Tehran defiant in face of sanctions

North Korea and Iran are often compared to each other, and for good reason. One of their similarities is the display of aggressiveness and defiance of current norms. Even though Iran does not spread nuclear threats, like North Korea, it does breed a special kind of action-reaction syndrome.

In response to the renewed sanctions enacted by the US congress against Iran, announced by the US department of the treasury, Tehran didn’t try to address the reasons of the sanctions. The regime in Tehran could have tried to make the case that the sanctions are unfounded but instead, it poured more fuel on the already raging bonfire. As reported in Newsweek, the responses were mainly a threat that it could be enriching Uranium to 20% (there’s a 5% cap in the nuclear deal) within five days, chants of “death to America” in the parliament and an increase in the military budget by 800 million dollars – 260 million intended for the ballistic missile program, 300 million to the IRGC Quds force and an additional 240 million for other military projects.

As reported in The New York Times, the bill goes further and calls upon the Rouhani government to prepare a strategic plan to confront the threats, malicious, hegemonic and divisive activities of America in the region. It also seeks to impose sanctions on the entire US administration and all CIA personnel. The NYTimes adds: “Iran’s armed forces, controlled by hard-liners, have been responding to American pressures with more, not fewer, missile tests — just as North Korea has”.

The problem is that Iran and the US play a bitter game of action and reaction. The new sanctions come from a different context. Not nuclear. Alongside the US sanctions are a list of defiant behaviors deriving from Iran, which led to US reactions. Tehran bragged of killing Americans, stating “America has suffered more losses from us than we have suffered from them”. Tehran continued to arrest and imprison dual Iranian-American nationals, leading to the necessity of a US Iran travel warning, cautioning any travel to Iran due to this risk. Tehran attempted and continues to attempt to infiltrate US universities, showing the way for the call on the federal authorities to investigate Iran’s subversive activity in American institutions. This all parallel to “muscular signals” directed by Iran against the USridiculing US demands, ruling out inspections of its military sites, continued engagement in dangerous navy altercations and conducting provocative rocket for satellite launches breaching UN resolutions.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the renewed sanctions focus on “Iranian malign activity”, despite certifying nuclear compliance. Action leads to reaction, leading again to further reaction.

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Nuclear Deal Requires more Intent and less Content

intent contentNuclear Deal Requires more Intent and less Content

Most people are trying to decide if a nuclear deal with Iran is good or not based on the contents of the deal: the number of centrifuges, the amount of uranium, the transparency of inspections etc…

God may be in the details but in this case, he/she can be found in the intentions of both sides. And since there is a huge lack of trust between both sides, the validity of the deal is not to be found in what is written but in what is intended and how it is communicated. Not the “what” but the “how” and the why”.

As it stands, this deal isn’t worth the paper it is printed on and much less the amount of time and money that has been invested in it.

 

What are the intentions of the West?

flag 2It’s evident that the West’s main intention is to stop Iran from militarizing its nuclear program. And although Iran signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), supporters of the regime believe that Tehran should not be subjected to such restrictions while its arch enemy, Israel isn’t.

Since 2003, the IAEA has repeatedly found that Iran is not complying to NPT guidelines in numerous manners (enrichment above the 5% cap, tests on weaponization, denial of access to nuclear and military bases etc…) as outlined in the IAEA reports on Iran. These fears of non-compliance by Iran in its nuclear program led the UN Security Council to slap on a multitude of sanctions on Iran in the hope that Iran would comply to all IAEA and NPT guidelines.

Tehran has repeatedly denied accusations of non-compliance to the NPT, calling them baseless and politicized, stating that it “has constantly complied with its obligations under the NPT and the Statute of the IAEA“. From this point of view, the sanctions seem unfair and cruel and the nuclear deal is seen to simply be a way to lift these sanctions.

But Khamenei doesn’t believe that the West’s intentions are focused only on blocking a militarized nuclear program. As far as he is concerned, the “sanctions imposed against Iran have nothing to do with Tehran’s nuclear activities” but instead are meant to prevent Iran from “reaching a prominent civilizational status”.  Furthermore, Khamenei feels his infamous “nuclear fatwa” – the use or threat of using a nuclear weapon is “haram” (a sin) – is more than enough to allay any fears in the West.

 

What are the intentions of Tehran?

iran-flagIt is next to impossible to understand what Tehran, or more specifically, what Khamenei really wants. Lifting the sanctions is obviously the first and necessary step to right what he believes is an unjust wrong enforced by the West on Iran.

But Khamenei’s rhetoric and Tehran’s actions go much further than simply lifting sanctions: Khamenei has been pushing for a long-awaited “Global Islamic Awakening” which would unseat the “hegemony” of the “imperialist/colonialist” and “arrogant powers” (USA = the Great Satan) who have dominated the world for the past two centuries and who have “humiliated the Islamic Ummah as much as they could”. In his vision, the coming century is to be “the century of Islam”, led by Iran through its experience in the Islamic Revolution.

Furthermore, Tehran is dedicated to export the Islamic Revolution, a vision developed by Khomeini himself and upheld by the IRGC’s elite Qods unit as is evident in this boasting statement by Qods chief, Qassem Suleimani: “We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.”

Tehran’s military and political involvement in Lebanon (de facto governing through Hezbollah), Gaza (de facto governing through Hamas), Syria (supporting Assad in the civil war in Syria), Iraq (installing a pro-Iran government in Iraq and fighting ISIS), Yemen (supporting Houthi rebels to overthrow the Yemenite government) and Bahrain (supporting Shiite extremists to overthrow the Bahraini government) are statements to Iran’s regional and global aspirations. Further evidence of “exporting the revolution” and “Islamic Awakening” have been identified in other Gulf States, Arab states in the Middle East as well as many states in Africa and in South America.

Seen in this light, a militarized nuclear program would greatly enhance the chances of bringing to fruition both leaders’ visions and is causing the West to distrust Tehran’s motives.

 

Motives will make or break the Nuclear Deal

kerry zarifThe biggest problem surrounding the nuclear deal is the lack of trust which is unsuccessfully replaced with a myriad of details. As such, any deal, if signed, is destined to fail due to the basic lack of trust.

So, what would make a good deal? Only one thing: a total about-face by Tehran in regards to its motives and behavior that will build trust.

Imagine if Tehran had approached the negotiations for a nuclear deal with complete acceptance to comply to all IAEA/NPT guidelines and manage a nuclear program within the boundaries of supplying electricity. No need for enrichment beyond 5%, for so many centrifuges, for heavy water plants, for blocking access to bases, for testing weaponization etc…Creating electricity, and nothing more.

Imagine if Tehran had given up on its efforts to meddle in neighboring countries and on its aspirations to lead an empire in the region. No involvement in civil wars and efforts to overturn governments, no more support to terrorist organizations, no more threats to destroy Israel…Thriving peacefully, and nothing more.

There would have been no need for sanctions or a nuclear deal since Iran would be treated like any other country with a nuclear program meant for peaceful purposes.

 

Unfortunately, Tehran wants to keep its cake and eat it: It wants to lift sanctions but also wants to maintain its nuclear program and its aspirations for regional dominance intact. As such, the nuclear deal is akin to a marriage by two people who don’t trust each other since they met – divorce is inevitable.

 

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Nuclear Deal, If…

nuclea deal ifFollowing the nuclear “Joint Plan of Action” (JPoA) signed between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva in 2013, a “Framework Agreement” (FA) was finally closed in overtime in Lausanne this week.

The basic nuclear details sound quite simple: Cap centrifuges to 6,000 (from 9,000 in JPoA), enrichment to 3.67% (down from 5% in JPoA), enrichment only at Natanz (not mentioned in JPoA) and access of IAEA officials (just like JPoA).

The basic sanction details sound quite simple as well: Eliminations of all nuclear sanctions by the US/EU/UN ($7 Billion in JPoA).

But, beyond basics, there still is no real nuclear deal – that’s supposed to be penned in June if…

 

If…Rouhani “plays ball”…
Hassan RouhaniIf Rouhani patiently “plays ball” and upholds his end of the FA, as he personally vowed to do, he will have achieved his greatest election promise: disposal of all sanctions with an intact nuclear program with a bonus sunset clause. Worth being patient for…

Within 3 months, he can sign a nuclear deal and can set his sights on an economic boom, a rapprochement with the West and, perhaps, more time to develop the potential for nuclear break-out.

Rouhani focused on minimizing nuclear restrictions, sunset clauses and the time spans of the elimination of sanctions. Without them, the hardliners, and more importantly, Khamenei himself, would not buy the deal.

And best of all, he doesn’t even have to be friendly with the US…(Zarif’s quote: “Iran and U.S. relations have nothing to do with this, which was an attempt to resolve the nuclear issue … We have serious differences with the United States”),  nor is he forced to stop meddling in Syria, Iraq and Yemen…nor is he forced to uphold his other election promise of better human rights in Iran.

 

If…Obama Chooses Engagement

141219-obama-sony-1613_f26a4f11b15d21fb1e0c10d2c3792a8bObama chose to work things out with Iran through engagement instead of through war or increased sanctions and isolation.

Had the FA not been signed, Obama would have to increase the sanctions which would effectively push Rouhani into his brother in sanctions’ open arms, Putin. Less likely, Obama would have chosen the war-path which he so desperately wants to avoid.

Obama focused on a “low risk”-“high gain” strategy: Continue to actively strive for peace and hope that the future will smile on him. Not without criticism from within (Republicans/Congress) and from without (Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, UK…).

 

If…Both Agree to Disagree

us-iran.siMuch like the earlier JPoA, the FA is sometimes vague in the parameters of nuclear restrictions and on the time frame of the eliminating of sanctions. “Loose ends” are emerging as quickly as statements by leaders in in Tehran and in Washington to their respective crowds.

Flashback to November 23rd 2013 when the White House issued a fact sheet on the JPoA which satisfied politicians and voters sitting on the fence. Within days, Tehran called the fact sheet out as “invalid” for “overselling” to the Americans quite simply because it was “underselling” to its own hardliners.

Tehran poked a number of loopholes into the JPoA: the right to enrich 20% for “research purposes”, the exclusion of the heavy water plant in Arak, the number and quality of active centrifuges etc…All loose ends that were not tied by the P5+1 negotiators. But the talks went on…for thirteen months (beyond the 6 months in the JPoA deal).

And it’s happening again…

The official Iranian version is simply labeled “press statement”, beginning with a spoiler that the FA has no “legal aspect” yet and is intended only as “a guideline for drafting future accords”. The American text is called the “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” implying that “it’s a done deal”.

In some case, the Iranian text differs from the US version when it comes to nuclear restrictions: enrichment facilities (US says only Natanz, Iran says Fordow as well), the sunset clause (US says 10-15, Iran says none), the quality of centrifuges (US says old, Iran says advanced), the upkeep of Arak (US says no nuclear activity, Iran says “updated and modernized”) and the transparency of military aspects of the nuclear program (US says full transparency, Iran says…nothing)

But when it comes to the relief of sanctions, the differences touch on the type of sanctions to be lifted (US says “nuclear”, Iran says “all”) and the time span (US says “step-by-step” while Iran says “immediate” cancellation).

Do any of these amount to deal breakers? They certainly can in the hands of hardliners on both sides. More likely they will be used by Tehran as distractions to Iranian’s best strategy – patience, because, meanwhile, while the talks go on, the money flows in and the centrifuges spin.

 

And, if…Khamenei Signs

amiri20130417141414517_0Yes, the biggest “if” of all: will Khamenei sign this deal?

Only Khamenei knows what is his state of mind, his intentions for his legacy and his ambitions for Iran and for the Islamic Revolution.

 

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Rouhani Running Out Of Time

time

Last week President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at his critics who oppose the nuclear talks with the West. The language and the tone he used were unprecedented and indicate an escalation in Rouhani’s fight to preserve his political power as we wrote in our last post.

Growing Criticism

The president, who was elected with a promise for ‘reform’ is constantly being criticized by many factions in Iran including the army, the conservatives, the religious leaders and sometimes even the Supreme Leader himself.

In fact, although his election seemed like a breath of fresh air to Western lungs, Rouhani’s role was always fragile in Iran, and he holds it solely because he still receives the general support of Khamenei even if it is mixed with doubts.

Since the Iranian people voted Rouhani in, Khamenei has voiced his ongoing support for Rouhani but not without criticism and red lines. Only yesterday, Khamenei vocalized his doubts as to the need to communicate directly with the US and although he backed FM “Dr. Zarif and his friends” he made it clear that those who wanted to “sit down with Americans at the negotiating table” were misled and misleading.

                                                                                                                                     

Unclear Future

Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, is always at the center of power struggles: keeping the IRGC, who oppose the president, at bay, as well as other hardliners. But Khamenei is getting older. He turned 75 last month, and with growing health issues, the question of his successor is yet unanswered. Rouhani knows that the next Supreme Leader might not back him and his vision of rapprochement with the West would be trashed.

It will be hard for Rouhani to continue with his planned reforms, since the next Supreme Leader will be ‘vetoed’ by the IRGC and since the IRGC is supporting Rouhani only because Khamenei does, candidates for the next Supreme Leader should be loud critics of Rouhani or at best stifle any support for Rouhani until elected.

It seems that Rouhani’s power hangs on a very loose thread. Will he be able to keep dangling? It is a question that only time can answer – but the current Middle East climate is so fragile, that one must sit and wait – as new players emerge constantly – a bet on Rouhani is not a wise one.

The Ever-Elusive “Nuclear Deal”

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More Delays on Nuclear Deal

Based on the latest news (November 11th), it seems that the road to a “Nuclear Deal” between P5+1 and Iran is a long and winding one.

The latest talks in Geneva ended in a stalemate although it is still not clear what the deal-breaker really was. The French want tighter restrictions on Tehran’s possible Plutonium route to a bomb through its heavy water plant in Arak. The Iranians insist on recognition of its rights to enrichment. And nobody knows what to do with Tehran’s current stockpile of 20% enriched Uranium.

Talks are meant to resume on November 20th.

In the meantime, Iran left the negotiating table with more time to continue what it has done over the past few years: enrich Uranium and add to its 20% stockpile, add more centrifuges and prepare Arak to be operational by 2014.

This situation eerily echoes the time-delaying tactics that Rouhani used himself back in 2003-2005 as nuclear negotiator which allowed Iran to develop its nuclear program to the stage it is in today. Remember that Rouhani himself correctly and proudly said in his elections statement:  “We were the ones to complete it (the nuclear program)! We completed the technology.”

 

IAEA Stretches Time

In the meantime, the IAEA and Iran issued a joint statement of cooperation to resolve “outstanding issues” and that Iran should provide “timely information about its nuclear facilities”.  The statement is followed up with a list of “initial practical measures to be taken by Iran within three months” which includes providing “mutually agreed relevant information and managed access” to all nuclear-related sited including Arak as well as clarifications regarding enrichment facilities and technologies.

The IAEA wants timely information but has given Tehran three months to do so. Seeing as Iran can get closer to the bomb with every day that its program is left unchecked and unchallenged, it seems that three months might be a jackpot for Tehran if it is really intending to build a bomb.

Maybe the IAEA should take a better look at how Syria managed to come clean to come clean on its chemical weapons capabilities in a much shorter time.

Time Running Out In Tehran

As the talks continued in Geneva, it is getting clearer that the true obstacles are back in Tehran.

President Rouhani and his government are facing a tough situation at home: Iran’s fundamentalist hardliners, spearheaded by the leading IRGC officials,view any agreement as a show of weakness. Flag burning and “Death to America” chants followed Friday prayers at the Tehran university.

And although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is still supportive of the talks, he is not optimistic that they “will bear fruit” and is under a lot of pressure from the “hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards” who want to sabotage the talks.

Will the IRGC give Rouhani the required time to strike a nuclear deal? Will Khamenei continue to back the negotiations? Or perhaps, the real question is does Iran really want to reach a deal which might cripple its ability to build a bomb?

The answers my friends, are  blowing in the winds above Tehran.