Belfer Iran Brief—January 25–31, 2014

Andrew WojtanikDiplomats, analysts, and journalists have marked February 18 on their calendars, the date when talks over the future of Iran’s nuclear program will resume in Vienna. Meanwhile, President Obama reiterated his threat to veto Senate sanctions legislation, as Democratic cosponsors of the Kirk-Menendez bill began peeling off. This week’s developments from the Iran Matters team . . .

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By Andrew Wojtanik

Highlights

  • President Obama again threatened to veto Senate sanctions legislation during his annual State of the Union address.
  • P5+1 and Iran will begin negotiations toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement on February 18 in Vienna.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu estimated that the interim deal has delayed Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb by only six weeks.

Diplomacy and deal implementation

  • P5+1 and Iran will resume talks aimed at producing a comprehensive nuclear accord on February 18 at a UN facility in Vienna. (Reuters, 1/31)
    • Initial reporting indicated talks would occur in New York. (Reuters, 1/27)
    • IISS analyst Mark Fitzpatrick: “There is a technical solution to be had, but whether it would be politically acceptable in either key capital is doubtful.” (WSJ, 1/27)
  • President Obama’s State of the Union address: “These negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.” (CBS News, 1/28)
  • IAEA inspectors visited Gachin uranium mine in southern Iran. (NYT, 1/29)
    • IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano: IAEA will meet with Iran in Vienna on Feb. 8. Discussions will include “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. (Reuters, 1/28)
  • YouGov/Economist poll: 58% of Americans approve of the interim agreement with Iran. (YouGov, 1/22)
    • AP-GfK poll: 60% of Americans approve of interim deal, but 51% of respondents believe it is not likely to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. (AP, 1/28)

Nuclear issue

  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “We continue to assess that Iran’s overarching strategic goals of enhancing its security, prestige, and regional influence have led it to pursue capabilities to meet its civilian goals and give it the ability to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so…We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” (DNI, 1/29)
    • Clapper: “Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” Note: This is the same language as last year. Underlines fact that Iran is already technically capable of producing a bomb, but it has not made a clear political decision.
  • Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr will be shut down temporarily for refueling. (Reuters, 1/28)

Sanctions and Iran’s economy

  • Senate and House supporters of the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act,” which would authorize additional sanctions against Iran, are reportedly considering abandoning the bill in favor of a nonbinding resolution. (Reuters, 1/27)
    • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the original co-sponsors of the sanctions bill, rescinded his support for the draft legislation. (Think Progress, 1/28) Note: Several other co-sponsors have seemingly reconsidered as well.
    • Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Angus King (I-ME): Sanctions legislation “could actually accelerate [Iran’s] quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it.” (NYT, 1/28)
      President Obama delivering the State of the Union address
      President Obama delivering the State of the Union address
      Photo courtesy of Sen. Claire McCaskill
  • President Obama, at the State of the Union: “Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.” (CBS News, 1/28)
  • YouGov/Economist poll: 53% of Americans believe Congress should “establish what are acceptable limits for international negotiations before the administration begins to negotiate.” (YouGov, 1/22)

Iranian domestic politics

  • Khamenei adviser: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has “limited” its control over economic projects and plans to hand many over to the private sector. (al-Monitor, 1/27)
  • Mohammed Ali Najafi, vice president of tourism and cultural heritage, stepped down for health reasons. (AP, 1/30)

US-Iran relations

  • President Hassan Rouhani: “The language of threats is ineffective when it comes to Iran. The language [Americans] need to choose should be a legal one, a respectful tone of voice when addressing the Iranian people.” (CNN, 1/23)

Geopolitics and Iran

  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Tehran for talks on bilateral trade and Syria. (AFP, 1/28)
    • Ahead of visit, U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen emphasized to Turkish officials in Ankara that Iran remains under sanctions. (al-Monitor, 1/30)
  • Four retired world leaders—Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, Martti Ahtisaari, and Ernesto Zedillo—met with Iranian government officials in Tehran. (AP, 1/27)
  • Iranian parliamentary delegation will visit the UK this spring. (Reuters, 1/28)
  • Hard line Iranian newspaper released the names of 15 Iranian volunteers who died fighting in Syria. (al-Monitor, 1/31)
  • Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that Syria’s missile capabilities have improved with the assistance of Iran and North Korea. (GSN, 1/28)
  • NYT editorial: “The United States has tried to keep the nuclear and Syria issues separate, and there is logic to that. If the nuclear deal were the vehicle to resolve every dispute the West has with Iran, it would likely fail.” (NYT, 1/24)
  • Iran pressed the UN to help identify and punish the perpetrators of recent violence against Iranian diplomats in Lebanon and Yemen. (Fars, 1/28)

Israel

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “All told, we assess that the agreement put Iran six weeks further away, no more than that, from the place where it was beforehand.” (Reuters, 1/28)
  • Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Israeli director of Military Intelligence: “The nuclear project is continuing, but it has been slowed. We now have to wait and see whether the [diplomatic] process will bring about something effective.” (Haaretz, 1/30)
  • Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon: “Messianic regime” in Iran is “the number one threat to regional and world stability.” (Haaretz, 1/30)
  • Israeli court sentenced an Israeli man for attempting to spy for Iran “out of spite of Israel and for financial gain.” (BBC, 1/28)

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

  • Amos Yadlin, former Israeli director of Israeli intelligence: “At the end of the day, if they are running toward a bomb, the military option should be on the table.” (Jerusalem Post, 1/27)
  • Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, indicated the legislative body will increase Iran’s military budget in response to American “saber-rattling.” (Fars, 1/26)

Uncertain or dubious claims

  • Sen. Lindsay Graham: “Here’s the end game for me: I want the plutonium reactor dismantled, not frozen in place. I want the enrichment capabilities of the Iranians to be zero.” (Reuters, 1/27) Note: As analysts begin to outline potential end-states, few argue that an agreement which entirely dismantles Iran’s enrichment capability is possible.

 

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