US Secretary of State John Kerry briefed EU foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton Sunday night, Oct. 13, on the areas of accord and discord quietly settled between the US and Iran. She had to be brought up to speed before meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif the next day, ahead of the P5+1 talks with Iran which she chairs in Geneva on Tuesday, Oct 15.
Both Kerry and the leading Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi set out their government’s official positions in public statements Sunday night. Neither can guarantee which or any parts of those statements will survive all the way to the end of the formal or the backdoor diplomatic processes.
The Secretary of State spoke of a window for diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program “cracking open” and said:“ …we believe no deal is better than a bad deal.”
Kerry will not have forgotten how his ringing pledge of an American military strike against Syria over its use of chemical weapons segued into the Pesident Barack Obama's decision to back down.
Araghchi ruled out Tehran sending any of its enriched uranium abroad as part of any deal to ease sanctions. In so saying, he directly contradicted an earlier comment by parliament Speaker Ali Larijani that Iran has more enriched uranium than it needs and should use it as a bargaining chip in talks with the West.
debkafile’s sources in Washington and Tehran report that 24 hours before the Geneva forum, no hard and fast decisions have been reached on final areas of accord and the proposals to be put on the table – either in Barack Obama’s tight circle of intimate advisers headed by chief of staff Denis McDonough, or in Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s bureau.
Both are held back by last-minute internal differences and uncertainties in their home bases. Major issues are expected to move up from Geneva to higher levels. Monday, Zarif confirmed the perception that no consensus was to be expected at the Geneva forum and the six foreign ministers would have to be convened to push a resolution forward.
As matters stand, debkafile can throw some light on five outstanding aspects:
1. As his contribution to bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion, i.e. an accord signed by all six powers, Barack Obama agreed in principle in backdoor exchanges that Iran’s nuclear program can continue, including the enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent purity.
Where the two sides parted ways was on quantities of enriched material and the type of centrifuges used for its manufacture.
2. President Obama is willing to accept the Iranian regime’s declaration that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes and the country has never engaged in weapons activity. He is even willing to fall for Iranian propaganda’s claim that Khamenei had issued a fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons, even through every Shiite authority says that Iran's supreme leader is not competent to issue religious edicts.
3. Khamenei himself is challenged by controversy at the top of his regime between hard-liners standing out for more concessions from the West and factions more amenable to compromise.
The influential Larijani was most likely talking for Khamenei when he offered the first authoritative signal that Tehran would consider the removal of part of its enriched uranium stocks from the country for the sake of an accord.
No sooner was his comment welcomed in Washington and European capitals as the first major breakthrough in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran, when senior negotiator Araghchi dumped a cold shower on their heads.
4. debkafile’s Iranian sources report that, for now, the hardliners are up in the seesaw rocking the Iranian regime. Their faction argues that since the United States has already agreed to let Iran continue to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, all that remains to be settled is a cap on the number of advanced high-speed IR2 centrifuges Iran is allowed to use. This ace, they say, is powerful enough to trump any arguments about the quantities of enriched fissile material Iran is allowed to retain and keep in the country.
5. Nothing remains of the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s four stipulations for accepting a nuclear accord with Iran. Not a vestige will reach the Geneva conference agenda after Washington brushed aside every one of those stipulations, which were: to halt uranium enrichment, remove enriched uranium stocks from Iran, shut down the Fordo underground enrichment plant and suspend construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak for the production of plutonium.
Secretary Kerry threw a bone to the Israeli government in his comment Sunday via satellite to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee summit in California: "I want you to know that our eyes are open, too. While we seek a peaceful resolution to Iran's nuclear program, words must be matched with actions. In any engagement with Iran, we are mindful of Israel's security needs."
Israelis strongly doubt whether any of the parties to a future deal on Iran’s nuclear program will match their words with actions.