Tuesday, December 15, 2009

George Perkovich's interview with the Council for Foreign Relations

I stumbled on this interview looking through the website of the Council for Foreign Relations. In it, George Perkovich describes what looks like the Western consensus of Iran's nuclear issue, particularly in relation to the deal to the failed late September deal for Iran to export its uranium in exchange for medical reactor fuel. This interview was from before the escalation of tensions that occurred with and after the IAEA Governor's Board resolution and Iran's subsequent announcement that it plans to open ten enrichment facilities.

Here are Bernard Gwertzman's questions and my impressions of Perkovich's answers.

The Security Council's permanent members plus Germany have met and issued another statement asking Iran to reconsider its apparent rejections and respond positively to the tentative agreement that was reached in Vienna a month ago, calling on Iran to transfer most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France. But since then, the Iranians have seemingly walked away from this tentative agreement. What do you think has happened in Iran?

Perkovich repeatedly asserts that it had been a good deal for Iran, but never explains why. When I see that behavior I wonder if the person I'm observing is trying to convince himself as much as his audience. This is similar to the insistence almost always without any further evidence that the elections in June were fraudulent.

The deal as made public was a bad deal. Beyond just bad, it was an insult to the intelligence of the Iranians. Let me explain why. Once Iran exports its LEU it has the West's collective word that it will receive fuel in return. Iran has had Russia's most insistent promise that Bushehr would start within the next year for the last five years. It is by now well and openly understood that Bushehr will not open until it is authorized by the Americans who, as of now, will not permit that until Iran suspends enrichment. Once Iran exports its LEU, if the pattern set by Bushehr is followed, it will not get fuel until it suspends enrichment. Iran does not plan to suspend enrichment. So Iran under the public terms of the deal would export its LEU and receive nothing.

The Americans have given their word that this time would be different. The Americans are less dependable for the Iranians than the Russians who've made the same statement many times. In addition, France has said that it does not want to enrich uranium on Iran's behalf while Iran enriches its own uranium. This is not situation of uncertainty. If Iran exports its LEU under these circumstances, it is certainly not getting anything back without suspending, and a suspension at this point is unacceptable for Iran.
"We demanded to take a large quantity of (LEU) because we do not want them, while we are enriching uranium on their behalf, to continue themselves enriching uranium which could one day be used for military purposes," he told Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
Iran apparently said that in principle it could accept this deal. Perkovich interprets that as Iran saying it accepts this deal. "In principle" is a very clear reservation. Iran accepts this deal if the obvious and insulting hole is filled. When Iran learned that the hole would not be filled, it does not accept the deal.

What is in public is a bad deal. Is it that Perkovich knows this and for some reason wants to fool Gwertzman and his readers or is it that Perkovich is completely unable to see the deal from Iran's point of view? I'm puzzled by this.

I think there was more to the deal in private, that the entire deal was reasonable for Iran, in that it would allow Iran to continue enrichment, and that Iran did shift in October. Part of the shift was because of the attack on Iran's Revolutionary Guards in Balochistan and part was because the West could not give adequate assurances that once the LEU was out it would not revert to the bad public deal. I take an unpopular position in that belief.

Perkovich believes that Iran was initially willing to take the deal in part because the revelation of the Fordo plant put Iran on the defensive. First "in principle" does not mean Iran was initially willing to take the deal. What "in principle" means is that Iran was willing to see if the outline of the deal could be negotiated to something acceptable. But the Fordo plant was not illegal by Iran's interpretation of its obligations. As excited as the Western non-proliferation community became, Iran never had a reason to feel defensive.

If Western negotiators changed in tone after the Fordo revelations based on the idea that Iran was or should have been on the defensive, that would have been enough to torpedo the deal.

And then what happened?

Here is where Perkovich claims the deal that Ahmadinejad really wanted was rejected against Ahmadinejad's wishes and judgment by everyone else in Iran. It was a bad deal. Ahmadinejad did not want the public deal to pass, ever. Nobody in Iran ever would have accepted the deal as its presented in public. If there was more to the deal, the attacks from Ahmadinejad's right could have been the cue for Obama to publicly soften his rejection of Iran's right to enrich, which could have been a signal that other terms that make the deal favorable to Iran are actually being offered and which would begin the process of easing hardline Westerners into accepting Iranian enrichment. That didn't happen. I don't know if Ahmadinejad expected it to, but that is the type of thing I thought would have been in a private deal.

We did notice at the time that Mousavi, who people in the West had been lauding for his opposition to Ahmadinejad's staged reelection, was in the forefront of the opposition. This shocked people who thought, incorrectly, that everyone opposed to Ahmadinejad would seek an accommodation with the West.

Mousavi is about as important in Iranian politics today as the Shah's heir. He can say whatever he wants, but the charge that the election was fraudulent that was not supported with real evidence has left him and his faction in Iranian politics discredited and fairly powerless. He made the obvious observation that the public deal was bad and may have hoped to keep himself in the public eye and relevant in that way.

Westerners greatly overestimate the impulse to seek accommodation with the West, especially on the West's terms, in Iran. Polls show that only a tiny minority of Iranians would make the changes the West wants - limit to support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups, recognition or tacit acceptance of Israel, limits to Iran's nuclear program - in exchange for better relations with the West.

The Shah accommodated the West. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt accommodate the West. Very few people in Iran think following the path of the Shah, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt would be a beneficial change in direction for Iran. Nearly all Iranians consider Iran's current policies to be superior to those of the examples of countries that accommodate the West.

Anyone shocked that Mousavi did not favor submitting to Western demands horribly misreads Iran. Even if Mousavi had won his policies would have been far closer to Ahamdinejad's than to Barack Obama's friend Hosni Mubarak's.

I haven't seen much from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on this, have you?

This was not that big an issue, the West made a bad deal, didn't agree to change the terms and Iran rejected the deal. Khamenei joined in the denunciations but he was by that point just stating the obvious.

I noticed Obama, in his comments in South Korea at the end of his Asian trip, said the United States and its partners would give Iran until the end of the year, and then they would have to think about tougher sanctions. That's pretty much been his position lately, and wouldn't this undercut Obama's big effort to get a real dialogue going with Iran?

By this point, either the US has to accept that Iran is nuclear capable or not. The issue is not dialogue. If the US comes to the table hoping to prevent Iran from being nuclear capable, discussions will go nowhere and during negotiations Iran will continue building its nuclear stock. If the US comes to the table hoping to find a way to leave Iran with a nuclear capability under the type of IAEA supervision that other nuclear capable countries have, even an especially stringent regime of supervision, then dialogue can be fruitful. In an emergency, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear weapon, maybe not in six months, but soon enough that the US can't impose an emergency on Iran without taking into account a nuclear retaliation. That is the case today and will be the case for the foreseeable future. The question of Iran's nuclear capability has been answered. The issue for US policy is by what means and over how much time will the US come to accept this reality.

Sanctions, even if they are very tough, will not change this reality in the direction the US would like.

And you've been fairly convinced for some time that Iran really wants the capability to have nuclear weapons, right?

Perkovich is right. He could have added that the capability is not an unusual thing and that a lot of countries have it without issue.

What do you make of this formerly secret facility near Qom? They claim it's a fallback for its big processing facility in Natanz. But it's so small, they couldn't really do much nuclear processing there, could they?

We have to understand Iran's expansion of its enrichment program in the light of leaving Iran with options if it is attacked. Maybe the US would totally destroy Fordo, maybe the US would only damage it lightly. Iran does not know beforehand what the aftermath of a US attack would look like, so Iran needs flexibility. If the US gets Fordo, it'll miss another facility. Whatever facility remains after any attack is where Iran's nuclear resources will be diverted and what Iran would use, in this scenario that is very unlikely to ever happen, to make its own nuclear weapon.

When Iran announced that it would build ten underground enrichment facilities, the number ten was an expression of defiance, but the idea of multiple unknown facilities expressed that Iran intends that its infrastructure will have some capacity even after an attack. This information is meant and hopefully does have a deterrent effect.

Do you agree that Iran doesn't really have enough uranium to have a nuclear power plant capability without importing uranium?

Well, after the West accepts Iran's right to enrich uranium, Iran will be able to import raw uranium under much better terms than its current situation of dependence on an oligopoly of Russian and Western nuclear fuel suppliers. Iran may also help break that oligopoly, selling fuel on better terms than are currently available for developing nations.

But there are sanctions against them being able to import it, right?

Perkovich says the current sanctions do not over natural uranium. I've read otherwise, but US pressure on a case-by-case basis is now being expended to keep Iran from building its stock of unprocessed uranium. One way or another, the sanctions and policies of today will not always be relevant. Iran likely will find itself importing uranium in the future.

Let's play out a little scenario. We've got five weeks left before the end of the year. If you're in the inner circles with Obama, what do you advise?

Mr. Obama, do you accept Iranian enrichment or not? If yes, the deal you can get today is better than the deal you'll be able to get in six months, much less years from now. If not, I guess we're just going to watch time pass and Iran's LEU stock increase until you change your mind.

Perkovich suggests that some point short of a nuclear weapon should be defined by the UN Security Council as being a nuclear weapon and if Iran crosses that point, I guess the US should be authorized to attack Iran. I'm not sure what Perkovich thinks should happen if Iran crosses the line he suggests the Security Council draw. I find that idea unworkable, but it has the benefit of accepting Iranian enrichment. But if he accepts Iranian enrichment, the US is better off making a deal that puts Iran's nuclear program under supervision.

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