Belfer Iran brief – January 4-10, 2014

Andrew WojtanikIn a new feature, Iran Matters will provide a weekly summary of developments in this space. This week, key developments include the resumption of nuclear negotiations in Geneva, emerging sticking points, and a flurry of congressional activity on Iran.

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By Andrew Wojtanik

Mark Twain once quipped that “if you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” Each Friday, the Iran Matters team will provide a brief summary of developments on the basis of a comprehensive survey of press coverage in the U.S. and abroad, occasionally with comments where we believe the press, policy makers, and analysts missed the point.

This week’s catalogue unfolds below:

Highlights from this week
  • U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman meeting with Iranian and EU counterparts in Geneva to finalize implementation of Nov. 24 interim agreement.

  • Menendez-Kirk-Schumer sanctions bill now has 53 co-sponsors in the Senate.

  • Iran did not receive invitation to participate in Jan. 22 Syria peace talks, but Secretary Kerry indicated Iran might be able “contribute from the sidelines.”

Diplomacy and deal implementation

  • Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi is meeting with EU counterpart Helga Schmid and U.S. chief negotiator Wendy Sherman in Geneva on Thursday and Friday to discuss implementation of the Nov. 24 Joint Plan of Action. (Reuters, 1/9)
    • State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki: “There are just a few remaining issues.” (AP, 1/9)
  • Technical negotiations reportedly held up on two issues related to centrifuge production. (AP, 1/9)
    • First, Iran seeks to continue producing 20% uranium enrichment at Natanz for R&D purposes (though it would be immediately neutralized after production so as to not add to Iran’s stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium).
    • Second, Iran also seeks to continue installing advanced IR-2m centrifuges under the provision in the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) that allows Iran to “continue its safeguarded R&D practices.” P5+1 retorts that the JPA requires Iran to “not install additional centrifuges.”
  •  Ayatollah Khamenei: “The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims.” (Reuters, 1/9)
    • But “the Islamic Republic, on specific issues that are of interest, will negotiate with this Satan, to deter its evil and solve problems.” (al-Monitor, 1/9)
  • Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) intends to introduce a House resolution circumscribing the terms of a final nuclear deal. (The Hill, 1/3) Note: House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) killed a similar effort before the congressional recess in December.
    • Cantor: Iran’s “determined pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and support for terrorism and instability must be stopped.”
  • Sen. Cruz and Sen. Inhofe are circulating non-binding resolution calling on Iran to “(1) immediately and without conditions release all United States citizens unjustly detained in Iran; and (2) publicly affirm the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state” before nuclear negotiations can continue. (LobeLog, 1/6)

Nuclear issue

  • Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s new memoir revealed that Obama called for a criminal leak investigation immediately after January 2009 NYT story uncovered U.S.-Israeli efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program (later revealed to be the Stuxnet virus). (NYT, 1/7)

Sanctions and Iran’s economy

  • Menendez-Kirk-Schumer sanctions bill, the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act,” now has 53 cosponsors in the Senate. (The Hill, 1/9) Note: 53 votes sufficient to pass Senate but not enough to override Presidential veto, which would require 67 votes.
    • Nine former ambassadors and senior U.S. policymakers wrote a letter to Sen. Menendez warning that new sanctions legislation would “threaten the prospects for success in the current negotiations and thus present us and our friends with a stark choice – military action or living with a nuclear Iran.” (The Hill, 1/6)
  • Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) said the committee will not mark up Iran sanctions bill passed by the House in July 2013 while negotiations with Iran continue. (Politico, 1/6) Note: (1) This bill is separate from, though similar to, the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer legislation. (2) The bill could alternatively be sent straight to Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
  • Khamenei: “Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation. They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations. No, it is a wrong.” (Reuters, 1/9)
  • Central Bank governor: Iranian banking sector’s bad loans amount to around $32 billion. (Tehran Times, 1/8)
  • Value of Iran’s commodities exchange, reflecting the price of commodities, has risen by 60% in the past 9 months. (Fars, 1/8)
  • President Rouhani noted he hopes to attract 10 million tourists to Iran per year, up from 6 million last year. (Tehran Times, 1/7)
    • Financial Times travel section: “Thirty-five years after it dropped off the tourist map, Iran may be set to return to the top of ‘must-visit’ lists for 2014.” (FT, 1/3)

Iranian domestic politics

  • President Rouhani: Reaching an interim deal “required brave decision-making…. We should not and do not fear the fuss made by the few people or a small percentage” who criticize the deal. (AFP, 1/7) Note: Reflects struggle between hardliners and moderates in Iran that David Ignatius describes in his Washington Post column here.
  • Iranian media reported that Foreign Minister Zarif rejected addition of two conservative members of parliament to supervisory council that oversees nuclear negotiators. (al-Monitor, 1/6)

US-Iran relations

  • Rouhani: “While we may not be able to forget the mistrust and suspicion that have haunted Iranians’ thinking about US governments for the last 60 years, now we must focus on the present and look to the future. That means rising above petty politics and leading, rather than following, pressure groups in our respective countries.” (Project Syndicate, 1/8) Note: Unmistakably aimed at sending a message to hardliners in Iran and Congress in the United States.

Geopolitics and Iran

  • Gen. Mohammed Hejazi, deputy commander of Iran’s armed forces: Iran willing to provide “equipment and advice,” but not troops, to Iraqi government battling Al Qaeda. (NYT, 1/6)
    • David Ignatius: “Iran has waged a brilliant covert-action campaign that turned Maliki and Iraq into virtual clients of Tehran — and in the process alienated Sunnis and pushed them toward extremism.” (WP, 1/8)
      Secretary Kerry Welcomes Special Representative Brahimi to London
      Secretary Kerry Welcomes Special Representative Brahimi to London for discussions on Syria, 10/14/13
      Via Flickr
  • Iran was not invited to send a delegation to the Syria peace conference in Geneva on January 22 when invitations were sent by the UN this week. (AFP, 1/6)
    • But Secretary Kerry and Russian FM Sergei Lavrov will meet on Jan. 13 to discuss Iran’s participation. Note: UN and special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi have indicated they wish to see Iran attend, but the U.S. opposes Iran’s attendance unless Tehran agrees to the precondition that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must go.
  • Nonetheless, Secretary Kerry indicated Iran could informally “contribute from the sidelines” to Syria peace talks. (NYT, 1/6)
    • Senior U.S. official laid out two conditions: Iran should act by “calling for an end to the bombardment by the Syrian regime of their own people” and “encouraging humanitarian access” into Syria.
    • Spokeswoman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry: “In order to take part in the Geneva 2 conference, the Islamic Republic of Iran will not accept any proposal which does not respect its dignity.” (Reuters, 1/6)
  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named ex-DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute as special adviser for relocation of Iranian Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MEK) dissidents from Camp Hurriya in Iraq. (Reuters, 1/5)
    • MEK called on the UN to investigate rocket attack against Camp Liberty in Iraq, home to 3,000 MEK members. (AFP, 1/6)
  • Delegation of UK lawmakers visited Tehran for the first time since the British Embassy closed in 2011. (AP, 1/7)

Israel

  • In his new memoir, Robert Gates notes that he aggressively sought to persuade President Bush not to allow Israel to strike Iran. In a private call with the President, Gates argued that “we must not make our vital interests in the entire Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia hostage to another nation’s decisions — no matter how close an ally.” (NYT, 1/8)

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

  • Excerpt from Gates’s memoir: “Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran's nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.” (WSJ, 1/7)

Uncertain or dubious claims

  • Ehud Barak: “The immediate risk is that Iran still possesses the capability to enrich uranium.” (Project Syndicate, 1/8)

Note: Barak’s framing misses a fundamental point: whether Iran has 19,000 centrifuges or zero, it will still have the “capability to enrich uranium.” When Iran mastered the technologies and know-how to indigenously build centrifuges and enrich uranium, it irreversibly crossed this red line. See: Graham Allison’s “Will Iran Get a Bomb—or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?

  • French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius: “Do our Iranians partners want to just suspend production that could lead to them having a nuclear weapon or do they accept to give it up completely? Obviously, the second option is what's acceptable, because the first none of the P5+1 will accept.” (Reuters, 1/9)

Note: Echoes Fabius’s demand in December that Iran "definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon." Insisting on a lofty goal that is beyond reality is the surest way to make certain there is no deal.

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