Analysis: Kicking the can down the road to nowhere

The current round of nuclear negotiations with Iran may have been the West’s best chance at an accord, but circumstances surrounding the extension of talks likely mean there will be no final deal.

November 29, 2014 14:48
Delegations of world powers sit around the negotiations table.

Delegations of world powers sit around the negotiations table.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The end of the current 10-month round of nuclear negotiations with Iran on Monday left pundits and diplomats alike wondering what to make of the seven-month extension in talks, until June 2015.

But perhaps the question should be: Was a deal possible – even a middle-of-the-road, questionable deal – and if one was possible, was it closer this time than in previous rounds of talks? Though many past rounds and attempted compromises have failed, those saying the negotiations had a real chance for some kind of deal had a very strong argument.

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Until US President Barack Obama offered Iran a list of new concessions – keeping its underground Fordow facility and Arak plutonium facility, the right to enrich uranium and the right to keep around 5,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium operating – it could be argued that the West had not turned over every stone possible to reach a deal.

In addition, the Islamic Republic’s conduct during negotiations was surprisingly constructive.

Tehran appeared ready for many new concessions and, unlike in many past negotiations where it mostly pushed forward with its nuclear program, here Iran froze most of the program and kept up with most of its commitments during the negotiations.

That was the good part.

But that promise of hope has unfortunately now likely been disproved, despite the West’s creative, more pro-Iran compromises and endgames to the negotiation.

Optimists will note that the US did not give up its sanctions regime. But the sanctions have been teetering for some time, with China and Russia and even some European powers desperate to reactivate billions in trade with Iran.

In contrast, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future, even if there was reason for optimism until now.

The first is Iran’s belief that time is on its side.

Iran’s willingness to continue negotiations now, when it is only as little as two months from the bomb, signals only that despite years of sanctions, it still believes this to be true.

Also, Iran believes that the billions of relief granted to it – even if small compared to the $100 billion held back – have saved it from the abyss and kept it marketable enough that it can eventually break the sanctions regime without having to dismantle any centrifuges.

Centrifuges - the spinning cylinders which enrich uranium, potentially to weapons-grade for a nuclear bomb - are at the heart of the current negotiation’s failure. The West would like fewer centrifuges (Israel would like none) to block or slow any Iranian attempt to acquire the bomb, while Tehran wants as many as possible for a variety of reasons, including potential for making a bomb.

Many expected that if there was a deal, it would involve the US going from 1,500 centrifuges to 4,000-5,000, with Iran coming down from 10,000 to 8,000 or a bit lower, and a final compromise of 5,000-6,000.

These numbers matter, as they translate into “breakout” time, or the fastest Iran could rush to complete a bomb. A total of 5,000-6,000 would leave the time needed at six months to one year, depending on various assumptions.

Those numbers would have been unthinkable until recent years, with the US rejecting any Iranian centrifuges for most of the last decade. Yet hardly anyone doubts that at this point, the US would have jumped at such a deal.

This would have been a huge victory for Tehran, even as it would at least have given the West a shot at slowing the Islamic Republic down – but would have left Israel, Saudi Arabia and others declaring it a historic mistake.

It would have meant that Iran would get full sanctions relief in a defined time period, remaining a threshold nuclear weapons state – and that it could likely try, minus military action, to walk across the finish line, unencumbered, into being a nuclear weapons state. This likely would have been in five to 10 years down the line (at the start the West had said 20 years, but leaks indicated it would ultimately settle for far less).

AND YET, the Iranians turned it down.

There is much speculation about why, but no reason can obscure a profound truth: They turned it down because they thought they could.

Iran turned it down because it thinks it can do better, or at least can take the same deal down the road at its leisure.

A second reason is the kind of extension that was agreed to – a much more no-strings-attached extension than the West could have demanded for not walking away from talks.

According to reports by numerous NGOs and leaks from negotiators, Iran had committed to many concessions.

It appeared Iran might transform its heavy water reactor at its Arak plutonium facility into a light water reactor, or at least massively reduce the output of the reactor in a way that would take some time to reverse. This meant greatly pushing off any path to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon.

It also seemed Iran was ready to ship out massive amounts of its enriched uranium stockpile to Russia to be processed into fuel rods, also not easily reversible – and there were other examples.

Why were these concessions not locked in as a condition for the West not to walk away and toughen the sanctions? Moreover, if the parties were so close to an agreement, why was the extension not a mere few weeks – to allow a deal before managing one becomes much harder under a US Congress dominated by Republicans? Why was the can kicked so far down the road for seven months? An earlier negotiations extension was only four months.

A third reason is that every single time negotiations have failed in the past, Iran’s nuclear weapons program has jumped, even leaped, forward significantly.

Back in March 23, 2005, Iran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000 (at a time when it still had far fewer than that). The West said no because then, its redline was zero centrifuges.

Tehran has since gone from hundreds or fewer centrifuges in the early to mid-2000s to 1,000 in 2007 to 19,000 now (10,000 of which are operating), plus 1,000 advanced (non-operating) centrifuges. It has gone from no significant volumes of enriched uranium, low-grade or otherwise, prior to 2010 to thousands of kilograms of enriched uranium.

During this time, which included several rounds of failed negotiations – in August 2005, March and August 2006, July 2008, October 2009, July 2012 and April 2013 – the West’s redlines evaporated.

They went from no enrichment, to a temporary complete enrichment freeze, to a partial freeze coupled with shipping some of Iran’s stockpile to Russia to be diluted, to fully permitting low-grade enriched uranium and freezing uranium enrichment only above low-grade levels.

In other words, over time, Iran declared earlier proposals for capping its nuclear program at a less developed state to be obsolete, and plowed on – with no one to stop it.

But the fourth reason that was commonly, and mistakenly, ignored is Russia and China.

Among several factors, what finally got Iran to the table and making concessions, even if only temporarily, was the unique geopolitical context.

The sanctions were not just US and EU sanctions: They had UN support, including critically and surprisingly, Russia and China.

For years, neither would sign on to sanctions until finally agreeing to UN sanctions in June 2010. One could say in some ways that Russian and Chinese agreement, then, was historically as surprising as Russia’s support at the UN for Israeli independence in 1947.

Moscow and Beijing are massive trading partners of Tehran and on many geopolitical issues, view the world more similarly to Iran than to the US. Sometimes, they even intentionally act to assist Iran in offsetting perceived US influence and hegemony.

They did not support the sanctions regime because they felt seriously threatened by Iran and wanted to completely undo Iran’s nuclear program (especially Russia, which is getting billions in return for help in building aspects of the program).

Rather, they supported it because in 2010 and even more so in 2012, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went too far on two separate levels, crossing each of them personally.

First, in the various negotiations themselves, Russia and China offered compromise ideas which favored Iran over the West, and Iran rejected and upstaged their proposals.

Second, empowered by domestic populism and internal resentment of Russia and China for some unequal economic dynamics, Ahmadinejad’s Iran took direct political and economic shots at them.

At some point, Russia and China viewed Ahmadinejad’s Iran as unpredictable, uncontrollable and ungrateful. The Islamic Republic needed to be taught humility.

These points led to their support for sanctions and eventually, even the heavier 2012 sanctions that blocked Iran’s tactics to circumvent them.

But in broader history, especially with President Hassan Rouhani replacing Ahmadinejad – and replacing his near-hatred of compromise, unpredictability and lack of respect with commitments to compromise, stability and class – Russian and Chinese support for sanctions is looking like a temporary fluke.

The two countries are likely to accept any Iranian compromise they can package as “reasonable,” so they can return to raking in billions in trade. At some point, meeting the West’s minimal redlines will not bother Russia and China, and they can scuttle much of the sanctions regime.

Iran knows and is empowered by this.

There is always some hope, and the extension still could lead to a historic deal.

But Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s defiant response to the end of talks Monday suggests that, regardless of what Rouhani wanted, Khamenei was not anxious for a deal, and may even be using the talks to passively discredit Rouhani and any idea of compromise with the West.

Based on the details (and lack of locked-in concessions) of the extension; the favorability of the compromise Iran was offered and rejected; Iran’s success any time negotiations have broken down; and the vulnerability of sanctions – with Russia and China, along with many EU countries, wanting to bolt back into trading mode – there is little reason for optimism.

Regardless of whether continued sanctions will stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold while talks continue, there is little reason to think that kicking the can down the road will yield the historic deal that flopped this week.

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