Thursday, October 22, 2009

Iranian Negotiations: Ploy of the Week or Deal of the Century?

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By Barry Rubin

There are widespread reports about an imminent deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Here’s how the New York Times optimistically presents the proposal:

“Iranian negotiators have agreed to a draft deal that would delay the country's ability to build a nuclear weapon for about a year, buying more time for President Obama to search for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff.”

(To be fair, even this somewhat cautious note may be much less ecstatic than what we'll be hearing if the deal goes through.)

What is the proposed bargain? It is based on an offer the Iranian government made in 2007 and reintroduced last June. In practice, the result would be  that Iran enriches unlimited amounts of uranium to a level near that needed for weapons, a large amount of this would be shipped off to France and/or Russia where it would be converted into something useful for medical purposes alone. Thus, it could be said that Iran having nuclear weapons has been either stopped or delayed considerably, though in fact it would only be delayed (if at all) not very long.

If the deal is made—and don’t take for granted it will be as the Iranian regime can think of plenty of delaying tactics, demands for modifications, real or imaginary internal conflicts blocking acceptance, etc.—there will be general rejoicing and the idea of further sanctions will be put on a back shelf to gather dust.

Indeed, it could effectively be argued, that existing sanctions could be removed. This does not seem likely at present--it would require a UN resolution undoing existing sanctions--but such a thing could arise in the future. And of course various countries in Europe could interpret the restrictions more loosely to allow deals that would not have gone through otherwise.

In other words, Iran could go on sponsoring terrorism (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, against Israel, and in other places) and calling for Israel’s destruction while being treated as a regular member of the international community. It would only be a matter of a week or two before media outlets start writing that this proves President Barack Obama did deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Iran is trumpeting the proposed deal as a victory. But that seems rather strange doesn’t it? If this deal is as it appears (and again assuming it happens), then Iran won’t get nuclear weapons, has wasted billions of dollars and years of effort for nothing. In fact, it will be running a huge nuclear program to produce a product which in strategic terms is totally useless.

Or to put it another way, it's like setting up a massive and expensive sword-making industry, then shipping off the completed swords to be turned into ploughshares and pruning hooks when you didn't have any agriculture.

And by the way, since Iran--and its apologists--have been insisting that its real goal was nuclear power plants (as if one of the world's largest oil producers which exports almost all of its production needs that) then why doesn't Iran just agree to some deal in which all the uranium went to fuel such reactors with foreign-enriched fuel and close supervision? Even that would make more sense than this deal.

Does this make sense? There will be many silly reasons for this put forward: Iran was scared by sanctions and a united front against it, or Obama is so popular that they like him or trust him and it proves his strategy works. These ideas are nonsense but one a lot of average people in the West will believe them).

One logical argument that will be advanced is that internal disorder is forcing the regime to take a step back and be more cautious. This is a partial argument but, again, doesn’t explain why there would be such a huge apparent concession from a regime unaccustomed to making them.

So what’s really going on?

First, the whole thing may turn out to be a maneuver for buying time and no agreement is actually made.

Second, the Franco-Russian reworked uranium could be turned back into something suitable for further enrichment into weapons’-grade material in several months.

Third, Iran may well have other secret facilities which are going to be pumping out military useful enriched uranium. We have just seen how well they can conceal these things by the public exposure of such a secret facility. These could easily replace the uranium shipped abroad in a brief period of time.

Fourth, Iranian leaders, knowing that they have some way to go before being technologically ready to build weapons, are happy to accept a seeming delay in providing the uranium which will allow them to catch up with the technological and engineering requirements of making a bomb that works and missiles that will carry it to the target. Indeed, with sanctions loosened, it might get the very techniques and tools it needs to complete this process under the guise of other uses.

Note that the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which was supposed to have begun operation some months ago, has not been started up yet. Is this due to some technical difficulties? The reason certainly doesn't seem to be Iran sending a signal of willingness to compromise since the regime has not used this factor as proof of its flexibility.

If this last argument is true--and it seems to be a reasonable one--then the idea that such a deal would even "slow" Iran's obtaining nuclear weapons wouldn't necessarily be true.

There could also be Iranian deals with other countries—perhaps North Korea or Venezuela, for example—to cooperate in supplying what’s needed. Such a possible arrangement with Syria was destroyed by an Israeli attack on a facility in that country last year.

And speaking of an Israeli attack, this agreement would buy Iran assurance that this couldn't happen no matter what Tehran did since the regime's program would be now under Western protection.

As an Arabic-language expression has it: How do you know it was a lie? Because it was so big.
For example, if Iran was truly going to change course in any real way, there would have been a heated debate within the government of which we would have heard something about.

Or there would have to be a factional dispute or domination by a less extremist group in the ruling circle that argued President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s adventurism was too dangerous to pursue. But all these people have been expelled.

Or it would seem apparent that Iran really was afraid of Western military action or tremendous pressure that would be so great as to force it into a big defeat.

Such cautions seem quite logical. Yet no matter how ridiculous the situation seems if Iran pulls off this ploy it could be a devastatingly successful one.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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