Last Updated: Wed Nov 03, 2010 12:53 pm (KSA) 09:53 am (GMT)

Why the Iranian nuclear deal was bound to fail

Tom Plate

The surest sign yet that the Iranian nuclear deal is in deep trouble is its endorsement by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“A positive first step,” Mr Netanyahu called the deal. This was in marked contrast to his own defence minister, Ehud Barak, who complained earlier that the agreement accorded Iran “legitimisation for enriching uranium for civilian purposes on its soil, contrary to the understanding that those negotiating with it have about its real plans”.

Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu march in lockstep when it comes to Iran. The reason for their apparent disagreement is simple. Mr Barak dismissed the proposed deal when it looked as if Iran might accept it. Mr Netanyahu’s approval came only after Iran’s response was interpreted by the western powers as a “no”.

 At the talks in Vienna, and earlier in Geneva, Iran had indicated a willingness to co-operate with the international community to strengthen safeguards against weaponisation of its nuclear material. But it has insisted all along that it has no intention of complying with the western demand that it abandon entirely the production of nuclear material 

The proposed deal used Iran’s request for fuel to power a medical research reactor in Tehran as an opportunity to address western concerns over Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which could produce enough material for a single crude bomb at some point in the future. The Vienna agreement required that Iran send around three-quarters of its own stockpile to Russia and France for processing into fuel that cannot easily be weaponised.

The breakdown arose precisely because the two sides remain committed to mutually exclusive objectives. The more hawkish elements in the western camp, along with Israel, insist that Iran cannot be allowed to continue enriching its remaining uranium, even for energy purposes, because this would give it the means to move quickly to build a bomb. Tehran, on the other hand, saw the agreement as tacit acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment. So when Mr Netanyahu spoke of a “first step”, he meant a first step towards ending all enrichment in Iran – which is what Iran feared.

When details of the agreement began to emerge, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, faced a torrent of domestic criticism – and not just from Iranian conservatives. Mir Hossein Moussavi, the leading opposition presidential candidate who claims Mr Ahmadinejad stole the election, cautioned that accepting the Vienna deal would be “putting the efforts of thousands of scientists to the wind”.

At the talks in Vienna, and earlier in Geneva, Iran had indicated a willingness to co-operate with the international community to strengthen safeguards against weaponisation of its nuclear material. But it has insisted all along that it has no intention of complying with the western demand that it abandon entirely the production of nuclear material.

 The lesson appears to be that it will be difficult to achieve agreement on an issue so sensitive to both sides without addressing their mutual mistrust. As long as the western powers pursue an end to uranium enrichment in Iran, and Iran resists that goal, no diplomatic solution is likely 

As a result, it has responded to the draft agreement with counterproposals that weaken the core western objective, which is separating Iran from most of its current nuclear stockpile – because Tehran sees that as a trap. Iran now proposes to deliver its uranium for enrichment abroad in smaller instalments over a longer period, and insists that it be supplied with reactor fuel first.

European and US leaders argue that the full amount of Iranian nuclear material involved in the deal must be shipped in one delivery, and before the end of this year. Without that arrangement there is no deal, and they threaten sanctions as a consequence for Iran’s refusal to agree. But the more focused the stand-off becomes on the issue of getting Iran to hand over most of its stockpile quickly, the more likely Tehran is to dig in its heels; it would be, as Mr Netanyahu puts it, “an important first step”, but in what Iran considers the wrong direction.

The Vienna deal could collapse under the weight of the larger question that it tried to sidestep: whether Iran will maintain its uranium enrichment capability as part of its nuclear energy programme. Negotiators purposely avoided discussing Iran’s non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions on suspending enrichment, or western demands that it give up on the very idea of enriching uranium as part of its nuclear programme, but it is the two sides’ differences on that issue that lie at the heart of the stand-off over the Vienna deal.

The lesson appears to be that it will be difficult to achieve agreement on an issue so sensitive to both sides without addressing their mutual mistrust. As long as the western powers pursue an end to uranium enrichment in Iran, and Iran resists that goal, no diplomatic solution is likely. The truth is that enrichment is already a reality in Iran. Neither Russia nor China – nor for that matter such key Iranian neighbours as Iraq and Turkey – view uranium enrichment by Iran as necessarily posing a military threat, and are therefore unlikely to back serious sanctions. So Tehran is less likely to blink.

While the Europeans and the US may well read Iran’s response as a “no” and begin pressing for sanctions, Iran may be betting that China and Russia are unlikely to go along; because they don’t share the western objective of zero-enrichment in Iran, or they don’t believe that Iran’s paltry stockpile of low-enriched uranium represents any kind of imminent bomb threat.

Having hailed the deal as a breakthrough that promised to clear out Iran’s stockpile in short order, the Obama administration now faces the reality that it’s not going to be quite so easy – and the likelihood that no diplomatic solution will be found that satisfies the western “no-enrichment” starting point. In what is fast become a familiar experience, Mr Obama may soon be forced to choose between accepting a compromise short of victory, or going down a road of escalating confrontation with uncertain outcomes.


* Published in the UAE's THE NATIONAL on Nov. 1.

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