Even before the third round of talks resumed in Vienna Tuesday, April 8, between the Six Powers and Iran, US, Iranian and European sources showed every confidence that a final comprehensive accord for resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program would be ready for drafting in two weeks and signed well before the July 20 deadline.
Four days earlier, American officials were saying with utter certainty that no second interim deal would be necessary to plug the holes remaining in the first one after it was concluded last November.
Indeed, the Obama administration tipped the wink to certain European prime ministers through private channels that Washington and Tehran had wrapped up the deal on the quiet and the Vienna talks were just for show. This message went through private channels since the governments concerned run spies in Iran.
Emerging from the two-day session, Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif reflected this confidence, announcing that he and the six powers had already reached the halfway stage of negotiations on a comprehensive accord, with over 50-60 percent of the issues in the bag. Drafting of the final version could take place at the next round on May 13, he said, adding, “Nothing could be imposed on Iran regarding its nuclear activities.”
So where did all this optimism spring from?
Obama wants to give Rouhani and Zarif kudos of success
DEBKA Weekly's sources evaluate the Obama administration's impetus as deriving from the following considerations:
1. A desire to boost President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammed Zarif in Tehran – not just versus the hard-line Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) but also in relation to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The thinking of US administration strategists goes like this: The chances are very slim that Iran will actually comply with the deal in view of Revolutionary Guards resistance. (See a separate item in this issue on infighting in Tehran). So why not give Rouhani and Zarif the kudos of a successful deal in Vienna accompanied by sanctions relief? This would keep the direct Tehran-Washington channel open and running, to both their benefit.
No one in Tehran any longer seeks to burn this channel, including even the IRGC – at least until the bulk of the sanctions are removed. The Iranians are so strapped for cash that they are as eager for a deal as the Americans.
Khamenei himself said Iran should continue the talks with the world powers on Wednesday to "break the hostile atmosphere" with the international community, although he insisted that Iran must not “cede any of the gains made by its nuclear program.”
Tackling the Arak reactor to duck Iran’s nuclear weapons issue
2. The quantity of enriched uranium permissible and the fate of the Arak heavy water reactor are the two issues still outstanding between the US and Iran. But neither is consequential enough to delay the final accord. The Obama administration is determined to overlook the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, including its ballistic missile arsenal, so as not to run up against Khamenei’s prohibition on “bargaining away Iran’s nuclear achievements.”
To silence critics, US negotiators have filled the nuclear weapons blank in the agenda with concern about the the Arak reactor.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon pointed to that omission when he commented Monday, April 7, that Israel is concerned that the talks haven't yet addressed Tehran's military nuclear program and its delivery capability – i.e. ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads.
Washington is buying the Islamic Republic’s repeated claim that developing nuclear weapons would run contrary to its religious precepts and the fatwas (edicts) they claim Khamenei has issued. The White House is not guided by naïve belief, but convenience: Barack Obama is determined to sit on the status quo until he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
The Arak reactor and its capacity to produce plutonium are merely a device for tucking Iran’s weapons program away in a bottom drawer.
Obama agrees to raise Iran’s weapons projects – but not dismantle them
In an effort to shut down Israeli and Saudi protests, the Obama administration agreed to raise the nuclear weapons issue at the next round of negotiations next month – without, however, promising any steps to get Iran’s military projects dismantled or even challenge Tehran’s pretence that its program has no military dimensions.
3. The second issue remaining to be settled, the amount of low-grade enriched uranium Iran will be permitted to stock, is as irrelevant as the Arak reactor to Iran’s weapons capacity. Tehran has secretly stocked already enough fissile material to assemble 4-6 nuclear bombs in short order once the supreme leader gives the go-ahead.
US Secretary of State John Kerry practically admitted as much when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday: “It would take Iran just two months to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.” He was offering a downbeat assessment of efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
In these circumstances, the quantity of low-grade uranium that can be enhanced to weapons grade hardly matters.
The only ray of hope for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other concerned Gulf governments is that most of the tough sanctions imposed on Iran are still in place, except for the Iranian assets unfrozen in blocked accounts in the West.
The empty Iranian treasury is the last Western lever
The emptiness of the Iranian treasury is the last remaining lever against Tehran – if effectively applied.
The report circulated by Saudi sources Wednesday, April 9 that Tehran had cut off funding for Hizballah because it was broke was a clever piece of disinformation – but neither here nor there. According to the report, Hizballah ran into trouble for financing its participation in Bashar Assad’s war on Syrian rebels, after President Rouhani cut off funds. Ayatollah Khamenei was reported as countermanding the president’s order. To no effect, say our Iranian sources, because the money has run out.
(See the separate item on Iran).
This situation galvanized Tehran into expediting a $50 billion barter transaction with Moscow for 550,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day traded for Russian equipment, foods and medicines. US officials pretend to known nothing about it, while other Western sources say it is no go because there are no direct pipelines between Iran and Russia.
This deal while bypassing the international embargo on Iran’s oil exports won’t immediately release a surge of currency into Iran’s empty exchequer, but Moscow would have the option of keeping the purchased oil in Iran as a Russian strategic reserve and then selling it directly to a third party.
Ukraine crisis repercussions are unavoidable
More relevant are the potential repercussions on the nuclear negotiations from the discord between the US and Russia over Ukraine. (See a separate item on the Ukrainian crisis).
If Russia invades the big insurrectionist pro-Russian towns of Kharkiv and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine after taking Crimea, the US will clamp more sanctions down on Russia. An outbreak of civil war in this troubled region would place the US and Russian on opposite sides, both militarily and diplomatically. The conflict has the potential for sending violent shoots out to broader regions such as the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The standoff between the two powers would also bear on the outcome of the Syrian civil war.
With all this happening, it is hard to imagine that the path to a comprehensive pact on Iran’s nuclear program will stay as smooth and expeditious as hoped for in Washington and Tehran.