US and Iranian officials have plunged into a last-ditch effort to rescue their nuclear negotiations from falling into deep crisis. Some Western observers have told debkafile’s Washington and Tehran sources that the talks are beyond saving.
The top-level negotiators rushed post-haste to Geneva over the weekend are: US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to join US Secretary of State John Kerry; and on the Iranian side, Nuclear Energy Commission Chief Ali Akbar Salehi and the president’s brother Hossein Fereydoon. They will flank Foreign Minister Mohamed Javaz Zarif.
The Obama administration appears to have reached the limit of its concession to Tehran – for now. As for the Iranians, they too are holding out against US demands to cut down on the number of centrifuges actively enriching uranium and impose a cap on their enriched stocks. Tehran also rejects the US proposal to lift sanctions in stages spaced over several years and wants fast relief.
Kerry was referring to these differences in the gloomy remarks he made to reporters Saturday, Feb. 21.
“There are still significant gaps, there is still a distance to travel,” he said, and went on to warn that “President Obama has no inclination whatsoever to extend these talks beyond the period that has been set out.”
The US Secretary went on to say that there is “absolutely no divergence whatsoever in what we believe is necessary for Iran to prove that its nuclear program is going to be peaceful.”
debkafile’s analysts offer four comments on the approaching impasse:
1. It is not clear whether the Obama administration is attempting a spot of muscle-flexing to force supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to blink first and sign the draft which Kerry and Zarif completed last month. There is little chance of the tough Iranian leader buckling under.
2. The Obama administration looks as though it has come to the outer limit of its indulgence in the bargaining with Tehran. If anything more is to be offered, it will be mere minor adjustments.
3. President Obama may have come to terms with the possible breakdown of the long and painful nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
4. Whether or not the negotiations continue, Tehran will be required to finally face up to questions put by the International Atomic Energy Agency about the suspected military dimensions of its nuclear program – which Tehran denies – and the secret testing of nuclear bomb components. However, the Iranians will almost certainly continue to stonewall the IAEA. And if anyone gives way on this, it is likely to be Washington – if that is what it takes to save the nuclear deal with Tehran.
debkafile’s Iranian sources disclose that President Hassan Rouhani sent his brother to Geneva with a special message. He was to warn the Obama administration that the failure of nuclear negotiations would put his brother’s presidency, which the West regards as “moderate,” in danger of being ousted.
Another message Hossein Fereydoon carried to Geneva was that Tehran rejects the two-phase timeline proposed by the Americans for an accord – March 24 for an agreement in principle and the end of June for the final, comprehensive document – and insists on one deadline in June.
The strong head of steam building up ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to both houses of Congress on March 3 has become another complicating factor.
Netanyahu argues that the provisions already endorsed by the White House and Rouhani would confirm Iran as a pre-nuclear power and let it retain the capacity for the future production of dozens of nuclear bombs.
The Obama administration’s reply to this accusation addresses the future, and rests on the proposition that the only obstacle to a nuclear accord at present is Ayatollah Khamenei. Since he has reached the age of 75, he won’t be around when the nuclear accord – which may or may not take effect – runs out.
This argument goes on to maintain that, by the time Khamenei gives up the ghost, a new, enlightened Iranian generation will have taken over at the helm of the regime, and they will be smart enough not gamble with the economic prosperity which Iran is destined to enjoy as a result of its profitable and friendly relations with the US and Europe.
The new generation of Iranian leaders, as envisaged by Washington, will turn its back on the Khamenei formulation that the Islamic Republic needs nuclear power to guarantee its regional status and national security.
In Israel’s view, this rosy prediction has no legs. No one in Washington can tell who will be in power in Tehran at the end of a decade. For all anyone knows, Khamenei could be replaced by still more rabid extremists. In the meantime, while the various prognoses are debated, Tehran will move forward and arm itself with a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu maintains.
All these moves have placed the US, Iran and Israel in a three-way race. The trouble is that each of the runners is aiming for a different finishing line. The Obama administration wants a nuclear deal in the bag by March 31, with only a few minutiae left over for June; Tehran wants to skip March and work on getting more concessions for an advantageous deal to be concluded in June; while Israel’s Netanyahu is fighting to pre-empt the accord – such as it is, based on the draft the US and Iran have already concluded between them.