Joshua PollackConfidence-Demolition Measure

From the Dept. of Two Cents.

With all due respect to Geoff’s take, the latest Iranian position in the endless saga of the Zombie Fuel Swap is not, properly speaking, a confidence-building measure; it’s a confidence-demolition measure.

Except for one very important feature, the new Iranian stance is quite close to previous ideas discussed by the two sides through the last IAEA Director-General, Mohamed ElBaradei, until the end of his term, late last year. As others have observed, the reassurance value of removing 1,200 kg <5% LEU from Iran has diminished as the months have slipped by and Iran has continued the gradual expansion of its stockpile. But if that were the only problem, raising the idea now would at least not have further eroded hopes for a diplomatic resolution, as faint as they’ve become.

(As an aside: let’s refrain from calling the tripartite declaration a “deal,” as much of the news coverage has done. After all, neither Turkey nor Brazil proposes to supply Iran with reactor fuel. Nor did they mediate between the actual parties: Iran on one side, and Russia, France, and America on the other.)

Asymptotically Approaching Zero

The reason for the further loss of trust is mentioned in the White House statement: the Iranian side has indicated its intention to continue enriching uranium to <20% even after receiving the <20% reactor fuel. (Foreign Minister Mottaki apparently made this point in person over dinner in New York with Security Council representatives.) The decision to enrich beyond 5%, then, no longer has anything to do with refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) before it’s forced to shut down, if it ever did. That pretense has been discarded; it’s now naked salami-slicing.

(Speaking of which, the Iranians are now expanding the <20% enrichment operations at PFEP.)

The spoiler feature also protects the Iranians from too great a chance that their offer might have been accepted, which would have presented the challenge of pushing it through their own system. That didn’t go so well the last time.

Which bring us to the point of the exercise: stalling. It’s no surprise that the Iranians would seek every opportunity to disrupt sanctions negotiations in the Security Council. Nor is it entirely shocking that the Brazilians — who are now seeking to enter the Iranian oil sector — would collaborate in that endeavor. Disappointing, but not shocking. In any case, it seems unlikely to influence the outcome much either way.

Late Update. From the White House earlier today (emphasis in boldface added):

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
May 19, 2010
Readout from the President’s Call with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey

President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Erdogan today by phone. The President acknowledged the efforts of Turkey and Brazil and noted that the United States and the international community await a formal and authoritative message from Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The President stressed the international community’s continuing and fundamental concerns about Iran’s overall nuclear program as well as Iran’s failure to live up to its international obligations. Further, he indicated that negotiations on a new U.N. Security Council resolution will continue, noting that Iran’s persistent refusal to meet with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program and recent refusal to halt enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent, do not build confidence. The President and Prime Minister also discussed the ongoing government formation process in Iraq and the need to advance peace in the Middle East.

The draft resolution is here.

IAEA statement is here.

Comments

  1. Alan (History)

    I’m not so sure Josh. If the 20% was the deal breaker, a compromise can be reached that says, for example, that Iran will cease enriching to 20% upon receipt of the fuel plates.

    I think it is significant that Turkey has effectively lured Iran out of their hole here, and forced them to put a clear statement of intent on the table with Turkey and Brazil as witnesses to the process. Iran will not want to upset those two by playing games over it.

    As I said on Jeffrey’s thread, the 20% enrichment seems likely to be a throwaway item in a comprehensive negotiation. We all know Iran will never agree to cease enrichment, but it is a realistic goal to get them to limit it to 5%. Perhaps the compromise suggested above could be a natural link to that kind of agreement.

  2. John F. Opie (History)

    I think the loss of confidence, if anything, is in the possibility that a) there will be a peaceful solution that does not involve Iran developing a nuclear weapon capability and b) that the White House (and by extension the West) understands that they are being made fools of.

    If Iran breaks out here from the NPT – and at best it will camouflage this breakout so that the general public doesn’t understand what has happened – then the NPT will have failed. In a worst case scenario, it shouts this from the minarets of Qom and the arms race in the Middle East takes a vicious new turn.

    There are plenty of reasons to believe that Iran has the will and the intent to acquire nuclear weapons as the means to further its political goals. It appears to be acquiring the capability as well.

    You’re absolutely right in saying that this is a confidence-demolition measure. Any confidence of this being resolved peacefully and without proliferation is being demolished.

  3. Josh (History)

    Alan:

    The problem is not that it can’t be negotiated. It’s the nature of the position itself that destroys confidence. It is astounding to say, “We agree to a bargain obviating our stated need to do x, but under no circumstances will we stop.” It’s difficult to read that as compatible with good faith. But as you say, it doesn’t prevent negotiations. That in itself becomes a problem, since the Iranians tend to use negotiations as a stalling tactic (and have not shown any ability to get a deal done even when their President was pushing for it).

    Many observers judge that this declaration puts the West in an uncomfortable spot, tactically speaking. And that’s my point here: a tactic of adversarial diplomacy is more or less the opposite of a confidence-building gesture.

    Still, as mentioned in the post, I don’t think this will be too consequential, almost regardless of how it plays out. The Russians and Chinese have shown their willingness to slow-roll sanctions talks essentially regardless of what else is going on.

    None of which suggests that sanctions are “the answer.” To the contrary, they’re unlikely to have any effect on Iranian behavior, in my judgment. But that’s for another post.

    Commenters: I recognize this is a hot topic, but as is often the case, I won’t be available to moderate comments until much later. So please be patient.

    Also, please keep your comments civil, on topic, and within the boundaries of the “tell me something I don’t know” principle. Argument for argument’s sake isn’t a good use of anybody’s time.

  4. FSB

    John,

    you say “There are plenty of reasons to believe that Iran has the will and the intent to acquire nuclear weapons as the means to further its political goals.”

    Maybe — I think, as does the DNI, that Iran is interested in acquiring the capability, not the weapons.

    You mention a nuclear arms race in the middle east — yes that has been started as of ~40 years ago.

    The confidence building was demolished when we allowed Israel to secretly stockpile weapons in the middle east.

    We are reaping the fruits of our past CBM demolitioning.

  5. Alan (History)

    Josh – possibly the description of adversarial diplomacy may best be applied to Turkey and Brazil, because they seem to have an agenda of their own. I get the impression they have forced Iran’s hand here in getting them to lay their cards on the table.

    There is obviously a belief about that the bargain over the TRR was really all about Iran relinquishing the right to enrich to 20%. I’m not so sure it is a genuine either/or scenario. Iran’s motivation was that they were running out of fuel. If the West undertook to try to use that to secure an agreement not to enrich to 20%, I think that was a tactical mistake. Our opting to haggle over the supply rather than simply sell the plates was the first significant confidence destroying step. We in essence gave them an open invitation to enrich to 20%.

    But Iran has given ground here. Turkey and Brazil cornered them. Erdogan gives the impression he is fed up with posturing and game playing. Iran will not want to damage their ties to Turkey and Brazil, so there is an opening there I think.

  6. Mohammad (History)

    Iran just couldn’t accept suspendng <20% enrichment because of domestic pressure. Even now some in Iran are criticizing Ahmadinejad for backing down from a simultaneous swap, several-rounds of smaller swaps and from swap taking place inside Iran. Some have even talked about the possibility of Turkey being pressured not to return Iran’s LEU, without sending any TRR fuel to Iran (MP Tavakkoli is the most prominent critic). Obliging Iran to suspend <20% enrichment would make the deal impossible and antagonize more moderate Iranians like me: After a year, Iran will have to accept whatever the West demands for the TRR fuel if it doesn’t advance in obtaining the indigenous capability of producing TRR fuel, since there will be no other option.

    There is a cultural-historical wariness in Iran towards agreements with foreign countries; Iranians are amazingly quick of reminding the Treaty of Turkmenchay (I have even heard people likening yesterday’s statement to the treaty!). This is probably one of the reasons it’s hard to come to an agreement with Iran or persuading Iran to compromise.

  7. masoud (History)

    Hi Josh,

    I have no idea what you do or don’t know, but here’s a couple of salient points you seem to have left out of your presentation:

    -This deal is identical to the deal proposed by Obama in October. The only proviso is that if the west renegs, Iran gets itams fuel back, there really is no excuse for the west to turn it down. The argument is made that Iran has a lot more Uranium now, but this irrelavant because a halt on enrichment was never part of the deal. If the US takes this deal,in a month we will be in the exact same situation we woulde have been if this deal was agreed to in September. How you can spin Iran agreeing to the exact same deal put on the table by Obama as a confidence wrecking measure is beyond me.

    -There is no limit to enrichment level specified in the npt or any other agreement Iran has signed.It could legally enrich to 80 or 99 percent. The fact that it isn’t should be seen as a good will concession, not a provocation. All fuel so enriched will be rendered harmless as fuel plates under the supervision of the IAEA anyway, so there really is no cause for concern, if sub 20% enriched fuel was a cause for concern to begin with.

    -Iran would have to be insane not to continue its efforts to produce plate fuel. The west immediateley has started to look for ways to back out of the deal. It has imposed an artficial timeline of one year for the delivery of the fuel rods, and it’s as clear as day to everyone that it is Obama’s intention to hold that fuel hostage in order to eventually win further concessions. If the US is uncomfortable with Iran having to manufacuture it’s own fuel, it needs to boost Irans confidence in the continuity of fuel from outside sources.

    -We could go on for days and days about what this deal’s shortcomings are and what it doesn’t do: for example this deal doesn’t rub my feet or do the dishes. But it was never meant to do those things. It was meant to provide fuel for the TRR reactor. It really should have been a cash transaction. As a swap deal, the act of technical cooperation could have worked to increase confidence in the intentions of adversarial parties, if those intentions were amicable. The problem was the US did not have amicable intentions and was looking to opportunistically short change Iran. If it has to swallow a bitter pill this time around, maybe that means it will be more serious in the future.

  8. Arnold Evans (History)

    A couple of things:

    1) Iran has not increased its rate of enrichment. If Iran had exported its uranium in December, it would have the same amount in its stock that it will have after exporting a month or so from now.

    2) As we read from Gary Sick

    We should also be reminded that Iran did not reject the original deal: they proposed amending it. Basically, when the Iranian negotiators came home with the proposed deal, they were attacked from all sides – including members of the Green Movement – for being suckers. Their opponents pointed out that they were going to rely on the word and good will of Russia (where the LEU would be enriched to 20 percent) and France (where the fuel cells would be fabricated). Iranians from left to right argued that both of these countries had repeatedly cheated Iran on nuclear issues: Russia by delaying endlessly the completion of the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, and France by refusing to grant Iran rights to the Eurodif enrichment facility partially owned by Iran since the days of the shah. Why, they asked, should we believe that this agreement will be any different?

    3) If the aim is preventing Iran from becoming nuclear weapons capable, the West is not going to be made confident. If the West decides that it can live with assurances that for now – for as long Iran has not indicated that it is exercising its right to leave the NPT – that there is not weapons program, that can be negotiated.

    If you’re looking for confidence that Iran accepts the US position that it cannot have the capabilities that Japan and Brazil have, that confidence just will not be forthcoming.

  9. Josh (History)

    From the White House earlier today (emphasis in boldface added):

    The White House
    Office of the Press Secretary
    For Immediate Release
    May 19, 2010
    Readout from the President’s Call with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey
    President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Erdogan today by phone. The President acknowledged the efforts of Turkey and Brazil and noted that the United States and the international community await a formal and authoritative message from Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The President stressed the international community’s continuing and fundamental concerns about Iran’s overall nuclear program as well as Iran’s failure to live up to its international obligations. Further, he indicated that negotiations on a new U.N. Security Council resolution will continue, noting that Iran’s persistent refusal to meet with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program and recent refusal to halt enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent, do not build confidence. The President and Prime Minister also discussed the ongoing government formation process in Iraq and the need to advance peace in the Middle East.

    The draft resolution is here.

    IAEA statement is here.

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