Anatomy of nuclear negotiations

Was the Islamic Republic of Iran once really interested in a deal with the United States on the nuclear issue?

Iranian woman on a computer 521 (photo credit: MORTEZA NIKOUBAZI / REUTERS)
Iranian woman on a computer 521
Is the Islamic Republic of Iran interested in a deal with the US if it can reach a reasonable compromise, or is animosity towards the US part and parcel of the Iranian revolution? Those who believe that Iran negotiates only for tactical purposes in order to gain time, without ever intending to compromise, advocate more crippling sanctions and or a military solution. But there is a school of thought that argues that a deal with Iran can be possible, if the price is right.
Trita Parsi does not exclude that possibility. Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, argues in his latest book A Single Roll of the Dice that US President Barack Obama originally had good intentions, but gave up too soon on diplomacy, and reverted to the traditional American policy of sanctions and coercion paying only lip service to a diplomatic solution.
Has Obama really given diplomacy a chance, as he promised when he entered the White House in January 2009? Parsi does not think so, although he blames all the parties involved: the US , Iran and Israel.
Parsi asserts in his book that on at least two occasions in the last 10 years, the US has missed opportunities to reach an agreement with a willing Iran.
The first was in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration, when an Iranian document delivered to the US State Department claimed the Islamic Republic was ready to negotiate a far-reaching compromise on all outstanding issues. The second was Washington’s rejection of the 2010 Tehran Declaration, brokered by Turkey and Brazil, in which Tehran seemed to agree to Obama’s conditions for a deal on the nuclear issue.
Parsi, who authored a book five years ago about the tangled negotiations between the US , Iran and Israel, believes that in both cases there was a genuine Iranian effort, or at least opportunities, to strike a deal with the US . He claims that these opportunities went to waste.
In 2003, Iran feared that the US would invade Iran. The Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents US interests there, was therefore authorized to deliver “a document.”
According to that document, Iran was ready to discuss all outstanding issues: nuclear, terrorism, Hizballah and Hamas. Iran was even prepared to endorse the Saudi peace proposal: recognition of Israel by all Arab League members in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
Althoug h the State Department under Colin Powell initially saw it as an opening for serious negotiations, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put the kibosh on it. But was this really a serious Iranian proposal as Parsi and others argue? True, it had been formulated by the inner circle of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei had seen the proposal and agreed that it could be forwarded to Washington.
But that does not make it an official proposal as Parsi claims: the document was unsigned.
Apparently it was only a trial balloon. Still it appeared worth looking at.
Not so, argues former AIPAC lobbyist Steve Rosen in a detailed rebuttal in the American Thinker in November 2008: the “proposal” was not rejected by the hardliners in the Bush administration as Parsi argues, but by the proponents of diplomacy in the State Department, who had come to the conclusion that it was not serious at all.
Lawrence Wilkerson, then Powell’s chief of staff and now a lecturer on national security issues, claims that matters were more complex.
Both he and Powell studied it, and they were quite impressed, he tells The Jerusalem Report.
“When we negotiated in 2001 with the Iranians about Afghanistan, we asked ourselves the question what our point of view was in case we would ever enter into negotiations with Iran. We therefore produced a ‘nonpaper’ (an internal document that was leaked to the press). It gave us deniability if anyone questioned where it came from. That Iranian non-paper was very similar to our own paper.
Did that indicate that Iran was interested in serious negotiations? We thought it was something we should explore. But that never happened.”
Wilkerson says he lost track, since Iran was not part of his portfolio. And when he inquired a few years later, he was told that the Iranian document had been rejected as not authentic. Wilkerson says the State Department bureaucracy was divided on the issue, but took it no further, partially because the idea of diplomacy would have had no chance in the bureaucratic infighting between Powell, Cheney and Rumsfeld.
“Powell had already two fights about North Korea and Iraq on his plate, and knew that he would be on the losing end if he would take up the Iranian proposal,” says Wilkerson. Yes, technically “those who were in favor of diplomacy” rejected the Iranian trial balloon. But the underlying political reality was, according to Wilkerson, that it was rejected partly because it had no chance of success given the hostility of Rumsfeld and Cheney.
We therefore will never know whether it was a serious proposition, because it was never tested. But Parsi’s general criticism that this was a missed opportunity is correct, even if success was not guaranteed.
In 2010, Turkey and Brazil did negotiate with the Islamic Republic over the “Tehran Declaration.” According to that agreement, Iran was ready to put parts of its nuclear program on ice, by placing it in the hands of a third party, in line with American demands detailed in a letter Obama had written to Brazil’s President Lula da Silva. Still, Washington rejected the agreement. Did Obama miss an opportunity to strike a deal with Iran? Yes, claims Parsi. He argues that domestic considerations, both in Iran and in Washington prevented a serious diplomatic effort.
Unknown to Parsi, however, John Limbert, Deputy Secretary of State for Iran in 2009 and 2010, says in an article for the US Institute of Peace that Obama had sent two secret letters to Khamenei shortly after he took office, to which the supreme leader never responded.
The US was therefore dubious from the outset that Iran was genuinely interested in a diplomatic solution.
In the summer of 2009, the fiv e permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the so-called “five plus one”) reached a tentative deal with Iranian negotiators that Iran would export 1,200 kilos of its Low Enriched Uranium (LEU ) to Turkey. In exchange, the nuclear powers, the US , England and Russia would supply Iran with enriched uranium for its civilian medical needs. That deal however was rejected in Tehran.
In the meantime, Israel, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia and France, Parsi says, advocated sanctions. The US Congress, influenced by AIPAC, formulated a sanctions bill and put pressure on the administration to forgo diplomacy. According to Parsi, Obama readily gave in to the Israel lobby and started working on sanctions.
The sanctions track has two components: American sanctions and international sanctions through the Security Council, where China and Russia were the main obstacles.
While the US was negotiating a sanctions package with the Russians, Brazil and Turkey decided to make a last effort to reach a diplomatic solution. During the nonproliferation summit in Washington in April 2010, Obama discussed briefly with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva the American terms for a diplomatic solution, and this was detailed in letters sent to both men.
The terms basically repeated those that Iran had rejected half a year earlier, and Parsi believes the Americans committed the conditions to writing to call the Iranians’ bluff, not believing that they would ever accept the deal. But Iran agreed to the proposal, hoping to avoid sanctions by the Security Council.
Yet Obama, Parsi argues, had already decided that it was more politically convenient to pursue sanctions and give up on a possible diplomatic breakthrough.
Not so, Dennis Ross, then one of Obama’s principal advisers on the Iranian issue, tells The Report.
There were, according to Ross, two flaws in the Tehran Declaration. It stated explicitly that Iran had the right to enrich uranium. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT ) mentions only the peaceful use of enriched uranium.
The right to enrich is according to Ross not automatic. Iran would first have to agree to all the inspections the NPT prescribes. Ross argues that if you have a right to enrich, you have also the obligation to follow the inspection rules of the NPT. Iran wants it both ways: a right without full inspection. In addition, the agreement gave Iran the right to repossess the 1,200 kilos of uranium should the agreement not be implemented.
If so, why didn’t the Ameri can s keep the door open by negotiating further? Ross argues that this indeed was the US response, but it came too late, when the Iranians had lost all interest because sanctions by the Security Council had already been imposed.
So why did the US reject a deal that it itself had proposed? Ross admits that the Obama Administration did not handle it well. “I should have spent more time on the letter”, Ross says. He affirms that he reviewed the letter Obama wrote to Lulu before it was sent. The chief reason that he overlooked some of the relevant details, including the concession on automatic enrichment, is (according to Ross) that the Turks and Brazilians in their discussions with the Americans mainly argued about the amount of uranium the Iranians had to send to Turkey.
But there was a more important reason why the Obama Administration rejected diplomacy. Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and now a vice president of the Brookings Institution, tells The Report that the administration faced a serious dilemma.
Unknown to Turkey and Brazil, the US had obtained Russian cons ent for sanctions, in return for concessions – among others – on missile defense. There was a good chance that more negotiations with Iran would have resulted in a collapse of the sanctions agreement with Russia, without a guarantee that the Iranians would fully implement the agreement to America’s satisfaction. In that case, the US would lose on both fronts: no sanctions and no diplomatic deal.
Parsi does not mention this dilemma. In an interview with The Report, he argues that the mix of carrot and stick was and is unbalanced with 80 percent stick and 20 percent carrot.
He claims that the Israelis are fundamentally opposed to any US-Iran deal, out of fear that such an agreement would be at Israel’s expense.
A diplomatic deal involves compromise, and the risk from Israel’s point of view is that Iran would keep some kind of nuclear infrastructure and be able to revive its plans to make the bomb at a later stage. A senior Israeli source denies this to The Report, stating that if the US could negotiate Iran’s nuclear bomb away, this would be an ideal solution.
We will never know whether Iran’s 2003 offer was serious. As far as the Tehran Declaration is concerned, Parsi demonstrates that the US chose sanctions over diplomacy, but not only due to Congress and the Israel lobby: there was a serious dilemma that Parsi ignores. But he is right that political considerations both in Tehran and Washington have made a deal so far elusive.
Parsi opposes sanctions, arguing that they will only serve to strengthen the regime at the expense of the population. He thinks that ultimately Iran may accept a grand bargain that takes into consideration its legitimate strategic interests. But not everybody shares his optimism. The paradox is that those who believe that Iran genuinely wanted a deal in 2003 and 2010 have to acknowledge that it did so only after pressure: crippling sanctions or the threat of military action.
“Only after the US made serious military preparations in the Gulf did the Iranians start to take Obama seriously,” notes the highranking Israeli official. And this would indicate that if a diplomatic solution is possible at all, it will only be the result of a combination of sanctions, a realistic military threat and a credible olive branch.