For Iran, the offer of negotiations by the group of five permanent UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany was an open invitation to extort concessions as the price for its participation. The suggestion (half-denied in Washington) that the US could back down from its demand for Iran to give up uranium enrichment as a pre-condition for talks was not seen as a mark of generosity to be reciprocated in kind, but an opening for squeezing more concessions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian experts say Tehran is busy scoring enough points ahead of the talks to tip the scales of the forthcoming diplomatic engagement against its initiators, notably US president Barack Obama.
Iran's top officials have made their strategy abundantly clear.
Wednesday, April 15, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad crowed: “Iran's resistance and progress in nuclear technology forced Washington to retreat from its position…” He announced contemptuously that Tehran was preparing a “new package” in response to the US, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia's proposals for negotiations and “When it is ready we will present it to you.”
In other words, Tehran means to dictate the ground rules for those talks, overruling in advance the unsatisfactory package of diplomatic and economic incentives on offer from the six powers.
The suggestion that Iran would be allowed to continue enriching uranium, first reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly on April 4, was carried by the New York Times on April 13, along with the report that the Obama administration and European countries would press Tehran to open up its nuclear program gradually to wide-ranging inspection.
Washington's bargaining leverage whittled down
But between the lines of the NYT report, it is evident that, after giving Tehran a free hand on enrichment (and not just during negotiations), Washington has been “rewarded” with a fresh round of unpublished Iranian pre-conditions for talks, backed by Moscow and Beijing. Those stipulations were submitted to the White House Sunday, April 12, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report, and consisted of the following:
1. US acceptance of continuing uranium enrichment (banned repeatedly by the UN Security Council since 2006) must extend to other parts of Iran's nuclear program.
This demand was underscored by a proclamation in parliament (Majlis) on April 12 by the Speaker Ali Larijani, who said:
“The Iranian government will conduct international negotiations on the nuclear issue only according to guidelines approved by parliament and under its close supervision.”
2. Larijani then stated: “The proposal by some members of the 5+1 group calling for more intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear activities is not legal.”
According to our Iranian sources, Larijani was referencing a law adopted by the Iranian Majlis in 2007, which prohibits the cessation of uranium enrichment and bars any Iranian official from making concessions on the national nuclear program.
The Iranian parliament will therefore be leaning heavily on its nuclear negotiators to keep them in line and have the final say on how far they may go in meeting demands from the opposite side. Washington's bargaining leverage is thus whittled down to a bare minimum.
3. The next day, Monday April 13, Saeed Jalili, the senior Iranian negotiator and head of the Iranian National Security Council, phoned European foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana, to convey his government's consent to negotiations with the 5+1 group.
But Tehran has clearly limited the area of discussion in advance: Halting uranium enrichment and changes in Iran's nuclear program are not open to discussion. These changes include the plutonium-producing heavy water reactor under construction at Arak, the key factor in Iran's “Plan B”, which focuses on the assembly of plutonium-based nuclear weapons.
Moscow and Tehran align
Since Tehran has never admitted to running a military nuclear program, any agreements concluded at the negotiations would not apply to Iran's cladestine projects. To underline this typical Iranian rationale, Larijani emphasized that any demands to open Iran's nuclear facilities to inspection would be “intrusive” and “illegal.”
This neatly disposed of a key demand planned by the US and Europe to open up Iran's nuclear projects to wider international inspection.
A significant new development brought out by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources is the meeting of minds accomplished last week-end between Iran and the Kremlin on tactics vis-a-vis Obama administration policies.
The resulting shift in Moscow's position colored Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks on April 11, the day before Larijani's statement, to the Foreign Policy and Defense Council of Russia:
“Relations between Russia and its neighbor Iran are expanding at a high speed,” he said. The problematic aspects of Iran's nuclear activities were dismissed as “ambiguities” over their “peaceful nature,” which, he said, Russia had spared no effort to remove.
Lavrov's audience consisted of the most influential shapers of Russia's military and foreign policies, all fully conversant with the intelligence take on Iran's activities. He therefore made a point of emphasizing that the Kremlin did not intend to be left trailing behind Washington's efforts to thaw relations with the Islamic Republic and was therefore expanding its relations with Tehran at “high speed.”
His reference to the “ambiguities” remaining in the “peaceful nature” of Iran's program, affirmed that Moscow was reverting to the position held in its long argument with Washington that the military nature of Iran's nuclear program had never been proven, any more than its ambition to build an atom bomb.
No military program? So no problem
These comments led Russian foreign minister to conclude that the sanctions imposed against Iran were not only unjustified but ran contrary to the agreements signed by Moscow with both Washington and Tehran: “Pressure on Iran has exceeded beyond our agreements with our partners,” he said.
In keeping with his posture of denial, Lavrov predetermined the outcome of the proposed nuclear dialogue between the 5+1 group led by the US, and Iran with his next words: “We must stress that after the removal of existing ambiguities, Iran will enjoy equal rights with other members of the Non Proliferation Treaty.”
Lavrov clearly echoed Tehran's position that the West had no right to impose new restrictions on Iran, but was obliged rather to mend past injustices. Therefore, the parties engaging in talks with Iran would have no choice but to acknowledge the Islamic Republic as a nuclear power with exactly the same rights as the US, Russia, China, France and the UK.
In further comments, the Russian Foreign Minister disavowed any linkage between the planned US missile shield in East Europe and Iran’s drive for a nuclear bomb – taking issue with Obama's declaration in Prague that once the Iranian nuclear issue was resolved, the US would no longer need missiles in Europe.
Lavrov relegated the deployment of US missile systems in East Europe to the bilateral offensive strategic weapons accords between Russia and America dating from the Cold War. Having dismissed the possibility of the Islamic Republic running a nuclear weapons program, the Russian foreign minister saw no threat arising from ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads from Iran to Europe.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that Tehran never believed it could score so high against Washington even before negotiations got started. The Iranians have found they can push the Obama administration into accepting their nuclear program in its current form and, moreover, joining the ayatollahs in a protracted diplomatic dialogue that could go on for years, giving them ample time to build up an impressive arsenal of nuclear warheads.