Sipping the poisoned chalice

With the ball firmly in Tehran’s court, after the extension of nuclear talks, the question is whether Iran’s supreme leader will give his negotiators the flexibility needed to conclude a deal.

The delegations of the US, Britain, Russia, Germany, France, EU and China meet with the Iranian representatives in Vienna, November 24. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The delegations of the US, Britain, Russia, Germany, France, EU and China meet with the Iranian representatives in Vienna, November 24.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
VIENNA – Iran’s supreme leader will have to drink from the poisoned chalice and swallow the Islamic Republic’s pride if the Iranian nuclear crisis is to come to a satisfactory, final and comprehensive conclusion. That at least was the metaphor that a former senior Obama administration arms control adviser chose to use while speaking to The Jerusalem Report on the sidelines of a conference in the Austrian capital.
Talking after delivering a speech at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, organized by the Atomic Reporters group, Robert Einhorn, assistant secretary for nonproliferation during the Clinton administration and, until last May, a special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control during the Obama administration, discussed the possible outcome of the talks between Iran and the P5+1, the group of five permanent Security Council member plus Germany.
The metaphor that Einhorn employed referred back to the Iran-Iraq War fought between the two countries from September 1980 to August 1988. For many years, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first supreme leader, reportedly refused to allow his generals, despite defeats on the battlefield and the suffering of the Iranian people, to negotiate a cease-fire.
Yet at the final stages of the war the generals led by Mohsen Rezaee, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), persuaded the supreme leader they could no longer bear the consequences of the war. Khomeini reportedly told them that he would allow them to sign a cease-fire agreement with Saddam Hussein’s army, but for him that was worse than surrender, it was like drinking from a poisoned chalice.
So argued Einhorn there is a precedent.
If Khomeini could end that bloody conflict, the 20th century’s longest conventional war, which caused the death of some one million in total on both sides, his successor Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, can, at least theoretically, swallow his and his nation’s pride, and order his negotiators to reach a deal with the international community to substantially reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential.
The P5+1 talks held at the historic Coburg Palace, now a luxury hotel catering to wealthy Russian and Saudi Arabian tourists, ended with no agreement, but since ultimately neither side has any interest in overturning the apple cart, they decided to extend the talks for a second time until the end of June 2015.
A year ago, the two sides reached an interim agreement in Geneva known as the Joint Plan of Action that partially halted Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. That agreement stipulated that the Islamic Republic would be allowed to operate only 10,000 centrifuges out of its 19,000 installed. It also forbade Iran to increase the level of 20 percent enriched uranium to over 220 kilograms, the minimal sufficient quantity required to build a nuclear bomb once that amount has been further enriched to 90 percent.
But since then the two sides have failed to overcome the enormous obstacles on the way to a desired comprehensive agreement.
Among the issues under contention is the number of operational centrifuges that Iran would be allowed to keep. On this matter, the Israeli stance has been zero tolerance – in other words, Tehran would not be allowed any centrifuges whatsoever – but as a senior Israeli official familiar with the negotiations has told The Report, the international community is not buying into that position.
There are several possible explanations as to why the Israeli line has been ignored.
One is because of the deteriorating relations between the administration of US President Barack Obama and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another is the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But above all, the reason is that Israel is perceived as being alarmist and exaggerating with regard to Iran. In this sense Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran as designed by Netanyahu has failed.
Israel has in the last decade invested huge financial resources and a great deal of diplomatic and political capital on three fronts.
Firstly, according to foreign reports, it equipped and authorized the Mossad to carry out covert operations that included the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaging materials and equipment related to the program and cyberwarfare aimed at slowing down Tehran’s nuclear project. Despite some impressive tactical successes, strategically that has not worked out.
Secondly, Israel enlarged the IDF’s budget reportedly to allow the air force to practice and simulate aerial attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites. Even if the leadership comprising Netanyahu and the previous defense minister Ehud Barak, his partner in this scheme, did not mean to launch an attack, the investment had to be made in order to create the impression that Israel’s military option was credible and its threat serious.
The third front was the diplomatic effort to persuade the US to impose punitive sanctions against Iran. It’s hard to assess how much Israel influenced the American decision-making process; nonetheless Netanyahu has taken the credit.
Meanwhile, however, with negotiations ongoing, Israel’s theoretical military option has been distanced.
Another point of contention between Israel and the US and EU position is that Israeli intelligence analysis sees Iran as being between three to six months, if it so decides, from breaking out and building a bomb. The US estimate on the other hand, as Einhorn related, is that Iran is at least one year from that point.
The US and EU attitude has been less rigid.
Originally they demanded that Iran be restricted to 1,500 centrifuges – around 3,000 centrifuges are sufficient to enrich uranium to the 90 percent level needed to produce fissile material required in order to make a nuclear weapon – but they are now ready to raise the threshold to between 4,000 to 5,000 centrifuges which surely would enhance the potential of Iran to breakout within a shorter period. However, it’s hard to imagine that Iran would agree even to accept that, American proposed, compromise.
The number of centrifuges is not the only unsolved issue between Iran and the P5+1.
Another problem is the amount of enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to stockpile and how much of it is to be exported – most likely to Russia to be converted into uranium rods to be used as fuel for nuclear reactors generating electricity.
Yet even greater stumbling blocks are the issues of the longevity of the agreement and how intrusive the verification mechanism will be. The international community would like to see limitations on Iran’s nuclear capabilities in place for 15-20 years; Iran on the other hand would like to see a much shorter period of no more than a few years. Regarding the verification mechanism, the US, EU argument is that the verification regime, given the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Tehran’s program, would need to be much more aggressive than the standard International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification protocol.
Iran argues that it should not be singled out, but, the US, EU position is, as Einhorn noted, that Tehran “has to restore confidence due to its track record.” Einhorn was referring to nearly 20 years of lack of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA and attempts to conceal parts of its program, mainly suspected possible military dimensions, as indicated by repeated IAEA reports.
The issue of PMDs is of special interest, and it is a point of contention between Israel and the US: In 2007, the American national intelligence estimate stated that Iran had stopped its military program four years earlier in 2003; Israeli intelligence however countered that the program has not been discontinued and most likely has been going on even to the present day.
Regardless of whether or not the military dimension of the program has been stopped, the IAEA and the P5+1 are still demanding full disclosure and transparency of Iran’s nuclear military record. Knowing what Iran has been up to in the past would improve understanding of what capabilities Iran possess and what they are capable of achieving in the future.
Iran has been dancing around the PMD issue for a long time, first with the IAEA and now in talks with the P5+1 – for example, refusing to allow inspections at its Parchin military base which is suspected by the CIA, MI6, Mossad and other Western intelligence agencies of being the site of weaponization capabilities testing.
While Einhorn says that “the US understands that it’s unrealistic that Iran confesses its entire past activities,” he adds that it must shed some light on past activities.
However, he feels that Iran will likely continue the same old game of non-cooperation and that is one important reason he does not share the optimism expressed by the Iranian, French and US foreign ministers after the latest round of talks.
The ball, in Einhorn’s analysis, is firmly in the Iranian court. The question is whether the supreme leader, despite his understanding that the Iranian people and the government of President Hassan Rouhani would like to see the lifting of sanctions in return for a final agreement, will drink the poisoned chalice and give his negotiators the flexibility necessary to conclude a deal.
■ Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman. Ilan Evyatar is editor of The Jerusalem Report