Goin’ down Geneva, give me a helping hand

I’m pretty sure the last time the city of Geneva got this much attention they named a Bible after it. But between the Iranian nuclear negotiations that are about to enter a second round there, and proposed Syrian peace talks that may be taking place there, Geneva finds itself in the news in a big way.

Let’s talk first about the proposed “Geneva II” talks on Syria, because things are a lot simpler there in the sense that they’re probably not going to happen. The Syrian National Coalition has made it clear that they are willing to join peace talks provided that “conditions are met”:

After a vote early on Monday in Istanbul, the Syrian National Coalition agreed to attend a proposed peace conference with President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The US and Russia are trying to convene the talks in Geneva by the end of this year.

But according to a coalition statement, the group says representatives would attend only if the Syrian government allowed the creation of humanitarian corridors to reach besieged areas and if it released detainees, especially woman and children.

That’s an excellent condition for SNC participation; it’s focused on alleviating the suffering of Syria’s civilian population and doesn’t ask more than Assad ought to be willing to give. Now if we could only find somebody who gives a damn whether or not the SNC participates in these talks. See, the SNC announcing that they’re willing to attend a peace conference, provided their preconditions are met, is kind of like me saying I’d be “willing” to inherit Sheldon Adelson’s ~$30 billion fortune, but only if he stopped being such a putz. Certainly most of the army that’s ostensibly under the SNC’s control doesn’t care whether or not it participates in peace talks–they don’t recognize the SNC’s authority to begin with. Saudi Arabia’s Salafi proxy network, Jaysh al-Islam, not only doesn’t care what the SNC does, it rejects the whole idea of talks to begin with. I haven’t seen any comment from Jabhat, or Ahrar al-Sham, or ISIS, but it’s fair to say that if Jaysh al-Islam rejects the Geneva talks so will those groups. Those four groups represent, if not the bulk of the Syrian opposition, then certainly some of its most active and successful fighters; how are any peace talks going to go anywhere if those groups aren’t involved?

Oh, and there’s also the matter of the other side of the whole civil war; Assad has also rejected participating in peace talks so long as the opposition keeps insisting on his removal from office in any deal, which doesn’t seem like a condition on which the rebels are likely to budge. Why should Assad agree to step down? After a bit of a lull in the aftermath of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack, he’s kind of starting to win again, advancing on the incredibly important rebel strongholds in Aleppo and taking Qara, which opens the road from Damascus to Homs and makes it much easier for his forces in Damascus to connect both to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Alawite strongholds on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Also, too, the rebels keep fighting each other, to such a degree that you (or The Guardian, at least) can apparently find rebels who will argue that they’d like to see Assad stay in power so that the rebel groups can pound each other until a united rebel movement emerges (probably all riding unicorns):

“I need Bashar [al-Assad] to last for two more years,” said the businessman [now the political officer of a rebel battalion]. “It would be a disaster if the regime fell now: we would split into mini-states that would fight among each other. We’ll be massacring each other – tribes, Islamists and battalions.”

In a development that would be hilarious if it weren’t connected to a civil war that’s already killed tens of thousands of people, the SNC recently “named a provisional government for rebel-held areas.” That’s great, you guys! Nobody will care or pay much attention to your new little government thing, but since you’re not even headquartering it on Syrian soil (it will be headquartered over the border in Turkey) it won’t matter! I know the US has given you a bunch of grief about how appointing a provisional government could undermine the Geneva talks, but since there aren’t going to be any Geneva talks there’s nothing to undermine! French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who is becoming kind of an expert on bombing Arabs and screwing up negotiations with Islamic countries, thinks that what you’re doing is just great! Have fun with this! Seriously, go nuts; it’s like Model UN for rich Syrian expats!

So that’s Geneva-Syria, but the bigger question is: what the hell is happening with these Iran talks?

Yeah, so, um, about that deal we were going to cut with the Iranians…that kind of fell apart, huh? Everybody went to Geneva thinking a deal was in sight on a short-term (6 month) freeze in Iranian nuclear activity in exchange for temporary and limited relief of international sanctions. This seemed like a good deal to some of us, a chance to give Rouhani a carrot that he could take home and use to boost his position against the hard-liners in the Republican Guard, potentially putting him on stronger domestic footing to negotiate a permanent deal in a few months. Things began to fray even before the real talks got started earlier this month. The first speed bumps came when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to talk about how this deal, whatever it was, was “a bad deal,” and making it clear that, as far as Israel was concerned, no deal would be preferable to a bad (i.e., any) deal, and the Saudis, who are totally not allied with Israel against an Iran-US deal or anything else SHUT UP, started stomping their feet and holding their breath in the middle of the toy aisle. That was all pretty much expected, so no big deal there.

But then the French delegation to the Geneva talks, led by the inimitable Minister Fabius, made it clear that they would not acquiesce even to a short-term deal without much bigger Iranian concessions on the issues of Iran’s supply of medium-enriched uranium (which could be further enriched to weapons-grade relatively quickly), and Iran’s pending construction of a heavy-water reactor (the kind that produce lots of Plutonium and tritium as byproducts) at Arak (due to come online sometime next year, though it’s been “due to come online” since as far back as 2009 and still hasn’t done so yet). Both are issues that will have to be part of the final negotiated settlement, but the French delegation insisted that they be dealt with right now instead. The additional French demands helped to scuttle the talks, although Fabius’ bigger offense may have been that he went public with what were supposed to be private details about the deal being negotiated. It was a diplomatic faux pas so blatant that many, including Middle East expert Juan Cole, suspected that the French had come to the talks intending to kill the emerging deal.

Why? Well, there’s the most charitable theory, which is that France’s stated concerns really are France’s actual concerns, and this may well be accurate. The Arak reactor in particular is of grave concern from a proliferation standpoint, and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, who along with the EU representative Catherine Ashton are negotiating the deal with Iran) will likely insist that it be torn down (possibly replaced with a much less worrisome light-water reactor) as part of a final agreement. The French may have been reluctant to allow Iran another 6 months on a short-term deal to bring Arak that much closer to completion. France, and particularly Fabius, has baggage with respect to Iran, related to a series of terrorist bombings in Paris in the 1980s (when Fabius was, from 1984-1986, the Prime Minister) that were traced back to Iran, that may make them unwilling to rely on Iranian good faith. Professor Cole suggested another possibility, that France, fresh off of scratching its latent colonial itch in Mali, was hankering for another chance to play big shot, particularly in an environment where they could step in to fill the gaps opening up in relations between the US, on the one hand, and Israel (who couldn’t be more pleased with France’s actions) and the Saudis, on the other. French foreign policy toward the Middle East has turned strongly hawkish in recent years, essentially neocon-ish, and like American neocons they’re keenly interested in making life as difficult for Iran as possible. The more sinister extension of this theory is that the Saudis, who claim to be shopping for a new military supplier now that they’re so mad at the United States, could be looking to throw some of their procurement dollars in France’s direction in exchange for some help blocking the Geneva talks.

Or, maybe, the French weren’t the ones who killed the deal after all. That certainly seemed to be the line that US Secretary of State John Kerry was pushing as he contended that the P5+1 were all in agreement on the contours of the deal, but “Iran couldn’t take it.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shot back that it was disunity among the P5+1 that caused the talks to break down, and that Kerry’s “conflicting statements” to the contrary were hurting the chances for honest dialogue between the parties. It seems pretty clear that both scenarios are accurate but only partially so; France likely came to Geneva with a harder line on even a temporary deal than the rest of the P5+1 were taking, and after those principals were able to draw up an agreement that satisfied everybody, its terms went beyond whatever mandate the Iranian delegation had and they were unable to proceed without taking the deal back to Tehran first. Kerry understandably wants to portray the P5+1 as a united front, and Zarif, just asn understandably, wants to make it clear that Iran wasn’t the problem and, particularly for his domestic audience, that Iran isn’t going to play America’s scapegoat every time talks hit a rough patch. Certainly there’s some skepticism on the part of the Iranian public about America’s motives as well as the motives of the French and Saudis, as this Iranian political cartoon illustrates:

iran cartoon

Max Fisher explains:

In case you don’t know your foreign diplomats by sight, the left panel shows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gesturing to E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The joke is pretty clear: that the United States, under the guise of good-faith negotiations, is actually pushing Iran (and maybe the European Union) toward disaster. It’s a reminder that, just as many in the United States are skeptical of Iran’s intentions, so, too, are many Iranians skeptical of the Americans.

The panel on the right is a joke about France’s reported objections to the proposed agreement. We’re meant to understand that the table represents Iranian and Western negotiators and that the man holding the Eiffel Tower represents Saudi Arabia; the implication is that the nefarious Saudis used France to block the deal. (Iranians tend to be highly suspicious of Saudi Arabia, a regional rival, and Iranian state media have suggested that the Saudis bought France’s veto with an arms deal.)

So with talks about to begin again in Geneva, some of the optimism of the last round is gone, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for success. In the interim, the Iranians signed an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency that should give the IAEA much greater access to a number of previously restricted sites, including, interestingly enough, the Arak heavy-water reactor site. The IAEA then issued a new report saying that, since Rouhani took office, Iran’s nuclear program had basically stopped in its tracks (shockingly, Benjamin Netanyahu remains unconvinced). The IAEA deal is only about monitoring and is separate from the P5+1 talks about the future of Iran’s nuclear program as a whole, but it is the latest in a string of what Stephen Walt calls “costly signals” (i.e., gestures that involve some cost for the party making them) that suggest Tehran is serious about ultimately reaching a deal. With that deal in place, and more time for the Americans and Europeans to make themselves comfortable with the emerging contours of a deal, there is reason to be optimistic.

It seems like the two sticking points are going to be the status of Arak, work on which the IAEA claims has essentially been frozen under Rouhani (but this is still going to be a major hurdle, as dismantling Arak will be a hard pill for Iranian hardliners to swallow and potentially also a blow to Iranian national pride), and some determination about whether or not Iran has a “right” to enrich uranium for civilian energy use. The preferred outcome as far as America/Europe/Israel/Saudi Arabia are concerned is for Iran to give up all uranium enrichment, but that’s just not going to happen, because enrichment has become a matter of national pride for the Iranians and a political test for Rouhani to show that he’s not going to give up the store to the West in these talks. Moreover it doesn’t seem like Iran should have to give up all uranium enrichment under international law. The language of Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty seems clear to me:

1. 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.

If nations have an “inalienable right to…production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” how on Earth could that be interpreted in a way that excludes a right to enrich uranium? Roger Cohen, in trying to explain America’s position on this point, basically demonstrates its incoherence (and, frankly, its hypocrisy):

Iran is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This refers to “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Many non-nuclear countries, including Germany and Japan and Brazil, have interpreted this as a right to enrich uranium — and they have done so with the agreement of the international community. The United States does not see in the treaty language an inherent “right to enrich,” but President Obama has said, “We respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.”

This is diplo-gibberish. Iran has offered an equally diplo-gibberish compromise, which is that Iran will just continue to assert a right to enrich uranium but doesn’t expect the P5+1 to openly acknowledge that they have that right, and that, combined with the new IAEA agreement, might be enough to mollify everybody. When you’ve got a former chief of intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces arguing that a deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium but limits it to the low-level enrichment needed to run a reactor would be “reasonable,” that’s a pretty strong signal that a deal could be done along those lines.

There is, of course, another potential complication, which is the chance that the Saudis and Israelis will launch their own strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, with the Saudis providing the airspace and logistical support that Israeli planes would need to reach Iranian targets despite, you know, totally not being allied with Israel or anything. This, unfortunately, would not surprise me if it came to pass, but it would be a pretty disastrous turn of events.

UPDATE: I was careless in leaving out still another potential complication, the possibility that Congress might impose additional sanctions on Iran while negotiations are taking place, which would most likely end those negotiations. However, it seems like there might be a political cost to mucking up a potential deal:

WAPO Iran poll

At the very least, polling like that gives Senate Democrats and the Obama Administration some assurance that they can safely block any attempt to complicate talks with new sanctions.


5 thoughts on “Goin’ down Geneva, give me a helping hand

  1. Well, that was quite a mouthful. Thanks as always for taking the time.

    It appears that you don’t like Sheldon any more than I do…

    I remember the road to Homs as being a pretty dreary stretch of terrain. It’s deeply distressing to think of young men killing and dying there, for tactical advantage.

    And I have always assumed that France’s role in the negotiations was to scuttle them, but I don’t actually know anything about anything.

    Interesting to read that the Arak reactor is intended to be a CANDU design; somehow I managed to avoid internalizing that fact. Plutonium would be a much stickier ball of wax than low enriched Uranium, obviously useful for a weapon but much more difficult to engineer into a weapon.

    1. The road to Homs is probably less dreary if you, say, need to bring in and resupply some light infantry paramilitaries from Lebanon. Everything around the mountains is fairly desolate. I met a nut seller once who lived in Syria but did business in Lebanon, and just came and went across the border as he pleased.

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