The Washington Times recently broke a story that Iran is considering a secret suspension of its enrichment program. That the story was broken by the Times, not the New York Times but the Washington Times is interesting in itself. The US State Department, when it wants to talk to the press, even in confidence, uses the real papers, especially the New York Times.
My suspicion is that this leak is the work of the US pro-war faction, working to expose and invalidate the "secret" suspension and thereby prevent any agreement. On the other hand, a secret suspension does not fit my internal model of how the Iranians do things. It sounds more like an idea the Europeans came up with that the Iranians said they would consider.
It is an interesting idea though. The Iranian position is that Iran will not suspend enrichment before negotiations because if negotiations fail and Iran restarts enrichment then Iran will be worse off, purely in terms of its international image, than if it had not stopped at all. A secret suspension though, can overcome this because then Iran can claim it had never actually stopped enriching.
Iran is more likely to say it is pausing to retool, and then to actually work on the centrifuges during the suspension. Iran is a theocratic government and every theology condemns lying. But the goal may be one Iran can go along with which is a guarantee that if negotiations do not work, Iran will be able to return to where it is now, with no additional penalties.
That brings us to negotiations. Interestingly, Iran has never, ever called for negotiations with the United States over its nuclear program. The Europeans and the IAEA both insist that the US being at the table would have some cosmic significance. Iran has never agreed with that idea. This is a difference that deserves a closer look.
The Europeans claim that what they offered in August 2005 is the most they can offer for Iran to stop enrichment unless they get further agreement from the US. The June 2006 offer is essentially the same offer with the minor change that Iran is not explicitly asked to permanently renounce its ability to leave the NPT.
Other than that, the vague promise of improved trade with Europe, the airplane parts and the vague offer of European help in building nuclear power plants at some point in the future were all in the 2005 offer. Iran rejected the 2005 offer, taking the offer as a deliberate insult. The offer actually was an insult in that Europe went back on several aspects of the agreement that it reached with Iran to start negotiations in the first place. For example, Europe had agreed to find a formula with adequate additional safeguards so that Iran would be able to continue enriching uranium.
The US position is that it will not allow Europe to make a better offer until Iran suspends enrichment. There is no intrinsic link between what the US tells Europe it will accept and Iran suspending enrichment. So the US position is that it will not allow Europe to make a better deal. Period. But it wants Iran to suspend enrichment.
So other than the "secret" suspension, which is just packaging, Iran will not return to the table with Europe until Europe has expressed that, US or not, it is willing to accept Iran having domestic access to enrichment technology, or it is willing and able to commit to substantial compensation for Iran voluntarily foregoing this technology for a limited time. And Iran's voluntary withholding of this technology has to be presented as voluntary and subject to review as Iran's sovereign right.
Iran has a serious issue, if it has a nuclear program, of ensuring security of its fuel supply. Europe is insisting that Russia will provide a guaranteed supply - yet right now, as Europe is promising this, Russia is delaying both the completion of the Bushehr reactor and the delivery of TOR surface to air missiles due to US pressure. My mind boggles at this idea that Europe promises that the US will not successfully pressure Russia in the future, while Russia is succumbing to US pressure right now as Europe is promising this.
If Iran has a domestic enrichment program then Russia can shrug of US pressure by telling the Americans that the alternative is Iran making its own fuel. If Iran does not have the capability of making its own fuel then it will not agree to any guarantee other than enough fuel stored on Iranian soil that it would be able to get its own program running before it runs out.
One key disagreement to be resolved is what constitutes "substantial compensation". Signs are that Europe is willing to commit to terms that are better than the August 2005 offer before talks begin. But this has not been said out loud. Iran believes that if it had accepted the August 2005 offer, it would have suspended enrichment to see the Europeans offer nuclear plants at market price - or even higher - and trade discussions that would not have been much better than what Iran has now. While Europe would have taken steps towards Iran joining the WTO, those steps would have been worthless because the US would still continuously veto that.
Iran is probably right that it would have gotten nothing in return for accepting that agreement. North Korea never did get the light water reactors it was promised in 1993. Concrete hadn't poured in 2000 when Korea called that agreement off and resumed its nuclear program. In that case the US was openly saying that instead of implementing the agreement, it would rather just wait for North Korea to collapse.
So "carrots" may or may not be under negotiation as I write this. But no discussion about Iran's nuclear program is complete without at least a mention of the "stick" of sanctions that the US is waving.
Condoleeza Rice in an interview with the Wall Street Journal editorial board said that sanctions would not look like what the US would write unilaterally. But sanctions would have "collateral effects". Just how much different are the sanctions the US could get from the sanctions the US would write unilaterally? Here is a quote.
Now, to be absolutely fair, any such resolution will not look like a resolution that was written unilaterally by the United States. You can understand that. But it is also the case that a Security Council resolution which puts Iran under Article 41, Chapter 7 has collateral effects on the willingness of private companies, private banks, to do business with Iran. Because if you are making decisions which have a reputational component for instance and you’re facing making those decisions when a state is under Security Council resolutions, particularly Article 7 resolutions, that’s a different environment. And so I wouldn’t also underestimate the collateral effects of whatever resolution there is in the Security Council.
Russia claims it never committed to sanctions. It committed to "discuss" sanctions. The resolution as I read it does call for sanctions but if Russia says it only agreed to discuss, nobody can say Russia is wrong. But these sanctions wouldn't actually be sanctions. US officials keep saying travel restrictions are an example of sanctions. But another example of a "sanction" is a statement that "based on Chapter 7, section 41, the UNSC calls on member nations to refrain from giving Iran technology for use in a weapons program".
The second kind of "sanction" is not actually a sanction at all but it is probably what China and Russia agreed to. China insisted on that type of sanction against North Korea after North Korea's recent missile test. The US says sanctions would be escalating. China and Russia have never said they agree to that.
The US said it would press for a sanctions resolution shortly after the August 31 deadline passed. The US could get a resolution, but has decided that shooting a blank is worse than not firing at all. If the US could get even travel bans plus threats to escalate later, it would have gotten them in September.
We also do not know how committed Russia and China are even to the fake sanctions. Would they vote for sanctions, or would they just not veto sanctions? If Russia and China abstain, the non-permanent members have a good chance of voting down even fake sanctions on their own. If Venezuela joins the Security Council in October, which it expects, that possibility becomes much stronger.
The "stick" is fake sanctions. But that stick hurts the US more than it hurts Iran in this case. Fake sanctions that just barely pass the security council due to intense US pressure - which is the US best case scenario - would validate Iran's position in the eyes of the people Iran cares about.
As far as bombing, Iran does not have anything now to bomb. Even if Iran decides to build a bomb ten years from now, it will not use the facilities in Natanz. So bombing Natanz would cause a surge in popularity for Iran's regime, and allow Iran to leave the NPT and start a secret program with world approval but it would not decrease Iran's ability to build a bomb ten years from now.
Bombing would also strengthen Iran in both Iraq and Lebanon and kill a lot of US soldiers in Iraq in the process. Pro-US governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia would not fall that month, but straws keep piling on the camel's back. The back will break and the regimes will fall sooner or later. Iran is not in a rush.
Everyone outside the US has known for months that the US threat to bomb is a bluff. It is now becoming apparent that the US threat of sanctions is also a bluff.
I want to make a prediction, but I don't have a good idea of what Europe is willing to put onto the table. If Europe is saying it will give Iran reactors at half price, committing to them being operational by 2012 - with benchmarks for every 6 month period and penalties for missed benchmarks - and with a 5 year reserve of fuel on Iranian soil, along with European assistance in Iran's gas and oil products industries - also benchmarked - then Iran will accept the deal and announce that it is pausing its domestic nuclear enrichment program for five or ten years by the end of this year.
But Europe might be saying it agrees to help Iran with reactors in some way to be specified later, it will liberalize its trade relations in some way to be specified during negotiations and Iran's access to nuclear fuel will be "guaranteed" the same way nuclear fuel has previously been guaranteed and the way Iran's defensive missile shipments from Russia are guaranteed. If Europe is saying this, Iran will force the US to bring on the fiasco of fake sanctions. And have no doubt that the "sanctions" will be a fiasco and that Iran will emerge stronger than if the issue of sanctions had never been raised.
Like in Iraq, the US has painted itself into a corner with this talk of "sticks" against Iran. Iran would rather resolve the issue through negotiations, but would have no problem allowing Allah to cause the Global Arrogance to humiliate itself in Iran's favor on issue after issue.