Dueling narratives on Vienna

On the one hand, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen is reporting that significant progress was made in this last round of talks in Vienna, so much so that the Iranian negotiators may actually have felt that a deal was within reach if the P5+1 principals had stayed there another week. She writes that the P5+1 negotiators are less effusive in their description of the progress that was made, but they do claim that there was progress:

Notably, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius — long viewed as skeptical of whether an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could be reached — on Nov. 25 said he found the latest round of talks “pretty positive,” and said there had been progress in one of the most vexing issues of the negotiations, on the subject of enrichment capacity.

“On limiting Iran’s capacity to enrich, I found that there had been a certain movement,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Nov. 25, Reuters reported.

“The devil is in the detail, but there is a will to find an agreement that I hadn’t felt in previous talks,” Fabius said.

“Positions are much more realistic than in the past,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Nov. 25. “Now I think both sides can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

So maybe having the outline of a deal in place by March 1 isn’t so unrealistic after all. Call this the optimistic view.

On the other hand, Scott Lucas at EA Worldview sounds a lot like me in that he’s having a hard time seeing where the talks can possibly go from here:

Iran wants to expand its program of enrichment of uranium to 20% for civilian purposes. Currently, that enrichment is provided by about 10,000 centrifuges; another 10,000 are installed but are not yet operational. Expansion would come through:

1. Expansion of the number of centrifuges;
2. Introduction of the more advanced IR-2m centrifuges, and development of the IR-5 model, to replace the 40-year-old IR-1s;
3. Both.

The US and European partners insist on a reduction of the Iranian program:

1. Decrease in the number of centrifuges to between 6,000 and 7,000;
2. No introduction of any models beyond the IR-1s.

Years of negotiations will not resolve those opposed positions. The Iranians will not stand on the Supreme Leader’s goal of a 20-fold increase in capacity, but any long-term “freeze” — let alone a reduction — would be a smack-down of their oft-proclaimed right not only to a nuclear program but one which they say is sufficient for civilian needs.

The chance of reaching a deal by March 1, or July 1 to go by the longer timeframe for having a full deal in place ready to be signed, becomes considerably weaker (as in 0%) if the incoming Congress is able to muster veto-proof majorities for new sanctions on Iran. At that point, the Iranians will throw up their hands, turn to the rest of the world, and say, “See? We tried to talk, we tried to be reasonable, and the Americans made us pay for it. Are you going to keep going along with these radical forces that just want to punish the Iranian people and have no real interest in reaching an accord?” There’s a pretty good chance that, in that scenario, Russia and China, at a minimum, would pull out of the sanctions framework, and basically the negotiations would be back to square one. This is clearly the pessimistic view.

Then there are the folks who are more than pessimistic, verging on rooting for the talks to fail. I include here the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, who was one of the top Israel-Palestine figures in the Clinton and early Bush State Departments. From what I can tell, Miller tends to take the view that what’s good for America is what’s good for Israel, and what’s good for Israel is whatever Benjamin Netanyahu says is good for Israel. So he’s got some issues with engaging Iran at all, or so it would seem since he’s gone to the trouble of flat-out lying about what we know of Iran’s past nuclear program in Foreign Policy:

An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program. According to the account, Khamenei said that “this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel, and to prepare it for the emergence of Imam Mehdi.” The former president further declared “that a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.”

Fast-forward to 2014 and, after a decade of failed nuclear talks and even a fatwa against nuclear weapons, Khamenei is still publically toeing the same line — keyed now toward maintaining a strategic nuclear hedge under the auspices of a robust “civil” nuclear energy program. In May, he described the stakes: “Logic and reason command that for Iran, in order to pass through a region full of pirates, needs to arm itself and must have the capability to defend itself.… Today’s world is full of thieves and plunderers of human honor, dignity, and morality who are equipped with knowledge, wealth, and power, and under the pretense of humanity easily commit crimes and betray human ideals and start wars in different parts of the world.”

The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

The problem with Miller’s framing boils down to this: the 2009 IAEA document quotes Khamenei as saying that Khomeini “decided to reactivate the nuclear program.” Note the complete absence of “weapons” in that quote, even though it appears in Miller’s account above (the fact that Miller is relying on the highly suspect Institute for Science and International Security for his evidence is telling). Khamenei supposedly added some remarks about a “nuclear arsenal” in the same meeting where he related Khomeini’s statement, but those remarks are not attributable to Khomeini and they were a full 25 years old at the time the IAEA first reported them. As Gareth Porter pointed out two years ago, the 2009 IAEA report makes no sense, given that post-revolution Iran was openly continuing its nuclear power program even before 1984. The bottom line is that the only statement we have from Khamenei on nukes in his official current capacity as Supreme Leader is that they are counter to Islamic principles and therefore forbidden.

The 2014 Khamenei statement that Miller cites again has no obvious connection to nuclear weapons, and could mean building up Iran’s conventional military for all we know. Now, it’s entirely possible that Khamenei means that Iran needs a nuclear weapons capability in order to deter aggressors, what Miller describes as a “nuclear weapons capacity,” but that’s a far cry from being “a nuclear weapons state” as Miller later asserts. If “nuclear weapons capacity” is the same as “nuclear weapons state,” then that means Japan and Brazil are nuclear weapons states, maybe Ukraine and Khazakhstan too, and South Africa has to be put back in that club as well. I’m certain that all of those countries would vehemently deny being “nuclear weapons states” if Aaron David Miller were to assert that they were, which he wouldn’t, because none of them is Iran and you only get away with being this (deliberately?) sloppy in your analysis when you’re talking about Iran.

Unfortunately Miller’s inaccuracies got the coveted “heh, indeed” treatment from both Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum. This matters, though, because there is no fundamental difference between a nation that has “nuclear weapons capability” and one that simply has a “nuclear program.” Every nation with a civilian nuclear power program has the “capability” to develop weapons, but we’re not demanding that most of them rid themselves of all nuclear technology. Iran’s insistence on operating a domestic uranium enrichment program sets them somewhat apart from those other nations (not Japan, though; they’ve got a huge enrichment operation and lots of stored up plutonium to boot), but since there’s no basis in international law for denying a country the ability to enrich uranium, it’s hard to fathom what kind of outcome Miller would like to see here.

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