Monday, November 25, 2013

UPDATED TIP backgrounder on Iran talks

President Barack Obama’s stated goal for Phase 1 interim deal was that, during the six month interim period,  the Iranians could not conduct work “ advancing their program” (link). A deal should have ensured, in other words, that six months from now Iran would be farther away from a nuclear weapon than they are today, all the while leaving the U.S. with enough to bargain.

There is heated debate over whether the substance of the deal accomplished the President’s Phase 1 objectives. The New York Times (NYT) evaluated that “the deal does not roll back the vast majority of the advances Iran has made in the past five years,” and that the sum of Iran’s concessions would slow Iran’s breakout time by “only a month to a few months” according to U.S. intelligence estimates (link).

Meanwhile, gesturing toward the debate over the asymmetric structure of the deal, David Frum contrasted what the NYT headlined as “modest” Iranian concessions with how “Iran gets the money now” (link). Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was quoted this morning by Bloomberg assessing that in exchange Iran will get financial relief ultimately worth $20 billion (link). Meanwhile there are fears that the U.S.’s weakening of the sanctions trigger an irreversible downward spiral that shreds the entire sanctions regime.

[A] The substance of the deal – Iran’s interpretation of key clauses and concessions will likely complicate efforts to secure a comprehensive deal, deepening concerns that Tehran intends to pocket the interim concessions and walk away. Patrick Clawson and Mehdi Khalaji, respectively the director of research and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, had already raised alarms weeks ago that “Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises — the same reasons he gave for walking away from the earlier nuclear deals” (link).

·         “Right” to enrich: Iran’s leaders and media immediately boasted that the U.S. had caved on its long-standing policy and acknowledged that Iran has a right to enrich uranium. Iranian state media carrying  statements by among others both Iranian Foreign Minister Javad  Zarif  and  President Hassan Rouhani (link and link). The issue is a critical one, since a final agreement that allows Iran to continue spinning centrifuges would leave the regime with the ambiguity it needs to dash across the nuclear finish line, and would in any case mean the U.S. had given up on enforcing the half dozen U.S.-backed resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) calling on Tehran to suspend its nuclear program.  The U.S. and Britain both flatly denied Iran’s interpretation of the interim language with Secretary of State John Kerry saying as much and the White House further denying it on a late-night background call (link and  link and link). But the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake bluntly evaluated that Iran “finally got the world’s great powers to sign a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium” (link) while the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted that the text of the agreement had the West conceding that Tehran will “have an enrichment capacity in a final settlement” (link and link). Specifically, the language of the deal describes a future comprehensive solution as involving “a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.” The consequences for future negotiations are enormous: it is difficult to see how a comprehensive solution will move past the differing interpretations. The U.S. will either have to get Iran to change its position, which will be difficult because Iranian leaders are trumpeting the recognition as a core victory, or the U.S. will have to concede Iran’s position, abrogating administration assurances and giving up on UNSC resolutions. October 3 testimony provided by to the Senate by lead U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, for example, included the explicit statement that “the President has circumscribed what he means by the Iranian people having access… access, not right, but access to peaceful nuclear energy in the context of meeting its obligations” (link).

·         Uranium: The interim deal allows Iran to continue enriching to 5% purity and continue constructing centrifuges to replace damaged ones, in exchange for which it will increase transparency and – regarding its stock of 20% pure material –either dilute that material back to 5% or convert it into oxide fuel. Analysts and U.S. allies have been skeptical of such concessions in the past, because the process of converting 20% enriched uranium to oxide can be easily reversed, with the material reconverted to uranium hexafluoride and enriched from there. The only way to put it beyond use is to actually irradiate the stock, but Iran doesn’t have the capacity to do that, even if the regime wanted to (link). Instead the stock will sit there waiting to be reconverted, a process that even analysts supportive of the interim agreement have calculated can be done in one or two weeks (link). Danielle Pletka, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at American Enterprise Institute, has assessed that inasmuch as “every single step is reversible, every single step will have no meaningful impact on Iran’s capacity to produce a nuclear weapon within weeks or months” (link). Experts from the University of Virginia and he U. S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) recently warned that Iran can sneak across the nuclear finish line using only its existing capacity and its stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium (link [PDF]) – they don’t even need their 20% enriched stockpile, and the analysis is independent of the construction of new centrifuges. Allowing the regime to continue constructing centrifuges had been a critical question, since the new centrifuges could have been installed at the end of the six month period and used to quickly recreate whatever material had been given up in the meantime. The new agreement specifies that Iran’s centrifuge construction “will be dedicated to replace damaged machines,” which the White House says will prevent the regime from using the six months to stockpile centrifuges (link and link). Analysts will welcome that concession as a win provided the interpretation is confirmed.

[B] The structure of the deal – the asymmetrical structure of the concessions – Iranian concessions are reversible, P5+1 concessions are not – gives Iran an incentive to walk away rather than continue negotiating. The structure also means that the West can’t make progress in future negotiations or extract more concessions: instead Iran will be able to trade the same concessions over and over again by threatening to backslide: they may ask for further concessions lest they restart centrifuges, bring enrichment up to 20%, etc..

·         U.S. concessions are irreversible – Most straightforwardly, Iran will get to pocket the financial relief they get, using it to stabilize the Iranian economy, bolster its nuclear program, and fund its global terror network. The arguably more significant danger, however, is that chipping away at the sanctions regime completely shatters it: Iran would use the short-term financial injection to bide its time, waiting for a further deterioration of the sanctions regime. There are multiple scenarios under which the limited sanctions relief provided by the interim agreement would trigger a downward spiral that irreversibly and substantially erodes the regime. The most immediate fear is that major powers and corporations will engage in a feeding frenzy: no one wants to be left behind as Iran’s market opens up, and so everyone tries to get in first. Pletka emphasized today how the deal erodes the broader environment required for international sanctions to work, assessing that “the reversal in momentum for sanctions and the loss of the psychology of impenetrable sanctions is of immeasurable value to Tehran” (link). Brookings Institute fellow Michael Doran earlier this week pointed to evidence that such a downward spiral was already beginning, with Paris looking to reopen a trade-related attaché office in Tehran next year (link). Dubowitz was briefed a few weeks ago by the White House specifically on the question of whether U.S. concessions would be reversible, and he nonetheless assessed that the broad contours of proposed deals “totally eviscerates the sanctions regime” (link).

·         Iranian concessions are reversible – The Obama administration and its allies are emphasizing that the interim deal is largely designed to “freeze” rather than “reverse” Iran’s nuclear program. The regime won’t be forced to dismantle their centrifuges, such that at the end of six months they can just turn them back on. It will be allowed to continue constructing centrifuges to replace old ones, such that – at best for the West – Iran will be allowed to pick up exactly where they left off.

[C] Domestic consequences within Iran – Putting aside what Iran will be able to do across its borders, there are pitched concerns over the effects that a deal, let alone nuclear weapons acquisition, would have on Iran’s human rights policy – Significant human rights abuses have continued, and in many cases have even deepened, since the recent election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Analysts fear that a broad deal with Iran will legitimize the regime, even if it puts off Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition by months or even years.

·         Since the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani in August, the regime executed over 200 individuals (link). Over 30 people were executed in a ten day span in late October and early November (link). In late October, and in violation of international law, the regime quickly executed 16 Baluchi prisoners in retaliation for their alleged “support” of an attack by separate Baluchi insurgents on an Iranian border station that left 14 border guards dead (link). In October, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center said that Iran is on pace for over 500 state executions this year (link). Also, in October, the regime hanged a 37 father of two, for a second time, after he survived his first hanging attempt. He was sentenced to death for a drug charge (link). While President Rouhani was at the UNGA in September, Iran executed over 30 Iranians without due process (link). Over 80 individuals were in the weeks immediately following the June election of Rouhani (link).

·         In mid-October, the Revolutionary Guard Iran raided a party in the city of Kermanshah and arrested 75 people as part of a network of ‘satanists and homosexuals.’ Twenty of the individuals will be charged and face the death penalty if convicted (link). In October 2012, Ali Larijani, the chairman of the Iranian Parliament, said that homosexuality is “modern western Barbarism” (link). In May 2012, the regime executed four individuals for sodomy (link).

·         In mid-October Ahmad Khatami a senior member of the Iranian Assembly of Experts, told the regime not to negotiate on the nuclear issue because progress on that topic could lead the international community to pressure Iran to recognize rights for women (link). Many reports have been published, especially in Western outlets, touting gender reform in Iran. Substantial legislative progress has yet to be established.

·         In October, four Iranian Christians were sentenced to eighty lashes each for partaking of communion wine (link), leading Mervyn Thomas, CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, to blast Iran for “criminalizing the Christian sacrament of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, and this constitute an unacceptable infringement on the right to practice faith freely and peaceably” (link). Between June 2008 and 2010 “115 Christians were reportedly arrested on charges of apostasy, illegal activities of evangelism, anti-government propaganda, and activities against Islam, among other charges,” and then in the second half of 2010 another 161 were rounded up (link).

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