M302 rockets found aboard the Klos C ship are displayed at an Israeli navy base in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat March 10, 2014. The ship seized by the Israeli navy on suspicion of smuggling arms from Iran to the Gaza Strip docked on Saturday in Israel, which planned to put the cargo on display i.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
In those business sections of bookstores where there are often books on “how to negotiate,” there should be a new book added that examines Iran’s negotiating strategy regarding its nuclear program.
Since Tehran successfully negotiated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it has also successfully put the Western powers on the defensive regarding its ambitions. This is not just about Iran getting a nuclear bomb, but really about Iran getting everything else it wants, including financial incentives and foreign policy incentives not to build a bomb.
This strategy was on display this week when Iran said that European countries had not met its demands, and that a 60-day ultimatum that the Islamic republic put out in May had not been met. What Tehran did in essence was give the Europeans a year to come up with a way to help it avoid a reimposition of US sanctions, which increased after America left the Iran deal in May 2018.
When May 2019 came around and the European countries had still not created a financial mechanism to help Iran avoid the biting US sanctions, Iran decided to move forward with its “good cop, bad cop” strategy.
Let’s recall that the Iran deal was entered into by the US, UK, Russia, France, China, Germany and the European Union. For Iran, the issue is not Russia, China or the US – it already has amicable relations with China and Russia, made clear by meetings last month in Central Asia, and the US and Iran are at odds under the Trump administration. For Tehran then the issues with Washington are sunk costs; it isn’t yet willing to re-negotiate the deal. The US has said that “maximum pressure” in terms of sanctions will result until Iran comes begging.
So Iran, which won’t beg or bend, eyes the European countries as the weakest link in the Iran deal framework. The UK is in the middle of Brexit chaos, so France and Germany are thus the addresses to whom Iran is writing.
Tehran first said this week that it would begin enriching uranium to 4.5%, surpassing a 3.67% limit. Now, unsurprisingly, it has said via its Press TV that it could reach 20% uranium enrichment if the Europeans don’t get on board. “Twenty percent is not needed now,” said the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization’s Behrouz Kamalvandi. “But if we want, we will produce it.”
LET’S STEP back a moment and try to understand what’s going on in Iran’s mindset. Usually the Iran deal is seen solely through a Western lens. For instance, the widespread narrative in the US in 2015 was that if there was no deal there would be war. That was largely a talking point advanced by Tehran’s supporters, who provided the Western public with this stark choice: a deal or war. Since Western countries obviously don’t want war, they will choose a deal.
This is part of the Iranian “good cop, bad cop” strategy of always claiming that if the US or Western countries don’t do what Iran wants, then “hard-liners” will come to power. However, when Iran speaks to China or Russia, it doesn’t mention any hard-liners – and reports in Russia don’t seem to indicate that if Iran doesn’t get what it wants then such hard-liners will take over.
The reason that Iran, usually through surrogates, emphasizes the existence of “hard liners” is to play into a Western mindset that views the world as revolving around what Western countries do. The reality in Tehran is that the system which appears to be in place – of its Foreign Ministry feigning being a “moderate” institution while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Supreme Leader are “hard-liners” – is just a front for the fact that they are all just aspects of the same government working in concert.
Iran’s second negotiating tactic is to use the nuclear threat as a bargaining chip. This is interesting because Iran’s official position is that it wants only peaceful nuclear energy, and that it has even passed a religious edict against developing nuclear weapons. So if there is a religious edict and the enrichment is just for energy, then why use it as a cudgel to threaten others? If, as Iran says, the 20% is not “needed now,” then it is clear that the enrichment is just a path to get other things Iran wants. According to ABC News, the higher levels of enrichment and stockpiles of enriched uranium could “narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb.”
THIS PRESENTS a situation where Iran’s bogeyman atomic bomb is always hanging over the countries that negotiated the deal. From Tehran’s perspective, this is an excellent place to be – because anytime it wants something, it can just threaten to narrow the relatively short window it needs to get to a bomb.
But what if the reality is more complex. Iran’s real goal is to continue expanding its conventional military arsenal, such as drones and ballistic missiles, and it wants to dominate its “near abroad” – a series of countries that make up an arc of Iranian influence from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The nuclear issue appears more like a means to an end, not the end. Iran doesn’t view the bomb as the end, but merely the way to get what and where it wants, with or without the bomb. It appears that Tehran has been largely successful without needing to make a nuclear weapon, which anyway is a complex task. Even if Iran made a bomb, it would need to test it.
Iran’s goal now is to use the enrichment level as a way to slowly ratchet up its carrot-and-stick approach. It has targeted several countries with this threat, particularly France and Germany. Tehran knows that none of these countries wants conflict, and will do whatever is necessary to try to talk down the US from such a conflict. The Iranian’s goal is to get these countries to go to bat for them. Tehran seeks to present Washington as isolated and irrational, while presenting itself as a more logical power.
But Iran’s current attempts at enrichment will cause its supporters some concern, because eventually it will lead to questions about what Iran’s real goal is with such enrichment. If it is just enriching for enrichment’s sake, while its real goal is to get around sanctions, then it will be seen as needlessly threatening others using a complex charade.
And someone may also ask why Iran would have a religious edict against a weapon, while also threatening to enrich toward the objective of building a bomb that Iran doesn’t even want.
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