Two Years of US-Iran Backchannel Talks Flop. Sanctions Lose Power
The breakdown of the long, frustrating and wearisome nuclear talks, to which six world powers and Iran have clung through thick and thin, will scarcely surprise watchers, certainly not the regular readers of DEBKA Weekly.
This publication consistently reported this past seven months that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had come down against diplomacy and forbidden Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Mohammad Zarif to enter into any substantial negotiations. Both were barred from making concessions on Iran’s nuclear program outside the terms of the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), inked November 24, 2013 in Geneva.
This fiasco also marks the bankruptcy of two years of secret back-channel dialogue between the administration of US President Barack Obama and the Iranian supreme leader.
After three days of hemming and hawing with his Iranian counterpart, the only comment US Secretary of State John Kerry was able to muster up July 15 in Vienna was that “tangible progress” had been made in the negotiations and that he would return to Washington to consult with Obama about whether or not to extend the Sunday, July 20, deadline for a final agreement.
Khamenei is dead against nuclear concessions
Kerry’s influence on Washington’s foreign policy is in steep decline. His attempt to keep up the charade that meaningful diplomacy with Tehran still lies ahead was mirrored by Zarif, who implied in an interview with the New York Times Sunday, July 13, that Tehran is prepared for further concessions if Washington does the same.
This was no more than a transparent play for a good press ahead of another aimless talking session.
The hands of Zarif like President Rouhani were tied firmly by Khamenei, when he announced publicly on July 7 that his country must significantly expand its uranium enrichment capacity, if it is to meet its long-term energy needs.
In an unusually detailed speech on Iran’s nuclear program and the challenges it faces, Khamenei conceded that Iran did not need to increase capacity immediately, but made it clear that his government sought the right to carry out industrial-scale enrichment in order to be self-sufficient in nuclear fuel for its research reactors and for the Russian-built power station at Bushehr.
“On the issue of enrichment capacity," Khamenei said, "their [the West's] aim is to make Iran accept 10,000 SWU [Separative Work Units]. Our officials say we need 190,000 SWU. We might not need this [capacity] this year or in the next two or five years, but this is our absolute need and we need to meet this need."
The pro-diplomacy Rouhani and Zarif have outlived their worth
Khamenei used technical language and references to “civilian power” to convey his flat opposition to any restrictions on Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium or sacrifice a single centrifuge. Washington finally took a stand against leaving Iran in possession of 15,000 centrifuges, on the grounds that they would leapfrog its advance to a nuclear bomb.
Despite this major gap, Washington is expected to insist that the back-channel with Tehran is still open and that a deal is still attainable at the formal P5+1 versus Iran forum.
None of this will affect Iran’s supreme leader's adamant rejection of any concessions for the sake of a comprehensive nuclear deal. He will also place Rouhani and Zarif in deep freeze, along with their argument that Iran must pay for the lifting of sanctions to rescue its struggling economy in the coin of a let-up on its nuclear aspirations.
The fact is that he longer needs the two pro-diplomacy figures, whose emergence caused so much optimism and gulled the West into trusting that Tehran was finally amenable to a reasonable deal on its nuclear program.
Iran beats the US at the sanctions game
In an insightful analysis of US-Iran relations and the sanctions regime, Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute think tank, deemed the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations and easing of sanctions a failure.
In a piece entitled “Iran Can Afford to Say No to a Nuclear Deal,” the director of the Iran Security Initiative writes that Tehran has manipulated the Obama administration into lifting some economic restrictions in order to maneuver itself into economic stability and cover its budget deficit.
Iran has learned to live with the new sanctions, Clawson writes: "Having taken the tough measures to adjust to the sanctions shock, Iran is relatively well positioned to resume growth – even if the current sanctions remain in place… The prospects are that if the sanctions remain in place, Iran's economy will grow at about the same pace as the US economy… Iran's solid if unspectacular economic growth looks pretty good, especially in comparison to the mess next door in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The latest deadline is around the corner, and years of back and forth and hush-hush interaction with the Iranians have brought Obama next to no dividends for giving Iran a measure of economic stability and political empowerment.