President Barack Obama’s hopes of getting a nuclear deal with Iran were knocked on the head Monday, March 9, after Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif had come close to wrapping it up this week in Switzerland.
After long keeping Washington on tenterhooks, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally came off the fence and broke his silence on the nuclear deal – typically, leaking a series of negatives through members of his close circle.
Those negatives systematically nullified the diplomatic structure painstakingly put in place by Kerry and Zarif. According to DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources, Khamenei refused to allow any principles to be laid down for a nuclear accord, or the itemization of technical data relating to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Indeed, he rejected the entire concept of a framework accord, on which Kerry and Zarif had been toiling against a March 31 deadline.
So no technical details, no principles and no deadlines, as far as the supreme leader is concerned. But he had one positive thing to say: the nuclear negotiations may continue.
Even that door was shut by Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, when he said that the only way to reach a nuclear agreement “based on mutual interests” is the removal of all sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The sanctions are “cruel, illegal and ineffective” he said at a ceremony for deploying a warship in the Caspian Sea.
Anti-nuclear accord opinion spreads to Iranian street
Khamenei’s blow found Obama already struggling against an anti-nuclear diplomacy revolt as pressure to meet the deadline mounted.
All the reports reaching the Oval Office had one common theme. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report: they one and all described the dissent mounting in Iran to Zarif's negotiations with Washington on behalf of President Hassan Rouhani.
The dissatisfaction had spilled over from the radical circles of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the clerical establishment to sweep up broad sections of Iranian society, such as academics, op-ed writers, relatively moderate clerics and a group referred to locally as “the camp of worriers.”
Critics were also raising their voices in Washington and in ruling circles in Moscow, Berlin and Paris
The US president did his best to paper over the sagging state of his nuclear diplomacy when he spoke on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, March 8:
“We have made progress in narrowing the gaps, but those gaps still in exist,” he said. “And I would say that over the next month or so, we’re going to be able to determine whether or not their system is able to accept what would be an extraordinarily reasonable deal – if, in fact, as they say, they are only interested in peaceful nuclear programs.”
Unease inside the P5+1 group of world leaders
Khamenei delivered his death blow to the deal the following day.
He is known to have reacted with fury to the French daily Le Figaro report, quoting “Western intelligence sources,” that he was not likely to last more than two years, because “his prostate cancer had reached stage four and started to spread to the rest of his body.”
The Figaro story was meant to warn Khamenei that he had better get a move on and sign off on the nuclear deal before the end of March deadline, so that some of the sanctions crippling the Iranian economy could be lifted.
The supreme leader would then come out with a legacy that credited him with preserving most of the infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear program, while at the same time easing the economic hardships suffered by the Iranian people.
That veiled threat/promise acted like a boomerang.
But not only in Iran is the current nuclear diplomacy unpopular. Objections are coming from inside US negotiating partners in the P5+1 group of world nations facing Iran across the table.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin may have their hands full with the crises over the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the 55 year old deputy prime minister turned opposition leader, and Ukraine, but they were very clear about their rebuttal of the deal Washington has been negotiating with Tehran.
French and German parliaments set to subject any deal to review
The Russians have consistently objected to Iran being allowed to reach the nuclear threshold, thereby leaving the Islamic regime with the freedom to choose if and when to go forward and build a bomb.
The Kremlin is also extremely uneasy over the prospect of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards extremists, who are on the march from one Middle East capital to the next, reaching the Volga valley – the banks of the longest river in Europe – and making common cause with the indigenous Muslim population.
Although Berlin has not had its say on the subject openly, a hint came from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier when he addressed the Bundestag Wednesday, March 4. He said cautiously that he sees “cautious signs of hope” in talks with Iran for a nuclear deal that should exclude “the possibility of Iran getting nuclear weapons.
The French were more candid: “Commitments offered by Iran in talks with six world powers on its nuclear program do not go far enough and more work needs to be done,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday, March 6. The situation, he said, was still “insufficient” regarding the “volume, checks and duration of the envisaged commitments.”
When he met Kerry privately, the French foreign minister made it clear that France can’t accept the deal as it stands and it must be changed.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources have learned that the French parliament is preparing legislation that would make ratification incumbent for any accord the P5+1 (US, France, UK, Russia, China and Germany) might conclude on the fate of Iran’s nuclear program. This French initiative would reflect government policy. However, the German Bundestag, less sure of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response, is making similar preparations more discreetly.
Both legislatures plan to follow the lead of the US senate.
Obama knew the way the wind was blowing in Tehran
As the president’s nuclear policy ran out of steam in Iran, Moscow and Europe, Republicans on Capitol Hill tried to kill it with a tough broadside.
The White House spokesman accused the group of 47 Republican senators of trying to upend diplomatic negotiations with a step that was “tantamount to rushing into war with Tehran.”
He was talking about the open letter the senators addressed to Tehran warning that to be binding and lasting, any accord or treaty must be ratified by a two-thirds Senate vote. Without this, the nuclear agreement would be nothing more than “an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei,” and could be revoked by the next president with “a stroke of the pen.”
Obama snapped back in person the next day by mocking the dissident senators as making "an unusual coalition" with Iran's hard-line religious leaders.
This comparison also betrayed the president’s awareness of the way the wind was blowing in Tehran, as well as Congress, where some Democrats share the view of their Republican colleagues.
A dissident Democrat is unworried by punishment
A leading critic of Obama’s Iran policy from his own party, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, found himself under an unexpected cloud, but promised to carry on business as usual.
On March 6, reports appeared that he is about to be indicted on corruption charges alleging he improperly used his office to benefit a friend and major donor Salomon Melgen. Asked by reporters if he was worried about his career, Menendez said: “I am not.” He also pointed out that he hadn’t been charged with anything – “so you guys are way ahead.”
No one on the Hill doubts that Menendez was targeted as a warning to back off from the initiatives he has led against what he sees as a bad deal with Iran. He promises not to be deterred. He told his friends that any investigation and indictment could take up to eighteen months to two years – or more – to draw up and by then, the president will be on his way out of the White House.
As for Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is following up on his speech to Congress. Next week, he sends the head of Military Intelligence (AMAN), Maj. Gen Hetzi Halevi, to Washington. He will hand US security officials a fresh intelligence update on the state of Iran’s nuclear program which, our sources report, includes data at variance with the information on which the Obama administration is basing its premises for an accord.