All hands on board the project for proving that Iran is amenable to dialogue and concessions on its nuclear program worked overtime this week to mask the truth, which is that negotiations were going nowhere.
On May 21, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, for instance, said “The nuclear negotiation is progressing and is on the threshold of reaching a conclusion."
On May 23, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported that the nuclear stockpile left to Iran after most of its enriched material, 80 percent, had been either converted or diluted “was far below the 250 kg which experts say is needed for one nuclear bomb.”
In other words, the IAEA was affirming that Tehran had lived up to the commitments it undertook in last November’s interim nuclear accord.
But the agency report was careful to edit out the negative side of the picture, which is: Iran is left with a stockpile of 3.5 tons of lower-grade 5.3 percent enriched uranium, which can quickly be enriched further to 20 percent grade. It would then be sufficient to produce 5-7 nuclear bombs. Dilution of the higher grade material is moreover reversible and could provide fuel for another bomb.
But the 80 percent figure captured the headlines of the world media and usefully fueled the show of optimism surrounding the stalled nuclear talks with Iran.
For more than a year, debkafile has been following the back-channel talks the Obama administration has kept going with Tehran through a hub in the Omani capital of Muscat. They have been handled by Undersecretary of State William Burns and Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sulllivan. Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two diplomats were told to give this track “a last push” this summer, in order to bring it to a successful conclusion in time for the July deadline.
But nothing has gone according to plan.
The mid-May round of six-power talks with Iran in Vienna broke up without assent on essential points. The gaps between Washington and Tehran on the two tracks, the official one in Vienna and the private one through Muscat, are widening instead of closing.
In Tehran itself, the omnipotent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has clipped the wings of the pro-diplomacy President Rouhani and curtailed his leeway for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.
A severe crisis in relations is also developing between Washington and Jerusalem over dissonant approaches to Iran’s nuclear advances, its ballistic missile arsenal and the Islamic Republic’s Middle East designs.
Because of all these constraints, the Obama administration in the last week of April reached two important decisions:
1. To postpone the deadline for a final nuclear accord with Iran from July 2014 to January 15, 2015 – possibly not for the last time – a delay which is viewed by Israel as extremely problematic.
The commitment undertaken by Tehran under the November interim accord – not to use its advanced IR2 centrifuges for rapid uranium enrichment – was valid for only six months, during which a final agreement was supposed to have been negotiated to take its place.
Therefore, the discussions conducted in the current rounds of talks on the number of centrifuges and the amount of enriched uranium Iran is allowed to stockpile are meaningless. Once the extra-fast centrifuges are spinning, neither Washington nor Jerusalem can tell any longer how much enriched material the Iranians are producing.
debkafile’s military sources quote the Israeli experts involved in national policy-making on Iran as determining that, with the diplomatic track dragging into limbo and Iran off the hook of its interim commitments, Tehran will be able to reach the nuclear threshold in two to three months’ time, i.e. by July-August.
2. In a move to dissuade Israel from resorting to military action to curb this process, the White House is drafting legislature that would empower the president to use force against Iran without referring back to Congress, if Tehran was found cheating on its nuclear commitments.
No one in Washington or Tehran believes President Barack will actually use military force against Iran. However, prior congressional endorsement of his military option might, Obama hopes, hold Israel back and provide extra leverage in the negotiations with Iran, which he is determined to continue notwithstanding their futility.