Analysis: Mistaking sideshow for main event

There is the IAEA versus Iran, and then there is the P5+1 versus Iran.

May 23, 2012 01:02
2 minute read.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in Vienna

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in Vienna 370 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)


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The Iranians would like nothing more than for the world to mistake a sideshow – the rare visit to Tehran of International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano and his declaration Tuesday that an agreement allowing supervisors into Iran was at hand – for the main event.

The main event, obviously, will take place Wednesday in Baghdad when the Iranians sit down with the P5+1 – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – to discuss the totality of their nuclear program.

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Amano spoke in Tehran Monday about the logistics of IAEA supervision. That is one thing. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday will lead the Western powers in attempting to persuade the Iranians to end their nuclear program. That is something different altogether. One is substance, the other logistics.

Israeli officials reacted with expected skepticism to Amano’s announcement that an agreement was in the offing on allowing IAEA supervisors more access to Iranian sites, including the Parchin military installation near Tehran.

They were doubtful because no agreement had yet been signed; because even if one were signed Tehran does not exactly have a good track record on implementing commitments to the IAEA; and because even if implemented this did not mean the Iranians would get rid of their enriched uranium and shelve their nuclear ambitions.

Jerusalem remained unconvinced because Amano’s actions in Tehran do not address the heart of the matter. The Iranians can grant the supervisors access and still keep their stockpiles of enriched uranium, enrich still more uranium and keep the underground facility at Qom operational. In other words, an agreement with the IAEA does not mean Tehran has altered its nuclear program one iota.

In addition, Israeli officials are skeptical because they know the Iranians, and they believe they know what the Iranians are after. The sense is that Iran is going to Baghdad with three goals in mind: gaining time, gaining legitimacy to continue at least part of their nuclear program and probing the possibility of getting the world to soften the sanctions that are biting the country very hard.

Demonstrating flexibility regarding IAEA inspectors will, the Iranians hope, create the impression they are changing their position, without really having to change much on the ground.

Part of this is also tailored for domestic consumption. With the Iranian rial today worth some 60 to 70 percent less than at the start of 2011, these moves are also aimed at showing the Iranian people – who are feeling the effects of the sanctions – that the government is taking some steps to relieve the situation.

From an Israeli point of view, while an Iranian agreement to let IAEA inspectors check various sites could connect in the long run with efforts to get them to stop their nuclear development, right now the two issues are completely different. There is the IAEA versus Iran, and then there is the P5+1 versus Iran.

The Iranians want to conflate the two. Israel wants to ensure that does not happen, and that the world keeps its eye on the ball – ensuring Tehran does not get a nuclear bomb – rather than rejoicing because the ayatollahs agree to some supervision of their known nuclear sites.

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