The brittleness of the first-step nuclear accord with Iran was apparent just 24 hours after it was signed with a flourish by the six powers in Geneva Sunday, Nov. 24, after four days of fierce haggling.
Monday, the day after, President Barack Obama addressed the world triumphantly from San Francisco: “Huge challenges remain, but we cannot close the door on diplomacy, and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. We cannot commit ourselves to an endless cycle of violence and tough talk and bluster (a dig at Binyamin Netanyahu) may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security.”
But the next day, Iranian Foreign Minister spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham publicly accused the White House of lying about the accord.
“What has been released by the White House website as a fact sheet is a one-sided interpretation of the agreed text in Geneva and, in some of the explanations and words in the sheet, contradicted the text of the Joint Plan of Action.”
Speaking on the authority of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who signed the accord in Geneva, she went on to accuse the White House of releasing “a factually inaccurate primer” to “mislead the American public.” Therefore, she said, the deal is “invalid.”
Iran not yet obliged to start six-month nuclear freeze
Following this up, the BBC reported that “US officials are still staying mum about when exactly the final deal was struck” and went on to say: “The White House itself confirmed that the final details of the plan have yet to be worked out, meaning that Iran is not yet beholden to a six-month freeze on its nuclear activities.”
Then, pouring more fuel, Zarif himself announced Wednesday, Nov. 27, that Iran will pursue construction at the Arak heavy water reactor, despite its commitment under the new deal to shelve a project capable of yielding plutonium for nuclear weapons.
This consent was presented by President Obama on the day of signing as one of the two most important Iranian concessions. France responded that the Iranian minister’s remark was a violation of the accord. Nonetheless, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she wasn’t sure what Zarif meant but road or building work might be allowable.
The next day, US sources tried to clear up the confusion by explaining its opposition to a heavy-water reactor at Arak, rather than just a halt in supplies for it: Because this reactor would generate plutonium that could be used for a bomb. This is seen as dangerous and unnecessary for a civilian program.
Given the cracks in this early stage of nuclear diplomacy with Tehran, how come the Obama administration was so quick to release $8 billion of Iranian assets frozen in US banks, before Iran had even owned up to any obligation to start freezing its nuclear activities?
The extravagant hugs and congratulations traded by the Geneva negotiators Sunday morning and the general ballyhoo are turning out to have been premature. This raises three hard questions:
Zarif maneuvers for less commitments and a better deal
1. What document was signed in Geneva? The version released by the White House (http://washin.st/1928gPM) is rejected by Tehran as a “one-sided interpretation,” while the BBC, which must have consulted the knowledgeable Foreign Secretary William Hague who was there, asserts that “the final details of the plan have yet to be worked out…”
2. Does Iran have a second version of the accord different from the American one? Tehran’s suggestion that the White House version is “not true” and “one-sided” points to that assumption. If a second version does exist, Tehran has never offered to share it with the public or release its own interpretation of the document to challenge the Washington text.
3. So what exactly was negotiated in Geneva? A formal agreement or a set of confidential parallel understandings reached privately between Washington and Tehran over and above the published document?
One key to these mysteries, according to the input DEBKA Weekly has gathered from its intelligence, Washington and Iranian sources, falls in the realm of political manipulation.
The highly inventive Iranian foreign minister Zarif decided to drive through the gap of the unfinished plan and show his hard-line critics that he had not given away as much as they suspected in Geneva; specifically, he had not signed off onto a halt in 20-percent enriched uranium or the suspension of construction at Arak on the heavy water reactor.
Moreover, he is trying to use the time lag to twist the still unfinished details into more advantageous shapes and maneuver for more delay.
(More about Iranian opposition plans to derail the accord in the next article.)
Obama’s can’t-refuse offer to Iran
Washington’s answer to this fresh Iranian maneuver was an offer which the Obama administration believed Tehran, with its fierce hunger for national respect, couldn’t refuse, namely, the status of seventh world power as the prize for meeting its obligations under the six-month interim nuclear accord and cooperation in negotiating a comprehensive agreement next May.
The Obama administration further oiled the wheels by releasing on the spot some US sanctions without waiting for Iranian compliance.
Washington expected the ayatollahs to be awed into nuclear flexibility by admittance to the elite club of leading world powers, as the recognized arbiter in a broad region spanning the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and Western Asia, including Afghanistan. It was further spiced with the offer of a role for Tehran in major decisions on the Palestinian issue.
Secretary of State John Kerry quickly put the proposal into practice by getting together with Foreign Minister Zarif to form six US-Iranian working panels for secret sessions that would be conducted in Muscat, capital of Oman.
(Certain US media suddenly this week claimed to have broken the news of a secret track used by President Obama for secret negotiations with Tehran through Oman’s Sultan Qaboos. In fact, debkafile and DEBKA Weekly first uncovered the Qaboos track on Aug. 26, 2013 and were on the trail of back-channel communications between Washington and Tehran as early as Jan.26, 2012, more than a year ago.)
Washington sanctifies Iranian-Russian cooperation
Immediately after signing the first-step nuclear accord, Iran was therefore showered with American largesse: billions of dollars arrived to prop up its tottering economy and a strong say with world-class authority was conferred for current international issues. And that was just for starters. More benefits were waiting down the road for a final agreement on its nuclear program.
The Obama administration has made a high-stakes gamble, counting on its rapprochement with Tehran evolving to a point where Iran cannot go back on nuclear understandings. For now, despite White House pretensions, those understandings are only promised but not yet delivered.
The six joint US-Iranian panels have been assigned the following spheres:
- Afghanistan: The White House is working on setting up a coalition with Russia and Iran for a joint effort, including military action, to obstruct Taliban’s path to its restoration to power in Kabul upon President Hamid Karzai’s retirement. Won’t they avoid the Afghan quagmire like the plague, especially after the USSR’s unfortunate experience there thirty years ago? The Obama administration thinks not: Moscow and Tehran will have learned from their shared military intervention in the Syrian war that their accreditation as potent world powers is predicated on their engagement in foreign adventures.
- Syria. Obama reckons that the joint panels can get both sides of the conflict to lay down arms by drying up both their sources of munitions – the Syrian army and the different rebel forces alike.
The administration hopes to persuade Moscow and Iran to stop sending Bashar Assad’s army arms, ammunition and fuel and to eventually persuade Saudi Arabia, the only power now furnishing some of the militias with weapons, to suspend this assistance.
It is calculated in Washington that Riyadh has by now grasped that its Syrian venture is a flop and will use the international initiative to disentangle itself from a lost cause.
DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East sources doubt whether this is how the Saudis see their Syrian effort.
The Saudis won’t let Iran return as policeman of the Gulf
- Lebanon. US officials believe it is urgent to replace the rickety arrangements in Beirut with a solid national salvation government. Cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia is deemed essential for preventing Lebanon’s further descent into instability. The first US approach for cooperation was addressed to Tehran, a move which gave rise to rumors of direct US talks with the Shiite terrorist organization, Hizballah.
- Persian Gulf. One of the special US-Iranian panels was to work on mending fences between Tehran and the emirates, with the strongest accent on Saudi Arabia; its ally Bahrain will the top its agenda.
Seen from the Arabian Gulf, this move will make Iran the policeman of the Gulf, a position it held in the 1970s. This is the part of the secret understandings between Washington and Tehran which has most inflamed the Saudis against the Obama administration and stirred the royal house to announce an independent foreign policy henceforth.
- Northern Indian Ocean. This vast region extends from the Gulf of Aden, past the Horn of Africa and ending at the Seychelles. The administration is offering to join forces with Tehran to suppress al Qaeda activities and marine piracy, an issue which has been off the front pages for some time but is still very much alive.
Netanyahu won’t give Iran a seat at the talks
- The Palestinian issue: By bringing Tehran into the US-sponsored peace process ongoing between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama hopes to tie Iranian hands against derailing the administrations next steps by using its terrorist allies and surrogates, such as the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to make trouble.
The Saudis were not alone in hitting the ceiling over the senior strategic role Obama is handing out to Iran in the region. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can’t abide the thought of facing a united American-Iranian panel standing over Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians.
On the face of it, the Obama administration has been moved by Israel and Saudi indignation over its new plans for the region and Tehran’s elevation and is trying to appease them both, as will be seen in the next articles.