Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Differing viewpoints on the deal in Geneva

To read the viewpoints of Western commentators on the deal in which Iran was to ship most of its uranium to Russia in exchange for fuel for its reactor fuel is to be shocked by the inability of these commentators to understand the perceptions and motivations of the Iranians.

It now appears to me that there are two vastly conceptions of the deal, mine, which I assume was shared by Iranian supporters of the deal in early October and the Western conception that I gather from reading commentary after commentary containing the same fundamental misunderstandings.

On September 30, the situation was that back in June, John Kerry said in an interview that the Bush administration policy that Iran must have zero enrichment was "stupid", his word, and counter-productive. By August Hillary Clinton said that Iran must comply with the security council resolutions or face painful sanctions by the end of the year.

Hillary Clinton is an actual member of the Obama administration. She contradicted what Kerry had said earlier which, from the outside, seemed to indicate that between when Kerry spoke and when she spoke, the US position had hardened against Iran.

The facts on the ground had not changed. Contrary to what Western commentators believe to the point of blind faith, the Iranian regime was not threatened by the turmoil over the election. The truth was that the electoral process in Iran was conducted as it customarily is, and it is one of the most open electoral processes in the world. Not everyone can run for office because in an undemocratic way, candidates must be approved by a branch of government. But once candidates run, there is a solid trail from when votes are cast to when they are counted to when they are reported, which huge numbers of witnesses and decentralized operations that make massive fraud essentially impossible.

Most Iranians were always going to conclude that the person who was reported as the winner actually was the winner. That was clarified for Westerners by a poll released in September that shows that of the people who said they voted, about 60% said they voted for Ahmadinejad, matching his reported tally and also that over 80% of Iranians believe the polling process was honest.

Mousavi's movement is a threat to Iran the way people claiming Obama was born in Kenya are a threat to the US, except that there are suspicions that despite Khamenei's magnanimity, Mousavi may have been working with encouragement from enemies of Iran. Mousavi's political stock is of no value at this point. He is completely irrelevant to Iranian politics. His patron Rafsanjani started from a more powerful position, but he has also nearly completely lost credibility in Iranian politics.

Iran came into the October meeting without any domestic turmoil to speak of, but with a question of who spoke for the Americans, Kerry or Clinton, with Clinton being the more reasonable assumption. If the US was going to follow the Clinton line, which is the Bush line, Iran would continue to confront the US.

I say again and again that Iran can continue to confront the US. Sanctions will not slow Iran's enrichment program, they will speed it up. A military attack on Iran will start a war, but Iran expects that the war will hurt the US more than it gains. US military officials commonly acknowledge that war will set back Iran's nuclear program but will not stop it, and Iran will be able to reassemble the program in a more resilient form after the attack. The cost of slowing but not stopping Iran's nuclear program will be that Iran will harm a lot of US interests in the region, including both causing the deaths of many US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and making US political victories in both countries impossible.

The US is fairly confident that the US is able to calculate that an attack would not be worth it. Iran also expects the US to maintain its red light on any Israeli strike because an Israeli strike is the same as a US strike in terms of consequences, but Israel has far fewer assets that it could use to even slow Iran's nuclear program.

Iran came into the October meeting secure that the option of continuing its current production of uranium is available but unsure if the US was willing to accept this reality or would continue the Bush policy of turning Iran's enrichment into a focus of confrontation.

After the meeting, it seemed that Clinton had been bluffing all along, and the US had actually come to Kerry's conclusion that negotiations would have to answer the question of exactly how nuclear capable will Iran be, but that Iran would retain nuclear capability. This would have paved the way for a dramatic improvement in relations between the US and Iran. If the US has come to Kerry's position, Iran has reason to consider it a victory and to be pleased with the idea of future talks.

The reason it seemed that Kerry's view had won is that the US proposed to move one ton, out of Iran's potential supply of about ten tons, of uranium on the pretext that it was to be used to create fuel for Iran's medical reactor and that would satisfy the US' conditions for talks that could occur as Iran continued to enrich uranium.

Western commentators left with an entirely different interpretation of the events. According to the Western narrative, Iran is so terrified of Clinton's threats to get painful sanctions, that it flailed about begging for a deal. To Westerners this is made worse because Iran's leadership hopes that a deal can stave off imminent massive unrest against the regime.

How this works is that Westerners hate Iran's regime - largely over their disagreement with the regime over Israel. Westerners hate Iran's regime far, far more vehemently than they hate the Saudi, Egyptian or Jordanian regimes that by any objective measure are vastly worse than the Iranian but are relatively accommodating of Israel. Most Western foreign policy commentators cannot imagine that there is not a huge majority of Iranians who agree with them. In fact, only a small, nearly insignificant minority of Iranians agree with them.

Westerners, feeling incorrectly that the Iranian regime had exposed its weakness by speaking positively of a deal that would remove uranium from Iranian territory, saw this deal as a first step toward a further Iranian capitulation on enrichment itself. The deal went from acceptable to the Iranians to unacceptable as it came to seem that the Western perception of the deal was not that Iran would make a gesture to allow the US to accept enrichment, but instead that Iran was taking a step in the direction of giving up enrichment.
"It's like playing chess with a monkey," said one diplomat close to the talks. "You get them to checkmate, and then they swallow the king."
In the case of Iran, I do think sanctions can still work and I would give you the Iranian offer which they may not be serious about, but the offer to remove all of their low-enriched uranium to Russia. Why would they entertain such an offer? Why would they make such an offer? What is that about? I think it's a sign of weakness on the part of the regime. I think they are desperate to avoid additional economic sanctions. The political situation inside Iran is making them very anxious. In the months since the June election, they have not eliminated opposition to the regime and the regime itself is split. The clerics are split. This is big trouble for the regime and they don't want additional economic sanctions. They will do a lot to avoid sanctions. So if we can, we the P5-plus-1, the global community so called, if we can credibly threaten additional economic sanctions against Iran, I think it is still possible to freeze their nuclear program.
Iran had never been checkmated, and was never anxious, split or in big trouble forcing them to consider a deal with the US.

If the West continues to misunderstand Iran's perception of its position as the unnamed EU diplomat and Elliot Abrams do here, Iran will continue to march towards nuclear capability without any restraint other than those already applied, or even more quickly if Abrams gets his way and credibly threatens and then actually applies economic sanctions on Iran.

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