Progress On Iran Nuclear Deal?
Secretary of State John Kerry is in Geneva today, joining European officials at the talks over Iran’s nuclear program amid reports that those talks may be close to a preliminary deal of some kind:
GENEVA — With expectations rising of an interim nuclear deal between the major powers and Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry cut short a Middle East trip and flew here on Friday to lead a concerted diplomatic push to close what he and allies described as important issues that still needed to be resolved.
An agreement, which would temporarily freeze at least some of Iran’s nuclear activities in return for unspecified but limited relief of the onerous sanctions that have severely hurt the Iranian economy, would be the first such pact in a decade with Iran. While the details, negotiated over the past two days here in Geneva, have been kept confidential, diplomats have said they would be aimed at starting a process that could gradually end Iran’s isolation in return for verifiable guarantees that its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iranian officials have effusively praised what they called progress in the negotiations, while Iran’s major adversaries, most notably Israel, have strongly criticized any agreement that does not entirely dismantle the country’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear enrichment capacity.
“There are important gaps that have to be closed,” Mr. Kerry said upon arrival in Geneva, seeking to temper rising expectations that a deal was close.
“I want to emphasize: there is not an agreement at this point in time,” Mr. Kerry told reporters at his hotel. “There are still some important issues on the table that are unresolved.”
But the mere fact of Mr. Kerry’s presence here suggested that the United States believed that a deal was within reach, and that it required higher-level participation to resolve the remaining issues.
Mr. Kerry was meeting on Friday evening with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who oversees the multiparty negotiations.
Before that, he held separate meetings with Ms. Ashton; the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius; and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, as the major powers coordinated their own bargaining positions. The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, was also expected to join the push for an agreement.
The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in a statement that Mr. Kerry was in Geneva “in an effort to help narrow the differences in the negotiations.”
Mr. Fabius told reporters soon after arriving here on Friday that progress had been made during the latest round of talks with Iranian diplomats, which began on Thursday, but added, “Nothing is hard and fast yet.”
“We are working to reach an accord which completes the first step to respond to Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.
Not surprisingly, even these preliminary reports are leading to some not-so-diplomatic language from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu:
“The deal that is being discussed in Geneva right now is a bad deal,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Iran is not required to take apart even one centrifuge. But the international community is relieving sanctions on Iran for the first time after many years.”
“I urge Secretary Kerry not to rush to sign, to wait, to reconsider, to get a good deal,” Mr. Netanyahu added
Despite these comments, and similar signals from the Saudis that they too are not pleased with the idea with the idea of any deal that allows the Iranian program to continue, to the point that the KSA is talking to Pakistan about purchasing nuclear weapons of its own, the U.S. and its European allies continue to move forward toward a deal. Today in The Daily Beast, for example, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report that the Obama Administration has been quietly lifting some of the more onerous sanctions on Iran, no doubt as an incentive for the Iranians:
The Obama administration began softening sanctions on Iran after the election of Iran’s new president in June, months before the current round of nuclear talks in Geneva or the historic phone call between the two leaders in September.
While those negotiations now appear on the verge of a breakthrough the key condition for Iran—relief from crippling sanctions—began quietly and modestly five months ago.
A review of Treasury Department notices reveals that the U.S. government has all but stopped the financial blacklisting of entities and people that help Iran evade international sanctions since the election of its president, Hassan Rouhani, in June.
On Wednesday Obama said in an interview with NBC News the negotiations in Geneva “are not about easing sanctions.” “The negotiations taking place are about how Iran begins to meet its international obligations and provide assurances not just to us but to the entire world,” the president said.
But it has also long been Obama’s strategy to squeeze Iran’s economy until Iran would be willing to trade relief from sanctions for abandoning key elements of its nuclear program.
One way Obama has pressured Iran is through isolating the country’s banks from the global financial sector, the networks that make modern international commerce possible. This in turn has led Iran to seek out front companies and cutouts to conduct routine international business, such as selling its crude oil.
In this cat and mouse game, the Treasury Department in recent years has routinely designated new entities as violators of sanctions, forcing Iran to adjust in turn. In the six weeks prior to the Iranian elections in June, the Treasury Department issued seven notices of designations of sanctions violators that included more than 100 new people, companies, aircraft, and sea vessels.
Since June 14, however, when Rouhani was elected, the Treasury Department has only issued two designation notices that have identified six people and four companies as violating the Iran sanctions.
All of this, plus the talks, has moved forward despite the objections of the Israelis, and Jeffrey Goldberg explains why President Obama isn’t so concerned about the admonitions from Prime Minister Netenyahu:
The first reason is that U.S. President Barack Obama has him boxed in. Netanyahu can’t launch a unilateral strike on Iran now that the U.S. is actively negotiating with its leaders. That would just be outre. So Netanyahu is in a time-out of sorts — and therefore semi-marginalized.
The second reason is one Netanyahu, so far at least, has refused to comprehend. His unwillingness to permanently freeze settlement growth on the West Bank, to make the sort of grand gesture toward the Palestinians that would advance the peace process, has caused even those in Washington and Europe who are sympathetic to his stance on Iran to write him off as generally immovable and irrational.
Of course, the growth of settlements has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran is not seeking the capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Netanyahu argues that these are two separate issues, and he’s correct. Except that, in the world of international diplomacy, they are inextricably linked. The Obama administration hears Netanyahu’s demands for more action on Iran and tries — so far, fairly successfully — to meet that call for action. But when the Obama administration turns around and asks Netanyahu to make the sort of gestures that might advance the peace process, it more often than not gets stonewalled.
The irony of all of this, of course, is that Netenyahu is being just as stubborn on the settlements issue as he says the Iranians are being on the nuclear issue. The Iranians have said that there can’t be a deal on their nuclear program until there is talk about easing sanctions, which is what the talks in Geneva are all about. On the settlement issue, Netenyahu has adamantly refused even a temporary freeze on settlement growth in the West Bank even though it ought to be blindingly obvious to him that expanding settlements only makes the idea of an eventual two-state solution all the more difficult to pull off. Just as the Iranians may be about to find that being more flexible on their nuclear program would give them some relief from sanctions, Netenyahu’s agreement to freeze settlements would likely make the U.S. and the other nations part of the P+5 talks more solicitous of Israel’s concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear program.
In the end, though, I think the world is going to have to face up to a very simple fact. Absent some kind of massive political change, there is always going to be an Iranian nuclear program regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. The Iranians have made clear for a very long time that they want the ability to produce nuclear energy for the nation, and they also clearly want at least the suggestion that they have the ability to someday produce a nuclear device to be known to their potential adversaries. Given how the world has treated nations that either didn’t have nuclear weapons programs or gave them up (See e.g., Iraq and Libya) as compared to those who do have nuclear weapons programs (See e.g., Pakistan and North Korea), that is in some sense completely understandable. This will continue to be the case, and there will be very little the West can do about it absent a destructive, unnecessary war that ultimately would likely do little except set the program back by several years.
Obviously, these facts will have repercussions in the region. I honestly have no doubt that the Saudis would decide to acquire nuclear weapons of their own to counter an Iranian threat. Indeed, that would be an entirely rational response on their part. Similarly, the Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal stands as that nation’s deterrent against a nuclear attack. Say what you will about the Iranian regime, but I don’t count myself among those who believe that they’d be willing to commit national suicide for a chance to strike at Israel or Saudi Arabia. Indeed, as you look around the world, you see that nuclear deterrence actually does work whether it’s between the United States and the now defunct USSR, the USSR and China, or India and Pakistan. Indeed, one could make the argument that at some point over the past 60 years one or all of these conflicts could have erupted into a “hot” war had nuclear weapons not existed. In fact, India and Pakistan went to war several times over Kashmir before acquiring their respective nuclear arsenals. Now, there is an effective detente in the Himalayas that those arsenals have, no doubt, contributed to. Why should we not think that something similar would not happen in the Middle East?
All of that said, the prospect of progress in getting Iran to back off nuclear weapons development would be a helpful step forward. Nuclear proliferation in a powder keg region is not something to look forward to even if, in the end, it leads to some form of detente.