Belfer Iran brief—January 10-17, 2014

Andrew WojtanikAnother busy week in the Iran space, including a technical agreement in Geneva, robust debate in Congress over new sanctions legislation, and an Iranian-American accused of stealing secrets about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

 . . .

By Andrew Wojtanik

 In a new feature, the Iran Matters team will summarize the latest developments in the Iran space by surveying press coverage in the U.S. and abroad, with occasional commentary on points where we believe reporters, policy makers, or analysts miss the mark.

 Highlights

  • Technical delegations from the P5+1 and Iran smoothed differences in interpretation of the Nov. 24 interim nuclear deal and agreed to begin implementing the accord on January 20.

  • President Obama hosted Senate Democrats at the White House in an attempt to discourage the lawmakers from bringing new sanctions legislation to a vote.

  • Reuters revealed that Iran and Russia are reportedly negotiating an “oil-for-goods” deal that would increase Iran’s oil exports by nearly 50%.

 Diplomacy and deal implementation

  • Iran and the P5+1 reached an accord on implementation of the Nov. 24 Joint Plan of Action (JPA). The implementation period will begin January 20 and last for six months. (NYT, 1/12)
    • The White House released a summary of the implementation agreement. (White House, 1/16)
    • Senior U.S. official: Iran will begin diluting 20% enriched uranium and providing information to the IAEA about centrifuge workshops “on the first day.” Additionally, “the completion of dilution of UF6 (uranium hexaflouride) 20 percent will be carried out over the first three months.” (State Dept., 1/13) Note: See Gary Samore’s latest post, “All in the timing,” for a detailed description of what the implementation agreement does—and does not—include.
  • The agreement’s most controversial provision allows Iran to continue feeding advanced centrifuges at its enrichment facility in Natanz for R&D purposes, as defined in a November IAEA report. (State Dept., 1/13) Note: The November IAEA report notes that in the “R&D area” of the Natanz facility, “Iran has been intermittently feeding natural UF6 into IR-6s centrifuges as single machines and into IR-1, IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges, sometimes into single machines and sometimes into cascades of various sizes…but no LEU was withdrawn as the product and the tails were recombined at the end of the process.”
    • Senior U.S. official: “On the broader R&D questions, this will be a subject for the comprehensive resolution.” (State Dept., 1/13)
      Araghchi at the IAEA
      Iranian deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi, second from right, meets with
      IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.
      Photo: Veysel Kuecuektas/IAEA
  • Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator, announced that details of the agreement are spelled out in a tightly held, 30-page “non-paper” that will not be released to the public. (LAT, 1/13) Note: Media widely interpreted existence of “non-paper” as a “secret side deal”; the White House responded that Araghchi’s comments have been misinterpreted. The “non-paper” could indeed be a written account of the details of the implementation agreement without a “side deal” included.
    • GOP lawmakers asked the White House to make the document public. (LAT, 1/14)
  • Senior U.S. official: the Joint Commission established to oversee implementation of deal will meet “at least monthly.” (State Dept., 1/13)
  • Iran and the P5+1 are likely to begin negotiations on a comprehensive deal in February. (Reuters, 1/13)
    • Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi: “Overall, there’s no option other than coming to an agreement. The next choice would be disagreeing, which would not benefit us, them, the region or anyone else.” (Reuters, 1/11)
  • Iran will meet with the IAEA on February 8. (Reuters, 1/14)
    • IAEA Board of Governors, comprising 35 nations, called a special session to discuss enhanced IAEA activities in Iran. Board meeting will occur January 24 in Vienna. (Reuters, 1/15)
    • IAEA will visit Gachine uranium mine January 29. (Reuters, 1/17)
    • IAEA is considering establishing an office in Iran to serve as base of operations for more frequent inspections at Iran’s nuclear facilities. (Reuters, 1/12)
  • EU representative Catherine Ashton will visit Iran “in the next weeks.” (Reuters, 1/13)
  • Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and James Risch (R-IL) are blocking a vote on the nomination of Puneet Talwar to be assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs due to his role in back-channel negotiations with Iran in Oman. (The Hill, 1/15)

Nuclear issue

  • Iran will remove connections between centrifuges that allow for enrichment to 20%. (NYT, 1/12)
    • Abbas Araghchi: “These interconnections can be removed in a day and connected again in a day.”
  • Araghchi: “We will in no way, never, dismantle our centrifuges.” (Iranian, 1/13)

Sanctions and Iran’s economy

  • First tranche of frozen oil revenues, worth $550M, will be released to Iran in early February. (Reuters, 1/12)
    • Second installment, worth $450M, will be released on March 1. Total of $4.2B will be dispensed by July.
  • EU will suspend sanctions on gold, petrochemicals, and insurance and transportation of Iranian oil immediately on January 20. (Reuters, 1/13)
  • 59 senators, including 16 Democrats, have cosponsored the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer sanctions bill, but some have encouraged delaying a vote to give the U.S. more time to negotiate with Iran. (FT, 1/14)
    • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV): “Let's see how this plays out. The legislative process is working forward here. I am going to sit and be as fair an umpire as I can.” (Reuters, 1/14)
    • Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT): “So as long there’s progress [in negotiations], the progress is meaningful and visible, there may not need to be a vote.” (AP, 1/14)
  • President Obama hosted Senate Democrats at the White House to discourage a vote on the sanctions bill. (Politico, 1/15)
    • Obama: “Imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully, and I will veto any legislation enacting new sanctions during the negotiation.” (Reuters, 1/12)
    • Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: “It just stands to reason if you close the diplomatic option, you’re left with a difficult choice of waiting to see if sanctions cause Iran to capitulate, which we don’t think will happen, or considering military action.” (NYT, 1/13)
  • NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan: “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so.” (Huffington Post, 1/9)
    • House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD): “I think that is absolutely untrue, an irresponsible assertion and ought to be clarified and retracted by those who have made it within the administration. Nobody believes, as far as I know, that going to war with Iran is anything but a dangerous objective that none of us will seek.” (The Hill, 1/14)
  • Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates: “Imposing new sanctions right now is a terrible mistake and would be a strategic error.” (PBS News Hour, 1/14)
    • “On the other hand…voting for severe new sanctions but sanctions that would be triggered only by failure of the negotiations would strengthen the president’s negotiating hand.”
    • “There ought to be a firm deadline (for negotiations) at six months. The Iranians are world-class experts in slow-rolling negotiating partners or adversaries.”
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: “If they believe that sanctions are so important, then they can test it and see the consequences. I don’t think the consequences would be something that they would like.” (RT, 1/16)
  • Iran and Russia are reportedly in negotiations over “oil-for-goods” deal that would facilitate exchange of Russian products for up to 500,000 Iranian barrels of oil per day. (Reuters, 1/10) Note: 500,000 barrels per day would boost Iran’s daily export volume by nearly 50%.
  • The prime minister of the United Arab Emirates called for easing sanctions against Iran. (Reuters, 1/13) Note: Worth noting that the prime minister of UAE is also the ruler of the emirate of Dubai, where a considerable number of businesses have an interest in reducing barriers to the Iranian market.
    • Sheikh Mohammed: “I think [Iran is] telling the truth when they say just for civilian power.”
  • Iran cancelled a $900M loan to Pakistan to jointly build a power plant in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province. (Tehran Times, 1/13)

Iranian domestic politics

  • President Rouhani travelled to the oil-rich province of Khuzestan and sought to rally domestic support for economic reforms and the interim nuclear deal. (WP, 1/15)
    • Rouhani: “Do you know what the Geneva agreement means? It means the surrender of the big powers before the great Iranian nation.” (AP, 1/14)
    • Rouhani also criticized domestic opponents of the negotiations: “A group does not want sanctions to be lifted. They are opponent to having normal ties with the world for the sake of their personal interests.” (AP, 1/16)
  • Conservative media outlets in Iran accused Araghchi of withholding details of the technical agreement. (NYT, 1/13)

US-Iran relations

  • Authorities arrested Iranian-American engineer and ex-military contractor Mozaffar Khazaee for attempting to ship “proprietary material relating to the U.S. Air Force’s F35 Joint Strike Fighter program and military jet engines” to Iran. (Dept. of Justice, 1/10)
  • Foreign Minister Zarif: “There is a very serious confidence deficit vis-à-vis the west in Iran. Our people believe that our peaceful nuclear program has been dealt with in a totally unfounded way.” (AP, 1/12)

Geopolitics and Iran

  • Secretary Kerry: “We have been so focused and so intent on the nuclear file that we really have not dug into [Syria] in any appreciably substantive way.” (AP, 1/13)
    • Foreign Minister Zarif, on Jan. 22 Syria peace talks: “If the Islamic Republic of Iran is invited like all other participants in the conference, it will take part in this event.” But “we do not accept any pre-conditions for our country’s participation.” (Reuters, 1/16)
  • U.S. intelligence: since the Nov. 24 agreement, Iran has delivered an estimated 330 shipments of arms and other equipment to Syria over land via Iraq. (NYT, 1/12)
  • Foreign Minister Zarif visited Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Russia.
    • In Beirut, Zarif visited the grave of infamous Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, earning the ire of the United States and others. (NYT, 1/14)
    • In Syria, Zarif encouraged “a solution for the Syrian crisis through political dialogue and on a realistic basis.” (Fars, 1/15)
  • Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades vowed attacks against Iran and Hezbollah after the death of its leader, Majid al-Majid, in Lebanon earlier this month. (AP, 1/14) Note: Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for twin bombings outside Iranian embassy in Beirut in November.

Israel

  • Israeli newspaper quoted Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as criticizing Secretary Kerry for operating “from an incomprehensible obsession and sense of messianism” on Palestinian issue. (NYT, 1/14)
    • Yaalon: “can’t teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians. The only thing that might save us is if John Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us be.” Note: Yaalon is typically quiet about U.S.-Israeli relationship, which makes the comment all the more surprising. Yaalon’s comments, for which he has apologized, could suggest a potential fissure between the U.S. and Israeli security establishments, with a potential impact on the Iranian issue.
  • Rouhani and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will both attend World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland next week. (Reuters, 1/10)
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill: “We cannot let Israel determine when and where the U.S. goes to war. By stating that the U.S. should provide military support to Israel should it attack Iran, I fear that is exactly what this bill will do.” (LobeLog, 1/15)
  • Sheikh Mohammed, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, recalled that Ahmadinejad had once told him: “What will I do? If I have a means of transporting this [nuclear] weapon to Israel, how many Palestinians will I kill?” (Times of Israel, 1/13)
    • “The Europeans and Americans will finish my cities in Iran. I am not crazy, to go for that. The weapon is of the past.”

“Red lines,” “points of no return,” and military strikes

  • No significant developments.

Uncertain or dubious claims

  • Fereydoun Abbas-Davani, former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization: “In reality, there is nothing else left for us to give in order to get something from the West. We have shut down the Arak reactor, we have stopped enrichment of 20 percent uranium purity, enrichment has been reduced to less than 5 percent, and we have become vulnerable. We are not allowed to increase the number of our centrifuges and the new generation of centrifuges cannot be installed. The next stop is probably for us to stop 5-percent enrichment.” (Middle East Briefing, 1/12) Note: As a hard-line veteran of the Ahmadinejad government, Abbas-Davani’s frustration over the terms of the interim nuclear deal is unsurprising. However, to suggest that Iran has “nothing else” left to give is misleading. Several additional constraints are likely to be considered, including curbing and rolling back Iran’s number of operational centrifuges, discontinuing work at Arak, and mothballing Iran’s enrichment facility at Fordow.
  • Fars, Iran’s semi-official news agency, credited documents purportedly leaked by Edward Snowden that proved “an alien/extraterrestrial intelligence agenda is driving US domestic and international policy, and has been doing so since at least 1945.” (Fars, 1/12) Note: In September 2012, Fars cited a fake study by “The Onion,” America’s famous satirical news site, which found that “the overwhelming majority of rural white Americans said they would rather vote for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than U.S. president Barack Obama.”

Andrew Wojtanik is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.