Last Thursday, in lieu of stuffing himself with bu qalamun (turkey) in thanks for the colonization of North America, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went before a large crowd of Basij militia members, some of the most conservative, “Death to America” types in all of Iran, and told them that he is “not opposed” to continuing nuclear talks with the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1, and that Iran “will accept any fair and reasonable agreement” that comes out of those talks. Sure there was some bluster about how it’s the Americans who really “need” a nuclear deal, not the Iranians, but still this was an Iranian leader telling people who are, at least on paper, so devoted to the principles of the Islamic Revolution that they’d take him out if they thought he was betraying those principles, to give the newly extended talks a chance. Juan Cole compared it to “Sarah Palin telling a Tea Party audience she rather enjoys negotiation with Iran and could imagine going on doing so for some time,” but I would go further; this was like Ted Cruz telling a CPAC crowd that that the GOP is prepared to work with Barack Obama and that they should welcome the chance to achieve something constructive. It was big.
Also big? On Sunday, Ali Akbar Velayati, who is Khamenei’s closest foreign affairs adviser and can be presumed to speak with Khamenei’s voice, publicly told hardline critics of the talks and the extension to kindly STFU please:
A top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for an end to domestic criticism of Tehran’s nuclear negotiations with major world powers.
Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Khamenei on international affairs, said on November 30 that since the supreme leader has endorsed an extension of the talks for several months, people should stop their criticism.
Velayati noted that Khamenei’s “commands” are the final word in Iran.
He added that “after [Khamenei] said he agrees with the talks and their extension, no comment should be made against the negotiations.”
Now that’s the kind of thing you can do when your country is governed in a more or less autocratic way (Iran does have some democratic elements and the Supreme Leader is theoretically accountable to the Assembly of Experts, but he really is “the final word in Iran” for all practical purposes), so it’s not the kind of thing that instills hope for a more reformed, freer Iran, but it does demonstrate to anybody who cares to pay attention that Iran is serious about reaching a nuclear deal. Yes, Khamenei has red lines that he won’t let his negotiators cross (and, guess what, so do the Iranian people), but for whatever reason — a genuine desire to end decades of isolation, a desperate need to goose the Iranian economy somehow, whatever — all signs point to the Iranian establishment backing the push for a nuclear deal. If you’re paying attention.
But there’s the rub; you have to actually pay attention to what’s happening in Iran to get that the establishment is really backing the talks. You have to pay attention to the fact that the IAEA says Iran has been in compliance with the terms of the Joint Plan of Action and its June extension. You have to pay attention to the fact that the Iranians have agreed to greatly increased restrictions even on their precious centrifuge R&D program under the terms of the extension deal reached last week, and that they’ve agreed to further reductions in their stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. You can’t just say things like “buh guh Iran wants nuclear weapons no way to stop em can’t trust em guh buh,” but unfortunately that’s about as far as the discourse usually gets. Because if you start really paying attention to what Iranian leaders are saying, suddenly you’re down a rabbit hole where maybe you have to consider that they’re not lying when they say that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic and therefore prohibited, and maybe your evidence-light suppositions aren’t actually the final word on what’s happening within Iran. And very few American commentators are prepared to go down that path.
Just for fun, though, what if America did go down that path? What if we actually approached the Iranians as good-faith negotiating partners who weren’t planning to build a nuclear bomb the first chance they get and were just stalling to try to get out from under economic sanctions? I’m not talking about being naive; nobody, me included, would be happy with a deal that didn’t put systematic and intrusive monitoring requirements on Iran’s civilian nuclear program for several years to come. But monitoring and inspections don’t seem to be the sticking point in the talks; rather, we’re still arguing over how much uranium Iran should be allowed to enrich and how quickly we should lift sanctions that are punishing Iran (and Iranians) for doing something that nobody can prove it’s actually doing. A deal is being held up over a matter of a couple of months’ worth of “breakout time,” which is pretty ridiculous as Peter Jenkins describes:
If instead the administration admits that it cannot literally “close all pathways” to a weapon but claims that it needs at least 12 months to react to any break-out attempt, then they should be asked why six to eight months would not be enough.
It is self-evident that 12 months of additional sanctions would not cause Iran to abandon a break-out attempt. Eight years of sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to re-suspend enrichment. Post-1918 history is littered with failed sanctions policies.
On the other hand, 12 months are more than are needed to get UN Security Council approval for the use of force to prevent break-out and to act on it — or for a coalition of the willing to form in the unlikely event of Russia or China threatening to veto a UNSC resolution. In 1990, only six months were needed for the US to gain approval for and prepare a massive operation to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. As recently as last April, Secretary John Kerry was formulating the goal as “six to 12 months.”
The U.S. has been treating a 12 month breakout time as though it were some sort of magical signifier, as though after 12 months Iran’s nuclear fairy godmother would reappear and turn the Natanz enrichment facility back into a pumpkin, rendering all further Iranian activity useless. In fact, nothing special happens with a 12 month breakout window that couldn’t happen at 10, 9, even 8 months. If it’s learned that Iran has broken out toward a nuclear weapon (and if we didn’t learn about something like that within 9 months, it’s exceedingly unlikely that another 3 would make a difference), then the Security Council can vote to do something about it within hours or days at most (or Russia/China can block a vote, in which case the U.S. would likely proceed with strikes anyway), and it would be a matter of another few days or 1-2 weeks before action was taken. This doesn’t require a year’s worth of notice. If we were prepared to try taking the Iranians at their word, we’d still have plenty of time to respond appropriately if doing so turned out to be a mistake.
Another thing the Iranians say is that they want to be treated like any other non-nuclear weapons state under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but just as a postscript, let’s look at how one of those other states is treated by the international community. Japan is currently stockpiling a considerable amount of plutonium that’s been removed from its nuclear reactors, and has been planning (and delaying) the construction of a plutonium reprocessing plant (to retrieve even more plutonium from its spent nuclear waste) for a couple of decades now (this, by the way, is a step the Iranians have promised not to undertake). Reprocessed plutonium is a straight line path to a nuclear bomb, probably a shorter path than the uranium enrichment path we’re so worried about with respect to Iran. But for Japan, which has no domestic uranium (or, for that matter, fossil fuel) supply to speak of, reprocessed plutonium is also its most viable path to energy independence. Except the Japanese have yet to develop the kind of reactor needed to use this recovered plutonium as fuel (at least not without exploding all the time), so if they do bring the reprocessing facility online they’re just going to accumulate plutonium without having any use for it.
Note, then, that despite the risks involved in having tons of plutonium sitting around doing nothing (except waiting to be stolen, hypothetically), the international community seems to have no real interest in interfering with Japan’s actions here at all. This is also despite the fact that, if you wanted to find an Iranian analogue to the brutality and inhumanity of the Japanese conquest of China 77 years ago, you’d have to go all the way back to Nader Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739, and even then I’m not sure the analogy would hold. And, sure, the Nanking Massacre happened under a different kind of Japanese government, but the point is that it happened, not that long ago, yet nobody worries about Japan’s breakout time (SPOILER ALERT: days, if not hours) today. The current Iranian government, by contrast, wouldn’t even retaliate with chemical weapons against Iraq after the Iraqis had already used chemical weapons against Iran, and why? Because the Supreme Leader, in that case Ayatollah Khomeini, forbade it.