Come and gone

In case you missed it, and you almost certainly did, the last chance to make any progress in the P5+1-Iran talks before the new Congress scuttles the whole negotiating process came and went this week with little fanfare. This round of negotiations was conducted in Geneva at the deputy foreign minister level, which explains the low profile but might also have offered the possibility of some progress, what with all the heavyweight players out of the picture. U.S. and Iranian teams met bilaterally early in the week before being joined by the rest of the gang yesterday. Unfortunately, while Abbas Araqchi characterized this week’s session as “very useful and helpful,” there’s no indication that it was particularly productive. The next round of talks is scheduled for sometime next month.

After November’s elections, these talks are facing their first real external deadline; until this point, every “deadline” that’s been set has been self-imposed and therefore, apparently, ignorable. But the new Congress is only maybe a couple of Senate votes away from overriding an Obama veto on new sanctions, and it’s unlikely to play along with the negotiators’ July 1 deadline. Optimistically I guess there’s a chance that Congress could wait until the March 1 deadline (to have the political framework of a deal in place) passes before deciding whether or not to proceed with new sanctions, but I’m not an optimist. It wouldn’t surprise me if a vote on new sanctions is orchestrated to do the most damage around that March 1 deadline, by which I mean that if it looks like a deal might be reached, Congress will vote on new sanctions precisely to kill that potential deal, and if it doesn’t look like a deal will be reached, they’ll wait until after March 1 because the failure to have a framework in place by then will feed the hawks’ narrative.

Also playing into the nuclear talks story of late is a back-and-forth between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Tehran over access to Marivan, a city in the Kurdish region of Iran right along the Iraqi border. Marivan, along with Parchin, has been mentioned in previous IAEA reports as having been a possible site for non-nuclear tests related to the production of a nuclear weapon. The IAEA has for some time been wrangling with Iran for full disclosure of the alleged “past military dimensions” (PMD) with respect to its nuclear program. The Iranians have bristled at some of the IAEA’s work, in particular claiming (with some justification) that the agency’s PMD case rests largely on a highly suspicious, if not demonstrably fabricated, cache of information found on the so-called “laptop of death” in 2005. There’s a natural suspicion that the Iranians are resisting the IAEA’s investigation because they do in fact have something to hide on the PMD front, but it’s also possible that they’re resisting the investigation because they don’t want U.N. inspections teams poking around their military R&D sites whether or not there’s ever been any nuclear weapons-related research conducted there (in fact these two theories aren’t even mutually exclusive; Iran could be worried both about PMD revelations and protecting ongoing non-nuclear research).

Last month the Iranians proposed that the IAEA be allowed one managed visit to Marivan, which the IAEA rejected. The agency has taken considerable heat for this decision from writers like Gareth Porter, who suggests that it would rather maintain the suggestion of nefarious activity at Marivan than actually go to the site and risk finding no evidence to back up its assertions, and former IAEA official Bob Kelley, who thinks Marivan is a far more likely site for nuclear weapons-related testing than Parchin and sees the IAEA’s refusal to inspect the site as a real mistake. Mark Hibbs at Arms Control Wonk counters that the IAEA is in a no-win situation; refuse the inspection and be accused of bias, agree to the inspection and learn nothing (either because there’s nothing to learn or because their visit will be carefully managed so as to reveal nothing) and never be allowed access to Marivan again (similar to what’s happened with Parchin). He argues that the agency is right to refuse a one-off visit and to keep pushing Iran to implement the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol,” which would ensure that the agency can have future access to the site. Insofar as Iran has made lifting U.N. sanctions a key demand in the nuclear talks, and those sanctions can’t be lifted unless the IAEA signs off, this story is a bigger deal than its level of coverage would indicate.

I didn’t set out intending that this post would turn into an Iran dump, but while we’re on the topic there have also been a few interesting political developments inside Iran that mean…something, I think, but it’s not clear what. Two weeks ago the country’s Interior Ministry approved the formation of an actual reformist political party, The Call of Iranians (Nedaye Iranian), led (among others) by Sadegh Kharazi, an adviser to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. He’s a board member of Khatami’s Geneva-based Foundation for Dialogue among Civilizations, which organizes scientific and cultural exchanges between countries. The new party may go nowhere, but the ministry’s decision to allow its formation marks a milestone in the rebuilding of a legally-sanctioned reformist movement after the Green Revolution in 2009 led to a crackdown against all reform-oriented parties.

Lately there’s also been an escalating war of words between the circle around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the most prominent old guard figure in the moderate/reformist camp, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, who chairs the Expediency Discernment Council, which advises the Supreme Leader and is responsible for mediating disputes between the elected Majlis and the Guardian Council (which is responsible for ensuring that any Majlis legislation comports with Islamic Law), angered Khamenei and his people when he criticized the corruption in the Mahmoud Ahmedinejad administration and also the violent government response to the Green Revolution. He’s been labeled a “seditionist” by some hardliners. Khamenei’s older brother, Seyyed Mohammad Khamenei, now claims that Rafsanjani was working with the U.S. in the 1980s to take over Iran after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death (either of natural causes or engineered by the Americans). These claims are somewhat undercut by the fact that, since the time he was supposedly in cahoots with the Americans, Rafsanjani has served two terms as president and held a variety of key posts at the highest levels of the Iranian political establishment as a clear regime insider, at least until recently. Rafsanjani has hit back, going so far as to lob thinly-veiled shots directly at the Supreme Leader for not muzzling his brother’s allegations.

As an aside, are you getting a sense for how freaking old the Iranian political establishment is? Ali Khamenei is 75, and his older brother is the one feuding with the 80 year old Rafsanjani. Khamenei’s two likeliest successors, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, are relative children at 66 and 54, respectively. In fact, EA Worldview is suggesting that the latest feud with Rafsanjani may be driven by a desire to prevent him from regaining the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, which will choose the next Supreme Leader upon Khamenei’s death. Although the chair of the assembly only has but so much power to sway the body’s deliberations, having Rafsanjani in that post would certainly complicate the effort to install a hardliner like Shahroudi or Ahmad Khatami as Supreme Leader when the time comes.

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