Iran: The last lap

Five key issues on which the allies must hold fast in nuclear negotiations

Members of the Iranian air force re-enact the scene of founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's arrival to Iran in 1979 at Merhrabad airport (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the Iranian air force re-enact the scene of founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's arrival to Iran in 1979 at Merhrabad airport
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The great showdown between Iran and the Western powers is supposed to result in final nuclear agreement by June 30. By July 1, Iran will have clearly, firmly and irrevocably committed to forsaking its long-denied ambition to build nuclear missiles and the US and its five partners (Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) will have agreed to end sanctions. Or not.
Nerves are frayed. Israel fears it will be betrayed by US President Barack Obama’s eagerness to have Iran come in out of the cold to be “a very successful regional power.” Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, expressed the anxiety in a preview in The Wall Street Journal of his forthcoming history of US-Israel relations.
He does not spare Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for serial blunders, but his assessment is that Obama abandoned our longtime ally Israel when he began negotiating secretly for months “with an irrational, genocidal regime.” It would be fair to paraphrase this shocking revelation as saying that when Obama said he had Israel’s back, he was referring to where he planted the dagger.
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Maybe there is a bout of nerves in Tehran too, newly inflamed by the revelations that someone bugged all the hotel rooms in Lausanne, Switzerland where Iranian negotiators conferred. We don’t know what the spooks learned, but it may well have unnerved Iran’s leaders.
The dilemma we always had with Iran is whether to take its leaders at their word – or rather, which word to take them at. Now they seem to be making an attempt to assure the P5+1 nations that they are on the level in not wishing to go nuclear. It is more than 10 years since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promulgated a fatwa declaring nuclear weapons immoral. Such an edict is exalted in Iran as coming from the highest religious authority. And now, as the negotiators meet in Vienna to put flesh on the bones of the Lausanne framework, there is a reaffirmation from a general of the Revolutionary Guards, which counts a great deal in Iran’s power system. According to The Jerusalem Post, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami insisted on the sacred nature of the fatwa. “The edict is a principled, moral position before it is a technical one,” he was quoted as saying at a defense conference at a Tehran university last week, adding that instead of a nuclear weapon, Iran would aim to develop its arsenal of precision guided missiles that minimize civilian casualties.
Nerves are frayed in Washington, too.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted in The New York Times a few days ago on the eve of his return to the final sessions in Vienna suggesting that it was no longer a priority for the P5+1 powers to insist Iran come clean about the nuclear military work it has been doing all these years while mimicking ignorance. Learning just what mischief Iran has been up to is regarded as crucial by the International Atomic Energy Agency – indeed an essential point of tracing the veracity of the pledges Iran is now expected to make on keeping its commitment.
Well it still is if Iran is to have any hope of being relieved of sanctions, a huge boost that will still further enhance its power. Now the State Department has clarified that the US and its partners still want to know – and how right they are.
But it is hard to reconcile this principled position with Iran’s “death to Israel,” “death to America” rhetoric; with the plan the supreme leader detailed to drive every Jew out of Israel; and indeed with Iran’s decades of nuclear deception. If the ayatollah has imposed this exalted position on the country, why are his ministers giving such a hard time to the US, Russian, Chinese, French, British and German negotiators who have spent so much time and energy trying to pin them down? What does it do for mutual trust when immediately after Lausanne, the ayatollah rants about Americans as snakes in the grass – duplicitous, deceiving and untrustworthy – and then the framework agreement is vigorously misremembered by Tehran? Kerry is not a mythmaker.
Iran’s prevarications should remind us that while we would welcome the enterprise and creativity of the Iranian people in the community of nations, the regime is certainly repressive.
Irwin Cotler, co-chair of the InterParliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran – whose members last month heard witness testimony at the Fourth Annual Iran Accountability Week – warned earlier this month that “nuclear negotiations have been overshadowing if not sanitizing the Iranian regime’s massive domestic repression.” Iran leads the world in executions per capita, with 400 people killed in 2015 alone. The scene from Homeland was fiction, but the dramatization of the character Nicholas Brody strung up by a crane in a public square was an unforgettable illustration of actual wanton cruelty inflicted week after week in Iran.
On taking office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani released some political prisoners as a gesture, but the rate of executions has increased. Cruel and inhuman treatment is inflicted on women, including stoning and flogging.
Lawyers are arrested and imprisoned “for no other reason than they have defended victims of human rights violations,” as Cotler, who is a member of the Canadian Parliament, has put it.
Iran’s jails hold more than 900 political prisoners under threat of execution: human rights defenders, ethnic and religious leaders, journalists, bloggers, students, trade union heads – the leaders of Iranian civil society. Three Americans are prisoners including, notoriously, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, accused of espionage, a charge regarded as ridiculous by press freedom groups. He has been in prison for nearly a year with only a pair of closed-door hearings, one in May and one in June.
(A third is reportedly planned.) It’s the nature of the regime and its history that makes it imperative for the P5+1 to hold fast on a number of key issues as way stations en route to the prize that Iran seeks: relief from sanctions.
1. Transparency. Iran must ease access to sites immediately as required by the Additional Protocol agreed in Lausanne and implement Code 3.1 of the 1974 Safeguard Agreements, which imposes a requirement of advance notice to the IAEA in Vienna of any intention to build any new nuclear facility. And the history of Iran’s covert military activity can no longer be, well, covert.
2. Enriched Uranium. Iran had agreed to export enriched uranium to Russia so that for 15 years at least it would never have more than 300 kilograms.
The deal broke down. The IAEA recently reported Iran’s stockpile had risen by 20 percent. This is unacceptable. The agency found no evidence of cheating in a rush to develop a bomb; indeed Iran had halted work on other facilities.
But one Iranian negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, now says there’s no question of shipping the fuel abroad. So what’s going on? Is there a bug in the system? 3. Arak. Secure a timetable for shutting down the heavy water reactor at Arak, having its redesign approved by the IAEA and the US and its spent fuel sent to another country.
4. Fordow. The scary Fordow plant, which was deliberately built underground to protect it from bombing, is to be converted to a scientific laboratory.
The Israelis want it shut entirely so it can’t be reused as a safe haven for nuclear development. One way or the other, we must ensure that bomb-related research and development is not possible there.
5. Sanctions. Iran demands that sanctions cease as soon as there’s a final agreement. No way. The elaborately tough sanctions squeeze was a big international cooperative effort and its dismantling is a big prize. It should happen only when the IAEA is satisfied with the big initial steps on transparency and access, with the plans for conversion of Fordow and Arak and with an assured ceiling for Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium.
In short, the sanctions shouldn’t be lifted until road blocks to a bomb are in place.
If we do go down this road of giving Iran a chance to behave in a civilized manner, let’s keep in mind the adage that experience is a wonderful thing it enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
The writer is the chairman and editorin- chief of US News & World Report and the publisher of The New York Daily News.