence the contours of a final agreement.

In a conference call last week, Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s executive director, advised pro-Israel activists and leaders not to confront the Obama administration directly over the “difference of strategy” between the United States and Israel on Iran. Instead, Kohr said to focus on passing new sanctions as a means of shaping a final deal.

AIPAC would not comment on the call, which was first revealed Dec. 3 in a Zionist Organization of America news release criticizing AIPAC’s approach. But Kohr’s advice comports with a recent rhetorical pivot by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially excoriated the interim deal with Iran reached last month in Geneva as a “historic mistake.”

This week, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, Netanyahu significantly downplayed his unhappiness with the interim deal and said he was focused instead on the outcome of the six-month period established to reach a final accord over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu is sending a team to Washington in the coming days to consult with US officials on how best to influence a final deal.

“We believe that in a final deal, unlike the interim deal, it’s crucial to bring about a final agreement about determination of Iran’s military and nuclear capability,” Netanyahu said. [Continue reading...]


Iran nuclear deal respects Netanyahu’s red line


Graham Allison writes: Amidst the weeping and gnashing of teeth from the Prime Minister’s office after the interim agreement on Iran reached in Geneva, it is appropriate to pause to ask how President Obama’s interim agreement actually measures up on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chosen yardstick.

Who can forget Netanyahu’s UN presentation last year where he made his best case to the world about the threat Iran’s nuclear program poses to international security. To vivify this danger, Bibi unveiled a graphic sketch of a bomb on which he demonstrably drew a red line.

As he explained in his UN speech then: “In the case of Iran’s nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium. And Iran has to go through three stages. The first stage: they have to enrich enough of low enriched uranium. The second stage: they have to enrich enough medium enriched uranium. And the third stage and final stage: They have to enrich enough high enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Having set the stage, he then asked, “Where’s Iran?” As he answered: “Iran’s completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they’re 70% of the way there. Now they are well into the second stage.” He then vowed that Iran would never be allowed to cross his red line to the third stage. “The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program,” he argued, “because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target. I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.” [Continue reading...]


What lessons do the success of Camp David and the failure of Oslo hold for America’s nuclear deal with Iran?

Marc Lynch writes: The Geneva P5+1 interim agreement with Iran is already the most important Middle Eastern diplomatic gambit since the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel. The “Joint Plan of Action” produced a monumental, symbolic breakthrough after years of frustrating diplomatic gridlock, and laid out a tantalizing glimpse of a very different Middle East. It has rapidly normalized relationships and practices which had very recently seemed unthinkable. A successful final status agreement on the Iranian nuclear program would be a monumental diplomatic accomplishment. But like Camp David and Oslo, Geneva is only an interim agreement which leaves a vast array of core issues unresolved — and offers a million opportunities for failure.

Camp David is the best-case analogy for Geneva, Oslo the worst-case analogy (and Munich is, of course, the black hole of analogies, a billion bad ideas gone supernova and sucking in everything that comes within its malevolent gravitational pull). Camp David suggests that implementation can be achieved against considerable odds, and in doing so galvanize radical strategic change in unpredictable directions. But Oslo suggests how easily Geneva can fail, given the opportunities it creates for spoilers to intervene and for implementation problems to sap its transformative power. That’s especially troubling since Geneva’s bargaining framework resembles Oslo’s more than anything else.

But it is a measure of Camp David’s success that few now recall that Egypt was for decades Israel’s most militarily dangerous foe and the strategic linchpin of a pan-Arab order. Most policy analysts in the mid-1960s (and, most likely, in the mid-1970s) would have considered the idea of an enduring, decades-long Egyptian-Israeli security partnership to be outrageously implausible. Camp David shows that a seemingly unthinkable strategic reorientation of leading rivals is entirely possible, if not likely, and that once achieved can be normalized remarkably quickly. [Continue reading...]


Zarif asks Saudi Arabia to work with Iran

Al Jazeera reports: Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who is currently on a tour of the Gulf states, has appealed to Saudi Arabia to work with Iran towards achieving regional stability.

He said on Monday in Doha, Qatar, after visits to Kuwait and Oman for meetings on its recent nuclear deal with world powers that his goal was to assure Gulf Arab states that the deal was in their best interests.

“We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region,” Zarif told AFP news agency.

Zarif suggested the deal should not be seen as a threat.

“This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region,” he said on Sunday. [Continue reading...]


Iran’s hard-liners keep their criticism of nuclear pact to themselves

The New York Times reports: In a room in which journalists were outnumbered by security agents and paramilitary fighters, the tall Iranian commander stood and issued his judgment.

“Our ideology will not be undermined by some negotiations,” Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the hard-line head of the paramilitary Basij force, told the selected group of reporters in a gathering days before Iran signed an interim nuclear agreement with the United States and other world powers.

That pact, in which Iran’s moderate government agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited relief from crippling economic sanctions, was greeted with wild enthusiasm in most quarters here. A conspicuous exception, however, were Iran’s hard-liners, who mostly maintained a studied silence, unwilling to risk a public confrontation with their patron over the years — the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has cautiously welcomed the deal.

But that silence may not last, experts say. At the slightest signal from the supreme leader, they say, the hard-liners could unleash protests by hundreds of thousands on the streets along with an outpouring of criticism from state-run news media.

“They are biding their time,” watching from the sidelines, eager to pounce on any perceived signs of backtracking, weakness or capitulation, said Farshad Ghorbanpour, an Iranian journalist close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani. “When the opportunity arises they will strike back, searching for pretexts and playing into possible snags during the negotiations,” he said. “This is in no way a done deal.” [Continue reading...]


Britain’s ill-informed friends of Israel are refusing to face facts on Iran nuclear deal

Peter Oborne writes: It was one of those coincidences that a novelist might hesitate to invent. One of William Hague’s first tasks after signing a historic nuclear agreement with Iran was to address the grandest and most important gathering of Britain’s pro-Israel lobby.

Having flown back into London from Geneva on the Sunday, the Foreign Secretary then turned up the next day at the Park Plaza hotel at Westminster for the annual lunch of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). More than 100 Tory MPs, as well as hundreds more CFI supporters, were present to hear Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador, chide Mr Hague over Iran. One reporter present wrote that Mr Hague was “humiliated”, adding that when he rose to speak he was greeted with “light applause” and “heard in obvious silence”.

Some close to Mr Hague insist, by contrast, that it was a cheerful event. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was by no means as warm and easy as it was last year, when David Cameron was the guest of honour. At some tables, I am told, there was palpable resentment. Each guest had been given a briefing pack that included a caustic summary of the deal that Mr Hague had signed the previous day. A longer version of this document was then dispatched to Conservative MPs, ahead of the Foreign Secretary’s afternoon statement to the House of Commons on Iran.

I have obtained this briefing, which parroted the overblown rhetoric with which Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, responded to the deal in Geneva. The CFI warned Tory MPs that “the world’s most dangerous regime has taken a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon” – echoing Mr Netanyahu almost verbatim.

This was not merely propaganda. It was ignorant and poorly informed. [Continue reading...]


Iran — the next stage

David Ignatius writes: Now that the Obama administration has won its breakthrough first-step nuclear deal with Iran, officials are planning strategy for the decisive second round that, over the next six months, will seek a broader and tougher comprehensive agreement.

This “end state” negotiation, as officials describe it, promises to be more difficult because the United States and its negotiating partners will seek to dismantle parts of the Iranian program, rather than simply freeze them. Another complication is that negotiators will be fending off even more brickbats from hard-liners in Israel, Congress and Tehran.

If the interim deal was reached largely in secret, through a back channel provided by Oman, this one will have to be negotiated in the diplomatic equivalent of a circus ring, with hoots and catcalls from bystanders.

As administration strategists seek a comprehensive deal, they have several priorities. All will be harder to negotiate than was the limited six-month freeze on the Iranian program agreed to last weekend. Given the arduous bargaining ahead, the United States will need the leverage of the sanctions still in place after the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets — and the threat of more sanctions if negotiations break down.

The negotiators’ agenda: [Continue reading...]


Five reasons Israel won’t attack Iran

Zachary Keck writes: Although not a member of the P5+1 itself, Israel has always loomed large over the negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear program. For example, in explaining French opposition to a possible nuclear deal earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated: “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account.”

Part of Fabius’ concern derives from the long-held fear that Israel will launch a preventive strike against Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. For some, this possibility remains all too real despite the important interim agreement the P5+1 and Iran reached this weekend. For example, when asked on ABC’s This Week whether Israel would attack Iran while the interim deal is in place, William Kristol responded: “I don’t think the prime minister will think he is constrained by the U.S. deciding to have a six-month deal. […] six months, one year, I mean, if they’re going to break out, they’re going to break out.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done little to dispel this notion. Besides blasting the deal as a “historic mistake,” Netanyahu said Israel “is not obliged to the agreement” and warned “the regime in Iran is dedicated to destroying Israel and Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself with its own forces against every threat.”

Many dismiss this talk as bluster, however. Over at Bloomberg View, for instance, Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the nuclear deal has “boxed-in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so comprehensively that it’s unimaginable Israel will strike Iran in the foreseeable future.” Eurasia Group’s Cliff Kupchan similarly argued: “The chance of Israeli strikes during the period of the interim agreement drops to virtually zero.”

Although the interim deal does further reduce Israel’s propensity to attack, the truth is that the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities has always been greatly exaggerated. There are at least five reasons why Israel isn’t likely to attack Iran. [Continue reading...]