Home inSight Five Weeks After Geneva

Five Weeks After Geneva

Shoshana Bryen

As the P5+1 nuclear negotiation with Iran was taking shape, Secretary of State John Kerry was irritated by the discomfort shown by Congress, Israel and the Gulf States of both Iran and of  the Administration’s decision making process. “We are not blind and I don’t think we’re stupid,” he told “Meet the Press” on 10 November.

On 24 November, with the deal done, he crowed on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “I believe that from this day, Israel is safer.”  He added, “We are going to expand the amount of time in which they can break out… have insights to their program that we didn’t have before. Israel, if you didn’t have these things, would be seeing Iran to continue on a daily basis to narrow the breakdown (sic) time.”

At the same time, Mr. Kerry was not unmindful of the possibility that the Administration could be wrong.  “You might find miscalculation, but it’s not a miscalculation founded on naïveté,” he told lawmakers on 10 December. “If we were just negotiating and pressing them further, we would be inviting a prolonged process. That would drive them to want to get a weapon even more, and then you’d be at a place where you’d get a negotiation but they’d be closer to getting the weapon than they are today.”

There are two flaws in that last bit of logic that portended trouble:

  • If there is an American miscalculation, and Iran becomes a nuclear-weapons state, it won’t matter whether the miscalculation was based on naïveté, failure to notice that the Iranians are serial cheaters, or something else; and
  • Iran cannot be made to “want to get a weapon even more” than it already does.  The Islamic Republic has beggared its people’s and turned itself into an international pariah in order to achieve an independent nuclear capability. It cannot want a weapon more, and will not want it less.

If the P5+1 was negotiating to halt and reverse Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability and to increase international monitoring of Iranian sites, Iran’s goals were the easing of economic sanctions while maintaining what it calls a “right to enrich” uranium — preferably with Western agreement.  Five weeks after Geneva, it is fair to ask who is making progress toward its goals, the P5+1 or Iran.

Uranium Enrichment: Iran’s President Rouhani said the deal recognizes Tehran’s “right” to maintain an enrichment program. “Let anyone make his own reading, but this right is clearly stated in the text of the agreement that Iran can continue its enrichment, and I announce to our people that our enrichment activities will continue as before.”

“There is no inherent right to enrich,” Mr. Kerry intoned on ABC’s “This Week,” program on 24 November.

Inherent or not, the agreed-upon text of the Joint Action Plan (released in full by Iran while the White House was still clinging to its internally generated “fact sheet“) says, “Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the six months,” clearly indicating that Iran will continue to enrich under an agreement  signed by the United States.

Score one for Iran with a small quibble. Rouhani said enrichment activities “will continue as before.” Not exactly as before — better.

Centrifuge construction: Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced that the country is building a new generation of centrifuges for uranium enrichment. While the Joint Action Plan says they cannot be installed during the course of the agreement, Salehi points out they’re not ready for installation anyhow, and there is testing to do. In the same way, the Iranians circumvented Western restrictions on the Arak heavy water plant — Iran agreed it will not “commission the reactor,” but it isn’t ready for commissioning; there’s other work to do at the site, and the agreement doesn’t appear to cover that.

Foreign Minister Zarif told a group of students in Tehran.  “The structure of our nuclear program has been maintained.”

Score two more for Iran.

Sanctions Relief:  The deal, said Kerry, would release “only” $7 billion to Iran, compared to $30 billion he expected the sanctions to continue to withhold from the Islamic Republic.  “Iran will be allowed to repatriate about $4.2 billion or so in oil revenues and will be allowed to export about $2.5 billion in petrochemicals and vehicles. So believe me, when I say this relief is limited and reversible, I mean it.”

Sanctions-watcher Mark Dubowitz at FDD put the value at closer to $20 billion, including help for automobile production (the second most important sector of the Iranian economy), oil, banking, petrochemicals, and gold. The Iranian stock market appears to believe Mr. Dubowitz, rising a staggering 133% for the year — mainly in the past month — on improved economic news. Banks and oil companies have been among the biggest gainers, including banks that had been subject to EU sanctions since 2010. According to Bloomberg News, Parsian Oil & Gas Co. is up 87% from its low.

Advantage Iran.

The Six Month Timetable: “In six months the world will know whether you’re right, or I’m right, or whether you’re wrong, or I’m wrong,” Kerry snapped at Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen during a testy hearing in December.

Not quite.  As the Joint Action Plan makes clear, there is no starting date, which means there is no ending date. “The first step would be time-bound, with a duration of 6 months, and renewable by mutual consent,” (emphasis added) suggesting that if, at 5 ½ months, the Administration doesn’t want to call it quits — and the Iranians have no reason to — the deal will remain in place and the sanctions will remain suspended.

Even getting to a starting date has been problematic.  On 13 December, the Iranians walked out of talks, complaining that the tightening of sanctions unrelated to those eased by the Geneva Agreement violated the “spirit” of the Joint Action Plan.  The head of Iran’s parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy called the American decision an “obvious violation” of the interim deal and shows the Americans are “not trustworthy.”

After a week and a major Iranian war game, Foreign Minister Zarif told CBS News, “The process has been derailed, the process has not died.  We are trying to put it back and to correct the path.” But he appears not to be in a hurry.  An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters, “There is no treaty and no pact, only a statement of intent.” Kayan, the journal that reflects Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went further: “The six-month period of the accord is meaningless; a final agreement might even take 20 years to negotiate.”

Conclusion: One of the perquisites of being a Member of Congress used to be the ability to “revise and extend” remarks made in hearings. In the days before C-SPAN and Twitter in the gallery, and when hearings were printed volumes of dense text, a blunt remark could be given context, an off-hand gaffe expunged. As seen by future generations, all Members were thoughtful and articulate.

As a former Senator, Secretary Kerry no longer has the luxury of “revise and extend.” His words as spoken define American foreign policy. Sigh.