Iran opens the gate to a long and stony road

Published September 27th, 2013.

The 34 years of animosity that has marked relations between Iran and the United States took a new direction today when President Barack Obama had an apparently constructive telephone conversation with his new counterpart from Tehran, Hassan Rouhani.

The exchange capped several days of progressively closer conversations between senior Iranian and American officials on the fringes of the United Nations general assembly in New York that are edging cautiously toward trying to end deadlock over Tehran’s nuclear program.

But amid the air of optimism, it is important to remember it is the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the affable Rouhani, who has ultimate control of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Khamenei may have decided a functional relationship with the West is preferable to the armed animosity of the last three decades since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, but not changed his view of the world, or his ambitions for his country.

Khamenei, not Rouhani, will decide what is agreed with the West, the United Nations and the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Supreme Leader may be willing to give enough guarantees and open up the nuclear program to enough inspection to get U.S.-led sanctions lifted or diminished.

But he will not abandon the program. While he may agree to pledges that Iran will not make nuclear weapons, he will almost certainly want to ensure that his country has the capacity to do so.

He and even many Iranian opponents of the Tehran government believe that ambiguity about Iran’s nuclear capacity is the minimum essential for the country’s security in a very volatile neighbourhood.

Iran, the heartland of the Shiite sect of Islam, is in the midst of a prolonged contest for power and influence in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, who are the champions of the Sunni sect of Islam.

And in the background is Israel, which has a large, but unacknowledged, nuclear weapons arsenal.

Khamenei will not compromise either on any aspects of a nuclear deal that might undermine the tenets of Iran’s system of partial democracy guided by Islamic law and observance.

Even so, the change of tone in the Tehran government after six years of combustible rhetoric from the sinister former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an important opportunity.

There is now an opening for serious negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program, after years of bluff and bluster from Tehran, which only reinforced the suspicion in the West that the real objective is not to produce electricity but to build a bomb.

Rouhani unlocked the gate earlier this week when he spoke at the United Nations and indicated his willingness to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear impasse. Iran, he said, is prepared to enter talks “without delay.”

He was careful, though, to stress Iran maintains its “inherent right” to enrich uranium, a major problem for western sceptics who believe Tehran wants the bomb.

Momentum built on Thursday when Iran’s Foreign Minister, U.S.-educated Mohammad-Javad Zarif, had a half-hour meeting with his American counterpart, John Kerry. 

The two men, according to Zarif, discussed how to proceed with further discussions and negotiations. These were the most senior American and Iranian officials to meet since the 1979 revolution.

Progress continued today, Friday, when Zarif met the foreign ministers from the so-called P5+1 group charged by the UN with addressing the Iran problem. The group includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, U.S., Britain and France – plus Germany. And for this meeting the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, joined the talks.

After the meeting Zarif said the discussion was positive, and he and his government want a timetable for resolution of the disputes developed within a year. That’s easier said than done. 

There are three key elements to the way forward and all of them are fraught with difficulties.

Most obvious is agreeing on a sequence of events. Iran will want sanctions lifted. These have seen its oil exports – a central pillar of the economy – cut in half in the last year, and inflation rise to over 30 per cent annually.

Washington, Europe and the IAEA, on the other hand, will want watertight verification that Iran is giving full access to its nuclear facilities, and that it has halted its uranium enrichment program.

Both sides will want the other to move first. The kind of problems even these initial steps are likely to produce is clear from an Iranian document the IAEA circulated today. In it, Tehran officials continue to refuse inspectors access to the Parchin military base where it is believed nuclear trigger devices have been tested.

Then there’s the problem of whether an American administration can get congressional approval for the lifting of sanctions. Scepticism about dealing with Iran is highly-charged among right wing Republicans and, as they have shown over a willingness to bring the U.S. to a halt over Barack Obama’s health care program, they find it hard to see anything beyond their own bile ducts.

However, although agreeing a sequential dropping of sanctions in return for access and limits on Iran’s nuclear program will be difficult, it should be possible.

Very soon, though, negotiators will come up against what is perhaps the central issue of dealing with Iran. That is getting a verifiable agreement with Tehran on limiting the level to which it enriches uranium.

To power a light water reactor, which Tehran insists is the only objective of its nuclear program, uranium U-235 and U-233 need to be enriched by only 5 per cent. To build a nuclear bomb enrichment needs to be 80 to 90 per cent.

There is plenty of evidence Iran has built enough centrifuges to enrich uranium to very high levels. The trick will be to get Tehran to restrict itself to low levels of enrichment and to agree to a verifiable inspection regime. The final major hurdle will be to try to create a level of security in the Middle East so that Tehran ceases to believe it needs atomic weapons for its own defence.

That will require security guarantee agreements with Washington, but also a sea change in the relationships between Tehran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

From the vantagepoint of today, with Iran and Saudi Arabia fighting proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, and Israel vigilant on the sidelines, that seems a forlorn hope.

But if what started at the UN in New York this week is indeed a journey into confidence building, that can change the reality on the ground.   

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe