We must help Hassan Rouhani (le Figaro, October, 2013)

With the whirlwind of meetings and declarations in which the newly elected Iranian president has embarked during his visit in New York, we have attended a kind of wild week, crowned by the historical telephone call between Obama and Rouhani. But the euphoria created by the visible thaw between Iran and the outer world having now somehow subsided, we have to admit that this whole set of events remained within the realm of declarations of good intentions. There is still to get to the heart of the matters, and therefore to the heart of the nuclear file.

And there, Rouhani needs a quick success. He has been elected on the promise that he would loosen the noose of sanctions which strangles the Iranian population. At this juncture, the Americans and the Europeans hold his fate in their hands. Either one sees good progress in the negotiation, the sanctions are reduced, the economy rebounds. In that case, Rouhani’s popularity strengthens, and he gets the upper hand within the Islamic republic’s system in order to address Iran’s other disputes with the outer world. Or the negotiation drags on, the Iranian economy falls deeper into depression, popular disappointment sets in. Conservative factions, defeated in the presidential election but still powerful in the parliament and in the inner core of the regime, regain courage, and engage in guerilla against the government. Rouhani being weakened, Iran enters anew a course of confrontation against its familiar adversaries: the West, Israel, the Arab kingdoms…

In order to help Rouhani demonstrate that he has made the right choice when betting on openness and engagement, one gesture is needed : to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment. In exchange of what Tehran is ready to give all necessary guarantees to alleviate the world’s worries : enhanced international controls, enrichment capped at 5%. This percentage is sufficient for industrial uses, but at comfortable distance from the 90% necessary for a nuclear explosive device.

We are still far from this point. As Obama himself recalled at the United Nations, Americans and Europeans maintain their demand that Iran comply with the Security Council requirements, which means suspending its enrichment activities. Such a demand is unacceptable for Iran, as we have known since it has been adopted in 2006. Rouhani himself said it a little while after his election. When he was negotiating on the nuclear file between 2003 and 2005, he accepted a first suspension, gaining nothing in exchange. He has been bitterly criticized by his opponents for such a move, and the critics have not subsided. To order again such a suspension would be for him a political suicide.

By convincing the Security Council to adopt a decision of limited interest, except for pressuring Iran into the termination of its enrichment activities, we have fallen into our own trap. In its resolution, the Council expressed the conviction that such a suspension would contribute to a negotiated solution. But this requirement, by hindering the progress of the negotiation, has produced the opposite effect. Time has come to admit it. And more broadly, it is not serious to ask Rouhani, as it has often been heard, to make the “first steps“ without disclosing what we would be willing to offer in exchange. No political leader anywhere in the world would accept to make a significant concession without being able to present to his public the corresponding benefits. Let us hope that this consideration of common sense will be kept in mind during the forthcoming negotiations. To achieve some progress, “first steps” have to come from both sides, and be simultaneous.

Rouhani and the Iranian Bomb (International Herald Tribune, July, 2013)

As Hassan Rouhani prepares to become the next president of the Iranian Islamic Republic, it is worth recalling the leading role he played as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in late 2003, when the clandestine program run by the Revolutionary Guards to produce a nuclear weapon was halted.

The halt in the weaponization program  —  as distinct from the program for uranium enrichment, power production and civilian research  —  was acknowledged in November 2007 by American intelligence services in their National Intelligence Estimate, and confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November 2011 in a report from the  director general, who wrote: ‘‘work on the AMAD Plan [i.e. the undeclared nuclear weaponization program] was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order’ instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials.’’

Based on conversations that I had at the time, as French ambassador to Tehran, with high Iranian officials close to the matter, I firmly believe that Rouhani was the main actor in the process. Of course, Iranians could not admit to a foreigner that such a program ever existed, and I cannot name the officials I spoke to. But two conversations in particular remain vivid in my mind.

The first one took place a little after Rouhani became Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in October 2003 and had reached an agreement about the suspension of Iranian sensitive enrichment activities with the German, British and French foreign ministers during their joint visit to Tehran.

A high-ranking official confided to me that after this meeting Rouhani  issued a general circular asking all Iranian departments and agencies, civilian and military, to report in detail about their past and ongoing nuclear activities. The official explained to me that the main difficulty Rouhani and his team were encountering was learning exactly what was happening in a system as secretive as Iran’s.

A few weeks after, I heard from another official, a close friend of Rouhani: ‘‘The Rouhani team is having a hard time ... People resist their instructions ... But they will prevail.’’ He went on to complain how difficult it was to convince researchers to abruptly terminate projects they had been conducting for years.

I told him of a similar case in Europe when a country had to implement the freshly signed Chemical Weapons Convention. The researchers were given enough time and funds to archive all the data they had collected in order to protect  their achievements for the future. A while later, my interlocutor happily reported: ‘‘I conveyed your message ...  It worked!’’

My conviction that these officials were talking about the weaponization program was reinforced when the November 2011 I.A.E.A. report about the termination of that program noted that ‘‘staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.’’

Of course, closing down a program run by the powerful Revolutionary Guards required the concurrence of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There were two strong reasons for such a move:

First, by the end of 2003, Iran’s arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, had been eliminated by the United States, and it had been confirmed that the Iraqi clandestine nuclear program was stopped after Saddam’s defeat in 1991. It was the Iraqi program that had driven the Iranians to launch a similar endeavor in the 1980s, when they were fighting Iraq in the ‘‘War of Sacred Defense.’’ So the main motive behind Iran’s need for a bomb was gone.

Two, in October 2003, during the visit of the German, British and French foreign ministers,  Rouhani had agreed not only to suspend Iranian enrichment activities but also to sign and put into immediate effect the I.A.E.A. Additional Protocol, which opened the whole of Iranian territory to intrusive inspections. The risk of having I.A.E.A. inspectors find nuclear military activities forbidden by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was now too high.

Rouhani cannot claim credit for halting the weaponization program because officially it never existed. But the actions I believe he took in 2003 raise hopes that as president of the Islamic Republic he will be able to find and implement a negotiated solution for the continuing nuclear crisis.

…And what about Ali Khamenei? (Iran Review, June, 2013)

One man in Iran must have slept better since the election of Hassan Rouhani : it is the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

In 2009, when hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Iranians were demonstrating in the streets, the Pasdaran kept for about a fortnight a plane ready to exfiltrate him out of the country, probably towards Syria. The regime vacillated upon its base. Shortly after the hasty proclamation of Ahmadinejad as the winner, Khamenei, hoping to silence the protesters, presented the result as a "Judgment of God". With no avail. Why having thus given all the signals of a blatant and massive fraud?

It seems clear today that the heart of the Regime, Ali Khamenei and his close affiliates, got somehow persuaded that Mousavi's candidacy was supported by a foreign plot, trying to stir a kind of Iranian "Velvet Revolution". Khamenei himself must not have been too difficult to convince, having developed towards Mousavi a solid hatred from the time, in the eighties, when the latter, as Prime Minister, was constantly trying to confine Khamenei, then President of the Republic, to protocolar tasks. But on what grounds could the Council of Guardians eliminate him? He had an impeccable record at the head of the Government during the "Sacred Defense" against Saddam, and had since then maintained a more than discreet presence in public life. His disqualification could only come from the polls. It was then essential that he should not reach the second round, where he could have coalesced all the oppositions against Ahmadinejad. Hence the necessity of a clear victory of Ahmadinejad in a first and last round.

These are the nightmares which must have haunted Khamenei during the four years of Ahmadinejad’s second presidency. In 2013, the heart of the Regime, adopted opposite tactics : eliminate any dangerous candidate at the early stage of the Council of Guardians' selection, before the heat and excitement of the campaign. This is how Rahim Mashaei, the highly visible and controversial Ahmadinejad's crony was disqualified and, even more risky, Rafsandjani, Eminence of the Islamic Republic, on the sole ground, carefully distilled to the public, of his old age. Nobody moved. What a relief!

With selected candidates all perfectly loyal to the Leader, Khamenei had no difficulty to proclaim that he had no favorite. The only remaining problem, with candidates of medium to low visibility, was the question of citizens' participation. This could be easily doctored. But then came the miracle of the campaign, during which the remaining candidates, entering into their roles, adopting more and more contrasting positions, started stirring the public's interest. And in a few days, enthusiasm built up in favor of the only candidate who spoke openly about political freedom, and most of all about the return of prosperity through the easing of international sanctions and the reformation of Ahmadinejad's erratic economic policy. No need, this time, to intervene into the polls' results. To the surprise of all, including Khamenei, Hassan Rouhani, with 50.7% of the votes, wrapped up the election from the first round.

Ali Khamenei has all the reasons to be happy with the election of Hassan Rouhani. He has known him since the beginning of the Revolution, and as soon as elected as Supreme Leader, in 1989, gave him a seat in the Supreme National Security Council. He appointed him for a time as Secretary General of the same body, and even as his personal representative in the Council up to his election as President. Khamenei is not bothered by Rouhani's proximity with his arch rival Rafsandjani, having been able to verify his loyalty when Rouhani was in charge of the delicate nuclear negotiation with the Europeans, from 2003 to 2005. He knows from experience that even in case of diverging points of view, Rouhani will never take him by surprise. He gave him wide margins of negotiation at this time, even when Rouhani’s policy of engagement with the Europeans ran against his own convictions. Rouhani is the man who convinced Khamenei, by the end of 2003, that the time had come to put an end to the clandestine nuclear military program run by the Pasdaran. Not because of the pressure created by the American presence in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but because the most dangerous enemy of Iran, Saddam Hussein, had fallen, and it was finally clear that Iraq had not been trying to get the Bomb. And perhaps most of all because Iran, reciprocating the European demonstration of goodwill, had accepted to implement the IAEA Additional Protocol opening the whole Iranian territory to international inspections. From then on, if such a clandestine program went on, the risk to be caught red-handed was definitely too high.

As we know today from the American Intelligence Community and IAEA reports, this difficult decision was not only taken, but implemented. Rouhani is the man who steered the whole process, never failing, of course, to report to Khamenei. The Supreme Leader saw that he had the capacity to manage tense situations at the highest level. And he can feel assured today that Rouhani, thanks to his long practice of the avenues of power, has the capacity to put together an Administration composed of the best elements available in the country. Khamenei has then all the reasons to leave him ample leeway for bringing in as soon as possible significant results. The most important of these reasons being the fact that the Islamic Republic, after the success of the last election, can expect to be granted a new lease in terms of credibility, and even of legitimacy, if it can demonstrate its capacity to respond to the expectations of the Iranian electorate. Of course, nor the best, nor the worst, is certain. But, in the short run, Khamenei can hope to have finally encountered in Rouhani the ideal associate, able to prepare the country for his own succession.

For one has to remember that the Supreme Leader has occupied his charge for almost 25 years. He will soon be 74 and is not in perfect health. He should have started worrying about the future of Iran beyond him. And if only for preparing his own place in history, he should aspire to leave to his still unknown successor a country a little less depressed economically, better assured of its security, and less at loggerheads with its environment. For such a task, Rouhani could be the right man, in the right place, coming at the right moment.

Iraq, Iran : the lesson of sanctions (CERI, April, 2013)

In 1990, Saddam Hussein did not understand that the world had changed with the fall of the Wall. He thought that the USSR would protect him from America after the invasion of Kuwait, and paid dearly for his mistake. Abandoned by the Soviets, Iraq had to bear the cost, first of a war lost, and second of international sanctions, on a scale and harshness still unmatched today.

On the 6th of August, 1990, four days after the invasion of Kuwait, the Security Council adopted, with the approval of its five permanent members, Resolution 661 implementing an overall embargo on imports from, and exports to Iraq, and on all financial movements. It envisaged a kind of safety valve for the supply of humanitarian goods, but this provision did not come into effect until 1996, in the form of the “Oil for Food” program, because of Iraq’s initial resistance to further controls. After the liberation of Kuwait, Resolution 687, adopted on the 3rd of April, 1991, again with the assent of the five Permanent Members, launched the search and destruction of all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and of missiles over a 150 kilometer range. Two days later, Resolution 688 condemned the repression of civilian populations, especially the Kurds, and opened the way to the famous “right of humanitarian intervention”. Finally, moving beyond the decisions of the Security Council, the United States, Great-Britain and France set up two no-fly zones, one as soon as April 2011 in Northern Iraq, to protect the Kurds, the second in the South on the following year, to protect Shi’a populations.

Over the years, the toll inflicted by the embargo on Iraqis’ health and welfare raised growing questions in the international opinion. Humanitarian NGOs started producing reports detailing how sanctions were entailing hundreds of thousands deaths, especially among children. In 1997, the French president, Jacques Chirac, declared at an international Summit in Hanoi : “Our goal is to convince, not to compel. I have never seen a policy of sanctions producing anything positive.” The year before, France had stopped contributing to the Northern no-fly zone. It withdrew from the Southern one in 1999. In the meantime, Iraq was bearing grudgingly the international inspections set up by Resolution 687. By December, 1998, the United States inflicted on the country a wave of targeted strikes, in principle to degrade its suspected WMD capacities, more likely to help topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. But the Regime held on, and a new war had to be launched in 2003 to finally bring it down.

How do sanctions against Iran compare to such a history? First, Russia, succeeding the USSR, and China, do not look at the world as in 1990, and have developed growing reservations regarding the use of sanctions. And the Iranian case, in its outset, did not carry a violation of international law as blatant as the Iraqi case, which saw the massive aggression of a UN member state by another member state. Russia and China have consequently refused to endorse an embargo expanding beyond the points of contention, i.e. nuclear, military and ballistic. These sanctions having produced but a feeble impression on the Iranian regime, the United States and the European Union have resolved to resort to their own additional sanctions, interrupting all oil-related business, and progressively drying up all financial flows with Iran. And in order to reinforce the efficiency of these sanctions, the United States has set up “secondary sanctions”, compelling third parties to join in. In the past, such a practice had been strongly opposed by the European Union. This time, it has quietly endorsed US pressures on a vast array of countries, especially in Asia, to convince them to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil, and to interrupt their monetary transactions with Tehran, except for trade expressed in their national currencies. In spite of its unwavering support, the European Union has been submitted, like everyone else, to the pressures of the American Administration and Congress, for instance when the question arose to forbid to Iranians banks access to European automated banking services.

But this new architecture of sanctions suffers from a lesser legitimacy than the Iraqi set of sanctions, which was placed entirely under the aegis of the United Nations. The great consumers of Iranian oil : China, Japan, India, South Korea… have reduced their purchases only in the proportion required to avoid punition by the United States. True, Iranian oil exports have been cut by half. But this oil is sold at a price fluctuating between 80 and 100 dollars per barrel, as the price of the barrel seldom went over 30 dollars from the birth of the Islamic Republic, in 1979, to the election of Ahmadinejad as president, in 2005. Furthermore, an unknown share of the Iranian production is, in all likelihood, sold under other pavilions. And quite obviously, some banks exotic enough to be able to dodge American monitoring succeed, at the proper price, in managing exchanges between Iran and the outer world.

True also, the Iranian riyal has lost about two thirds of its value in dollars, but it was until recently, as a matter of prestige, maintained at a grossly overrated level. Its present value is much closer to the economic truth. This correction has certainly encouraged inflation. But it offers margins of competitiveness quite unheard of to the Iranian industry, which was until now stifled by Asian productions. It offers an opportunity to raise the proportion of non-oil exports in the Iranian trade balance. This devaluation has therefore positive aspects.

Of course, the Iranian population pays dearly for these sanctions, and also for the erratic management of the economy by the Iranian government, as was the case in Saddam’s Iraq. In theory, imports of humanitarian products, like food and medicine, do not fall under the embargo. But the complexity of the system make such imports more or less impracticable, except for exceptional cases as when some giant of the food industry, like Cargill, deems it convenient to sell corn to Iran. All things considered, the shock created by sanctions is not as heavy as it was in Iraq. The sheer size of the Iranian population – 75 million inhabitants versus 20 million Iraqis at the turn of the century – acts as an absorber. And in spite of serious shortcomings, the level of self-sufficiency of the Iranian economy, in agriculture as well as in industry, is clearly higher than in Saddam’s Iraq.

Could the Iranians be less resigned than the Iraqis to be taken as hostages by their government in its quarrel with the outer world? If they were to rise from submission, would the Regime be ready to show itself as merciless as the former master of Baghdad, or the present master of Damascus? The Iranian civil society has already paid a heavy price for the upheavals entailed by the rigged elections of 2009. It is not in a position to challenge again the Regime. On the other hand, this Regime will probably hesitate to rig the upcoming presidential election as grossly as last time. All in all, one does not see coming from the horizon the internal crisis which could undermine the Islamic Republic to a point where it would have no other choice but to give up to the West.

And the present nuclear showdown is here to last quite a while. The last round of negotiation in Almaty, at the beginning of April, has revealed a wide and enduring gap between the parties, even if there has been some progress in the quality of their exchanges. A breakthrough seems for the moment out of reach, all the more as Iran is going to be absorbed in the presidential election and the installation of its new president until the end of summer.

In order to hasten the moment when Iran’s economic collapse and political isolation would drive it to a full surrender, can we envisage to exert on the Regime even higher pressure? François Hollande, the French president, has been declaring at the beginning of March : “France will take its responsibilities in order to maintain pressure, to harden the sanctions, so as the Iranian rulers abide by their international commitments, by the Security Council’s resolutions.” But then, it becomes somehow difficult to see what kind of crushing sanctions could complement the present ones. Such sanctions will not be able to rely on the legitimacy of the United Nations. They will have to take into account the low motivation of most third countries to partake in such an escalation, as well as the growing ingenuity of Iran in dodging the embargo. One cannot therefore exclude that, as in the Iraqi case, sanctions will not be able to bring the desired outcome.

Then, again as in the Iraqi case, comes the temptation to resort to force. But Tehran is taking great care to avoid offering to the United States the opportunity to intervene. It stays cautiously behind the red line defined by President Obama as the beginning of the production of a nuclear explosive device. It stays even behind the red line defined by Prime Minister Netanyahu as the possession of enough 20% enriched uranium to obtain in a matter of weeks, by further enrichment, enough highly enriched uranium for a first atomic bomb. And the US administration will dare no more to build a case like the one which led to the invasion of Iraq. To show how times have changed, the US Intelligence Community, much to the chagrin of the neoconservatives eager to knock heads with Iran, reminds regularly since 2007 that the Islamic Republic has interrupted its clandestine nuclear program by the end of 2003, and has not, since then, taken the decision to produce nuclear weapons.

There should be a third way to come out of the crisis, but it implies a deep change in the parameters of the negotiation. There is one idea, and only one, on which such a change could be built : the recognition of Iran’s right to enrich, but enshrined in a system of controls powerful enough to practically forbid any access to the Bomb. Ali Khamenei, leader of the revolution, has recently supported such a formula in a public speech. Now, if there were an interest in exploring it, the initiative rather belongs to the West. It belongs in reality to Barack Obama, the sole Western leader in a position to boost the negotiation as the European leaders have chosen to stand back, for lack of imagination, lack of cohesion, and lack of political will.

Negotiators, please try harder! (Le Monde, March, 2013)

The round of negotiations which took place on February 26 in Almaty has brought up some pleasant surprises. The offer presented by the Six Countries has evolved for the better. Among other things, we have stopped asking for the closure of the underground enrichment facility of Fordow. No regret about this: had the Iranians accepted to dismantle the site, they would have been entitled to cross it off the list of nuclear installations submitted to IAEA safeguards. And then, God knows what they could have done in such a secret place! We have also offered some modest sanction relief. The Iranians have been kind enough to see in our proposal some kind of progress. And the parties have even agreed on the places and dates of their next encounters. The acceptance of meetings at expert level was also a positive signal, as it should facilitate quiet progress.

But of course, at the heart of the matter, all has to be done. Everyone, without officially admitting it, knows exactly what is the only possible compromise : in short, acceptance of Iranian enrichment activity, but tightly regulated and capped at 5%, acceptance by Iran of controls enhanced and extended to its whole territory ; along with the implementation of this program, levying of sanctions and closing of the file by the Security Council. But heavy obstacles still stand on the way. In particular, the difficulty for the Western diplomats to understand the inner motivations of the Iranian negotiating behavior, mixing dodging and stonewalling maneuvers , which irritates them so much.

With no doubt, the Iranians feel the sanctions fatigue. The first American sanctions are more than thirty year old. The last ones, joined by the Europeans, affect practically all sectors of the economy through the embargo applied on oil and financial movements. And now, they really hurt. Everyone in Tehran is convinced that having the Bomb would raise more problems than it would solve. And the internal political game has been simplified. The incontrollable Ahmadinejad having been marginalized, Khamenei appears to all as the sole master of the nuclear game. But he is now positioned on the front line, and thus compelled to put at stake his political stature as well as his aura of infallibility, already eroded by the 2009 upheaval. In such an exposed position, he will not unleash his negotiators as long as success in not clearly in sight.

This is why we should start exposing what we want as a point of arrival, even with all needed conditions. But the West is still hesitating. The French, in particular, repeat that Iran must, before anything else, bow to the Security Council's demands, and suspend all its enrichment activities. But, in the Council's own words, its requests are meant to facilitate "a negotiated diplomatic solution". As long as we will pound our requirements without telling how this solution would look, Khamenei will refuse to pay attention.

Not at all, reply the advocates of "firmness", he will have to, as the present embargo is going to put the Iranian economy into shambles and bring the society to upheaval. Another illusion. True, the Iranian economy is in terrible shape, and will keep on deteriorating. But the misfortune of the many makes the fortune of the happy few who are able, through their positions and acquaintances, to join the Eldorado of the sanctions-evading business. There is in Iran a growing parallel economy, in which money flows freely, and the phenomenon exacerbates factions' infighting as the Presidential election gets closer. In the meantime, the middle-class, debilitated, fragmented, withdraws into strategies of individual and family survival. If some unrest were to develop, the regime would crush it without the slightest hesitation, as it would be, once more, "a foreign-driven plot".

Should we continue to agitate the threat of the use of force, as the Americans do? Such rhetoric can be useful at internal level, in order to please the Congress, but upsets in no way the Iranian regime. Tehran knows that the West is not ready to throw itself into a third Gulf War and bear the burden of occupation of a land of seventy-five million inhabitants. And it is not bothered either by the prospect of strikes against its nuclear facilities. Age-old Iran is not in a hurry. It would rebuild them elsewhere, and deeper underground. Such an aggression against internationally safeguarded facilities would entitle Iran to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the IAEA inspectors would be forbidden to enter the new facilities. Such an option leads us nowhere.

If all of this could be understood by our negotiators, many things would become possible. Ronald Reagan, who was not leaning on the naïve side, coined the formula “Trust, but Verify” when negotiating disarmament with the USSR. "Trust" meant in fact displaying trust, while asking for robust verifications. And it worked. With Iran also, this very formula is the key to success. Barack Obama has it in mind since 2009, when he referred to it during a press conference in the city of Caen with the French president. And more recently, when receiving a delegation of Jewish community leaders a few days before flying to Israel, he answered a question on the Iranian nuclear crisis by a quote from Sun Tzu's Treaty on war: "build a golden bridge for your adversary to retreat".

The French, in the last few years, have acted as spearheads on each confrontation with Iran, be it in New York or in Brussels. And, as it should be, we have borne without complaining the consequences of this exposed position. Our partial withdrawal from the Iranian automotive market, which we used to furnish in pieces, parts and technical support for the production of more than 500.000 vehicles per year, has destroyed thousands of jobs in a sector of the French economy already in deep difficulty. Total, Airbus, Alstom, Thales, Eurocopter, the French banks... have also deserted Iran. Any form of cooperation in the fields of excellence which are for us the nuclear and the space industries is obviously out of question. Our intellectual exchanges at University and advanced research levels, even in non-sensitive fields, have been reduced to a trickle. On our own initiative, we have closed our French Institute in Tehran, where French was taught to thousands of young Iranians. All in all, we have certainly been paying a fair share to international solidarity in confronting Iran. But, one day or another, all of this will come to an end. Nothing should prevent us from contributing to it. By the same token, we could also bear in mind the ever-present risk, when playing in a forward position, to be caught offside.

Strikes over Iran, what's next? (February, 2012)

Let us bet on the fact that nobody will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, at least for quite a while. There is no Iranian nuclear test in the offing. Up to now, the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have uncovered no diversion of declared stocks of uranium for use in a nuclear explosive device. Of course, clandestine activities could always take place in some remote places of the vast Iranian territory, undeclared to the inspectors of the Vienna Agency. Let us even assume that such activities are actually taking place. Could they bring Iran, without being detected, at a distance of just a few screwdriver turns from the bomb? There is a big gap between paper and computer work as well as laboratory-scale experiments on one side, and the full-scale production of materials and equipment required for a nuclear arsenal on the other. The former can be easily hidden, the second is much harder to conceal. In the history of nuclear proliferation, the only surprises to the outer world have been the first Russian test in 1949 – though one could guess that it would happen sooner or later –, and the 1974 Indian nuclear test. But the world was then more naïve, and the methods of collecting information on such programs much less sophisticated: no observation satellites, no electronic eavesdropping… Recently, the progress of Pakistan or North Korea towards the bomb could be closely monitored, and the upcoming of their first tests was hardly a surprise for people concerned.

How can Iran come close to the bomb? It has only two practical ways at its disposal: expel the IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did, and use its formerly declared facilities, Natanz and Fordow, to produce the necessary highly enriched uranium. This, of course, would amount to a formal declaration of intention to produce a nuclear engine and the following period would become for Iran a zone of all dangers. North Korea is immune from strikes on its nuclear facilities because of China's protection. But Iran is a lonely country. It is doubtful that Russia would rush to its help, once assured that the Bushehr nuclear plant that it has fathered would be left untouched.

The second way would be to develop a wholly clandestine program starting with the extraction of uranium ore, followed by the production of the uranium concentrate called yellow cake, then its conversion into gaseous form, and finally its enrichment up to 90%. All of this through industrial processes treating hundreds of tons of ore, dozens of tons of natural uranium ready for enrichment, and tons for low enriched uranium in store for higher enrichment. There would be thousands of centrifuges spinning underground for months and years. Plus all the experiments to be conducted around the engineering of the bomb. Such a vast and multi-faceted program would run indeed a high risk to be uncovered long before approaching its ultimate goal.

This assessment has been amply endorsed by the main intelligence services, American, European and Israeli alike. But things become more intricate when one claims it has the right, not only to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb, but to prevent it from acquiring the technical and scientific prerequisites for producing a nuclear engine. Assessments become inevitably hazier, the zone of uncertainty expands, anyone can produce its own definition of the forbidden threshold and decide to act accordingly. This is where we stand today.

And from such a slippery position, things could fairly easily go astray. In the United States, the Congress could, one vote after another, funnel the Administration into ever narrowing straits. A presidential candidate pledging to bomb Iran could get elected. In Israel, a difficult internal situation could confer a fresh appeal to some demonstration of strength. The destruction of the Iraqi reactor Tammuz took place in 1981 three weeks before an election that Menahem Begin was bound to loose. And there is always the risk of a major unexpected event in the like of September 11 or the Arab Spring, introducing in current games a new paradigm. In the spring of 2001, the U.S., Britain and Canada had come to the conclusion that the comprehensive sanctions imposed for a decade upon Iraq were producing little effect on the regime but dire consequences for the population. They proposed the Security Council to replace them by smart, better targeted sanctions. This should have signaled the beginning of the end of the Iraqi crisis. In came the Twin Towers attack. The smart sanctions were finally approved by the Security Council in May, 2002. But at this time, the chariots of war had already entered Afghanistan and were rolling towards Iraq.

Thus, crises getting out of hand start begin as crises that the main actors believe they can control. This painful conclusion brings us to try to imagine what could be the results and the consequences of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Fordow enrichment plant is widely believed to be the place chosen by Iran to produce, would it take such a decision, enough uranium enriched to 90% for one or two bombs per year. It would therefore be the first target of a strike. Buried under some 300 feet of rock, it can accommodate about 3,000 centrifuges. The last IAEA report confirms that Fordow has started at the end of 2011 to enrich uranium up to 20%. This percentage is considered to be the upper limit of low enrichment. Uranium produced in Fordow is supposed to end up fueling the small research reactor sold by the Americans to the Iranians in the late sixties. It seems difficult, even with "bunker busters" to reach and destroy the heart of a facility so deeply buried in the mountain. Only nuclear tactical bombs could do the job. Of course, the access to the facility would be brought to collapse. The centrifuges, which are fragile devices, would suffer serious damages under the secondary effects of the explosions. All of this would take months, perhaps one or two years to repair. Another solution would be to transfer the undamaged and repairable centrifuges to others, even more remote places. Production would be significantly delayed, but the setback could be absorbed in the medium term.

The Isfahan conversion facility and the Natanz enrichment facility, built on plain, open ground, would suffer much heavier damages. The Iranians could then feel happy to have built at least one of their nuclear facilities underground. For years, they have been under regular threats of strikes over their nuclear facilities, and pressed simultaneously to keep all of them above ground, as so many goats used as baits for the tiger.

Of course, one hopes that the Bushehr power plant would be left aside from any planning against Iranian nuclear facilities. It has already started producing electricity and its nuclear heart is therefore highly radioactive. Its destruction could very well produce a Fukushima- type accident on the shore of the Persian Gulf, which forms a closed sea.

And about the response of Iran, what forms could it take? Considering the serious shortcomings of the Iranian army, navy and air force, on can hardly imagine Iran taking the risk to enter into some kind of conventional war with any of its neighbors of the Persian Gulf. Any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz could not be sustained over a few days. Iran could shoot a few dozen missiles equipped with conventional warheads towards Israel. This would be a painful act of vengeance, but with no strategic consequences. It could ask the Hezbollah to unleash the stockpile of hundreds, and probably thousands of missiles of different types accumulated with its help since the end of the last war in Lebanon. But the Hezbollah could very well end up fully destroyed in the new war which would follow.

What about a covert war of terror in Europe, in the United States and beyond? Apart from the rather unconvincing recent episodes taking place in Georgia and in India, it appears that there have been no terrorist activities coming from Iran or its friends in the last fifteen years. Of course, there was also the recent assassination attempt of the Saudian ambassador in Washington. But the investigation of the case does not seem to progress. The main suspect has finally refused to plead guilty. Passed the initial political declarations and the vote of a resolution pointing at Iran by the United Nations General Assembly, the interest in the case seems to have been waning.

There is one form of vengeance little spoken of, that Iran could activate in full respect of the Law. This would be to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article 10 of this international agreement states: «Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." If a strike came from Israel, it would be indeed an extraordinary event to see a country alien to the NPT, and having no nuclear facility controlled by the IAEA, bomb the nuclear facilities of an NPT Party, placed under permanent control of the Agency, and from which no diversion of nuclear material has been ever signaled. If the strike came from the United States, we would see an NPT Party authorized to keep a nuclear arsenal destroying the facilities of another member of the same Treaty, committed not to acquire the bomb, and from the time being having no bomb at all.

What would be the legal consequences of such a withdrawal? Iran would still have the duty to keep all its nuclear existing facilities, whatever the damages inflicted, as well as the fissile material already produced, under the control of the IAEA. Indeed, the Safeguards Agreements contracted by the Agency have no link whatsoever with membership of the signatory country to the NPT. On the other hand, all new nuclear facilities, all newly produced fissile material, would escape from IAEA controls. New facilities could be deeply buried, or dispersed in the vast Iranian territory, or hidden in urban landscapes. Deprived of the capacity to inspect these facilities, the international community would loose a precious source of information on the Iranian nuclear program. Last and most important consequence, Iran would regain the freedom to detain a nuclear arsenal, as India, Pakistan or Israel.

Could we then assist to a wave of withdrawals from the NPT coming from neighboring countries rightfully worried by a nuclear Iran, like Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Such an outcome is possible, but not certain. The United States would deploy all its efforts to convince them to remain in the community of the Treaty members, even at the expense of enhanced military guarantees.

Let us follow up the track of an Iran rid of NPT constraints. Save for a Regime change, Iran, after healing its wounds, would be able to produce a first bomb in about two to three years. It would then have to learn to miniaturize and to harden this first device in order to produce deliverable nuclear weapons. Another five to ten years, at least, would be needed to put together a budding nuclear arsenal. Then comes the big question : thus equipped, would Iran be tempted to destroy Israel?

As the former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hussein Mousavian was recently reminding in several interviews, nuclear strikes over Israel could very well kill almost as many Palestinians as Jews. A land considered as especially holy by the Islamic Republic would be polluted for centuries to come. And, of course, the inevitable retaliation coming from Israel, and most probably from the United States, would produce even more dramatic consequences for Iran.

Another more likely hypothesis would be that the enemies of Israel, comforted by the existence of an Iranian nuclear umbrella, would be encouraged to create unending difficulties for the Jewish State. But in such a case, Iran would become the hostage by its own friends. It could very well find itself driven against its will into some diplomatic, and then military escalation. It is doubtful that Iran would light-heartedly contemplate such a perspective, knowing too well that, for decades to come, strikes it could inflict could hardly be compared with the ones it could receive.

What remains are the unbearable insults and threats uttered by the Iranian leaders against Israel. As long as they maintain such a behavior, Israel will have all reasons to worry, and the international community all reasons to be deeply disturbed. Iran cannot complain to reap what it has been so consistently sowing. But on our part, let us beware of anachronisms. The Iranian Islamic regime has never presented itself as the herald of a higher civilization, entitled to enslave or annihilate people around it. It is pursuing the end of the political entity embodied by the Jewish State of Israel, and this must be sternly condemned, if only by reference to the mutual obligations of the signatories of the United Nations Charter. But it does not call for the creation of new Auschwitzes. The Iranian leaders are not Hitler or Goebbels. They are Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and that is already plenty.

Even with Iran, Dialogue is more effective than Sanctions (Le Monde, November, 2011)

The Council of Governors of the International Agency for Atomic Energy, which meets on November 17 and 18, should congratulate its Director General for its last report on Iran. This detailed analysis of information collected over the years by the inspectors of the Agency and various Intelligence Services, without forgetting the information provided by Iran itself, carries us from low to high definition in the understanding of the Iranian efforts towards a nuclear weapon.

A crucial point comes out of this report : the clandestine nuclear military program of Iran came to a halt by the end of 2003, upon an order from the top of the State. This has already been said for several years, against all odds, by successive directors of the American Intelligence Community. But the Agency lets also know that some activities may still be ongoing. It reveals that the main figure behind this clandestine program reappeared in 2006 at the head of a new research department attached to the Ministry of Defense as well as at the head of a technological university. And several pieces of information point to the fact that research may have resumed on the engineering of an explosive nuclear device.

The history of the endeavors of the Islamic Republic to acquire a nuclear weapon thus emerges more and more clearly. The original drive, after the interruption of the Shah's programs, came of course from the fear of seeing Saddam Hussein, then at war with Iran and supported by the whole world, get hold of the Bomb. An arbitration probably took place a little later within the State apparatus, by which the civilians would take responsibility of the nuclear fuel cycle, of the production of electricity, of nuclear research, and the military – more precisely the Pasdaran or Guardians of the Revolution – would take in hand the engineering of a nuclear warhead and the development of a related missile program. It is this engineering process which came to a halt, or at least strongly slowed down, at the end of 2003.

From the picture presented by the IAEA, we are entitled to assume that the Iranian bomb will not be assembled by tomorrow. And we know that after the testing of a first device, several years would still be necessary to transform it into a deliverable ballistic warhead. Another remarkable fact is the driving role of the Pasdaran in the military dimension of the program. But their position at the heart of the State, their grip on many levers of power and their practice of concealment make it indeed very difficult for the civilians to bring them to confess their reprehensible activities, as so strongly requested by the international community. This is a very regrettable fact, but that cannot be ignored if one wants to go forward.

Another point : I can personally testify that the break of 2003 was the direct result of the negotiation led at the time by France, Germany and Great Britain in order to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. And the resuming in 2006 of a research of military dimension coincides with the decision of the West to drag Iran to the Security Council. That was also the time when the Iranians resumed their uranium enrichment activities, which had been interrupted for more than two years. During those same two years, Iran had also opened its whole territory to the inspections of the IAEA. Thus, dialogue produced results. By all means, more results that the policy of pressure and sanctions which came afterwards. Indeed, since 2006, and in spite of six Security Council resolutions, the Iranian program of enrichment and the construction of a research reactor of strong proliferating features have progressed unimpaired, though under tight watch from the IAEA.

It comes therefore as a surprise that most Western reactions on the IAEA report point toward a new wave of sanctions. And even "unprecedented sanctions ", as announced by the French minister of Foreign Affairs. Again, I can testify about the recurring illusion which has followed each new wave of sanctions : this time, they would work, the Iranian regime would comply or even break down. But this regime leans on the hostility of the outside word to repair a legitimacy seriously shaken internally. And those who make a living on this regime have learned to extract immense benefits from the system of sanctions. All of this on the back of a population twice oppressed, politically and economically.

Economic and financial sanctions, far from being an alternative to military strikes, lead us step by step in this very direction. Embargoes, as they are extended and hardened, tend more and more to resemble a blockade. And blockades, by international law, are already acts of war. All of this without speaking the ongoing undercover war, which is already producing its victims. The stubbornness of Western diplomacy in pursuing on such a perilous way brings to mind Mark Twain's formula «To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

How Can We Break The Iranian Nuclear Deadlock? (June, 2011)

Richard Dalton (United Kingdom),  Steen Hohwü-Christensen (Sweden), Paul von Maltzahn (Germany),  Guillaume Metten (Belgium), François Nicoullaud (France), Roberto Toscano (Italy),
former ambassadors to Tehran

We have been ambassadors from various European countries in Iran during the past decade. We have followed closely the development of the nuclear crisis between Iran and the international community. It is unacceptable that the talks have been in deadlock for such a long time.

The Arab world and the Middle East are entering a new epoch. No country is immune from change. The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing the disaffection of a significant part of its population. Everywhere, new perspectives are emerging. Such a period of uncertainty offers opportunities for reconsidering established positions. The time has come to do so on the Iranian nuclear question.

In terms of international law, the position of Europe and the United States is perhaps less assured than is generally believed. Basically, it is embodied in a set of resolutions adopted by the Security Council referring to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes coercive measures in case of “threats to the peace”.

But what constitutes the threat ? Is it the enrichment of uranium in Iranian centrifuges?  This is certainly a sensitive activity, by a sensitive country, in a highly sensitive region. The concerns expressed by the international community are legitimate and Iran has a moral duty, as well as a political necessity, to answer them. But in principle, nothing in international law, nothing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids the enrichment of uranium. Besides Iran, several other countries, parties or not to NPT, enrich uranium without being accused of “threatening the peace”. And this activity is submitted in Iran to the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). True, these inspections are constrained by a Safeguards Agreement dating from the seventies. But it is true also, that the IAEA has never uncovered in Iran any attempted diversion of nuclear material to military use.

Is the threat to the peace contained in an active clandestine program to build a nuclear weapon? For at least three years, the United States Intelligence Community has put aside this hypothesis. Its director, James Clapper, testified last February to Congress : “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons… We continue to judge that Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran”. Today, a majority of experts, including in Israel, seems to view Iran as striving to become a “threshold country”, technically able to produce a nuclear weapon but abstaining from doing so for the present. Again we may regret it, but nothing in international law or in the NPT forbids such an ambition. Several countries besides Iran, committed not to acquire nuclear weapons, have already reached such a threshold or are on their way to reach it. Nobody seems to bother them.

We often hear that Iran’s ill-will, its refusal to negotiate seriously, left our countries no other choice but to drag it in 2006 to the Security Council. Here also, things are not that clear. Let us remember that in 2005 Iran was ready to discuss a ceiling limit for the number of its centrifuges and to maintain its rate of enrichment way below the high levels of military interest. And most of all, it expressed its readiness to put into force the Additional Protocol that it had already signed with the IAEA, allowing intrusive inspections, even in non-declared sites, on its whole territory. But at this time, the Europeans and the Americans wanted to compel Iran to forsake its enrichment program. And at least in the Iranians’ minds, the same aim still looms behind the insistence of the Security Council on suspension of all Iranian enrichment activities. Before accusing Iran of stalling the negotiation, one should then admit that “zero centrifuges operating in Iran, permanently or temporarily”, is an unrealistic goal, which has heavily contributed to the present standoff.

Of course, a dilemma lingers in the minds of most of our leaders. Why offer the Iranian regime an opening which could help it restore its internal and international legitimacy? Should not we wait for a more palatable successor? This is a serious question. But we should not overestimate the influence of a nuclear negotiation on internal developments that lie deeper. Ronald Reagan used to call the USSR the “Evil Empire”. That did not stop him negotiating intensely with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament. Should we blame him for having slowed down the course of History? Countries interested in Iran should certainly keep the focus on matters of political and human rights, but also try harder to solve a frustrating and still urgent proliferation problem. By doing so, we would reduce a serious source of tension in a region that longs more than ever for tranquility.

The failure of the last round of negotiation in Istanbul at the end of January and the last disappointing exchange of letters between the two parties show only too well that the current deadlock will be difficult to break. On the process, the more discreet and technical the negotiation will be, the better chance it will have to progress. And on the substance, we already know that any solution will have to build upon the quality of the inspection system of the IAEA.

Either we trust IAEA’s ability to supervise all its member States, including Iran. Or we do not, and one can ask why we should maintain an Organization efficient only with its most virtuous members. In fact, the first step could be for the two parties to ask the IAEA what precisely are the additional tools that it would consider necessary to monitor the Iranian nuclear program fully and to provide credible assurances that all the activities connected with it are purely peaceful in intent. On the basis of its answer, a pragmatic negotiation could get started.

Interview with the Iranian Agency IRNA (January, 2011)

A few days before the meeting of Istanbul, François Nicoullaud, former French ambassador in Tehran (2001-2005), answers questions of the IRNA bureau in Paris.

Having in mind the oncoming meeting in Istanbul, how do you analyze the atmosphere surrounding the revival of the dialogue?

I am personally fairly optimistic about the outcome of the Istanbul meeting. There have been positive declarations on both sides, which indicate a desire to get out of the present deadlock of the nuclear file. And the tone of exchanges between the parties has been rather moderate. Each side seems to have understood the necessity of behaving carefully in order to give a chance to this negotiation. 

What do you think about the results of the previous discussions, especially in Geneva?

The meeting of October 2009 in Geneva raised big hopes. An agreement seemed feasible around the idea of exchanging Iranian low enriched uranium for the nuclear fuel needed for the Tehran Research reactor. But people opposed to such an agreement have been able to stop it.  There was again some hope after the intervention of Turkey and Brazil in May 2010. But this time again, we have been disappointed. Nevertheless the initiative of these two countries gave a new impetus to the discussions. Thanks mainly to this initiative, a new meeting took place in Geneva in december 2010, opening the way to the Istanbul encounter.

But how this new meeting could lead to a positive result for both parties? What is the formula for a “win-win” agreement?

As in every negotiation, each party must accept to make a few steps towards the other in order to reach a compromise. Recently, Mrs. Hillary Clinton hinted in Manama that the Iranian enrichment activities could be considered acceptable if Iran could generate full confidence on the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. On such a base, there is a possibility to build an agreement. I believe that Iran, without sacrificing its sovereign rights on nuclear energy, could still offer some additional guarantees in this field. Other great nations having important peaceful nuclear programs have accepted to give such guarantees to the international community.  Therefore, Iran would not be humiliated or discriminated if it chose to go along the same way. In exchange, its right to develop an ambitious peaceful nuclear program could be fully recognized and Iran could benefit from an active international cooperation in support of such a program. This would be the perfect example of a “win-win” agreement.

Do you believe that it will be finally possible to reach a satisfactory solution about the Iranian peaceful nuclear activities?

Yes, the moment is now more favorable than ever, since everybody has had ample time to meditate upon all the drawbacks of the present deadlock. But one has also to remember from previous experience that it is very easy to derail such a complex process of negotiation, still quite fragile. Cautiousness and restraint will be necessary to create the most favorable atmosphere for the work of the negotiators.

Comments at a Roundtable at the Itamaraty (Rio de Janeiro, October, 2010)

It's an immense pleasure for me to be here, among such distinguished colleagues, scholars and journalists. I am still wondering why I had the chance to get this wonderful invitation. I guess because I have been French ambassador in Iran from 2001 to 2005, at the outset of the nuclear crisis. Probably also because I had spent several years in the department for non proliferation in my ministry, working in particular with the IAEA. This gave me a precious understanding of the technical information emerging continually from this crisis. Finally because after leaving Iran and retiring from my ministry, I wrote a substantial amount of articles and analyses on Iran and its nuclear file. So this is the modest expertise that I put at the disposal of this Assembly.

Of course, I speak here on a purely personal basis. And I have already taken ample avail of this freedom to express critical views not only on Iran's behavior, which is not too difficult, but also on the West's behavior toward Iran. To make these introductory remarks short, I shall present in a nutshell the conclusions that I have reached after observing this somewhat perverse and distorted relationship during so many years.

First conclusion: it won't be a surprise for experienced historians and analysts, but in this nuclear crisis, passions -on both sides- have played and still play a much more important role than hard facts and cold analyses. No side accepts the other side as it is, nor Iran, nor the West. Acceptance of reality does not mean of course approval. We do not have to approve the Islamic Republic's behavior in the field of human rights, or approve its uranium enrichment program. But these are the starting points from which we have to make things move. For historical but also cultural reasons, the present leaders of Iran nurture a deep distrust of the West, and most leaders in the West have developed a deep antipathy and distrust of the Islamic Republic. For years I have heard that to start a useful negotiation, Iran should first win the West’s trust and confidence : in particular by interrupting its enrichment activities. Iran on the other side repeats that it will not enter into negotiation with the United States but on an equal footing. With such prerequisites, serious negotiation will never start. Lets us remind here that confidence builds up from simple and clear agreements, faithfully applied. It does not have to precede these agreements.

Second conclusion. people in the West, trying to explain the present, and rather sorry, state of things tend to credit Iran with an especially subtle diplomacy, and a extraordinary capacity to fool their partners or adversaries, all of this in order to “gain time”. To gain time for what? For avoiding sanctions? Sanctions against Iran have never been so harsh as today. For making the Bomb? For the last twenty years analysts have prophesized that Iran would have the bomb in the next two to five years. We are still hearing about the same lapse of time today. Personally, I have always found Iranian diplomacy very clumsy indeed. Incapable of presenting their nuclear program in an articulate way. Full of delusions about its capacity to mobilize the solidarity of fellow countries from the developing, or even the Islamic world. Incapable of seizing opportunities because of its difficulty in building internal consensus, or when such a consensus has finally been reached, to modify it in order to adapt to changing circumstances.

Third and last conclusion. On a technical basis, an agreement on the nuclear file would be easy to reach, People who know, on both sides, know exactly what to put into such an agreement : basically, the Outer world should recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian nuclear program and Iran should accept reinforced controls around this program in order to discourage any attempt to divert it toward military uses. Once the IAEA entitled to enforce such controls, Iran would be incapable to start producing material for an atomic bomb without being immediately detected. Frankly, such an agreement could be put together by experts in a few weeks. So why this does not happen? One wonders sometimes if all the actors of this lingering crisis have not finally dug into it comfortable niches which they hesitate now to abandon. The Iranian regime uses it to isolate its population and rally it around itself. The Israeli government finds in the Iranian threat a good argument to solicit the support of the United States and degrade to second priority the solution of the Palestinian question. Countries of the Arabic Peninsula find also in the Iranian menace a convenient and rare subject of consensus. As for the United States, they find here a good opportunity to tighten their camp around their case for non-proliferation, and to feed some legitimacy into their anti-ballistic programs facing South. The main victim of this convergence of opposites could well be the Iranian people, caught in some kind of crossfire. Pressed on one side by the sanctions, on the other side by the whole power structure of the Regime, it is a miracle that they can still stand up and keep hope.

Nuclear Iran : After the Tehran Agreement (Le Monde, June, 2010)

It is clear today that the agreement signed in Tehran on the 17th of May in the presence of Presidents Lula and Ahmadinejad and of Prime Minister Erdogan has been the result of a negotiation specifically supported by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On the 20th of April, the American President, in a letter since made public [1], was thus writing to his Brazilian counterpart : “For us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile… I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being processed.”

And on the 13th of May, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, had a conversation on the same subject with Mrs. Hillary Clinton. The spokesman of the State Department reported on the exchange on the same day[2] : “regarding the Tehran Research Reactor, it was put on the table last fall to build confidence with the international community about the true intentions of Iran’s nuclear program... Iran has to either respond or face the consequences of a UN Security Council resolution”.
Iran answered positively four days later. It was nevertheless struck by a fifth resolution of the Security Council, hardening the former sanctions. And it will also be soon impacted by additional sanctions coming from the United States and the European Union. How could all of this happen?

First, because people in charge in the West were totally convinced that the Turks and the Brazilians would fail like themselves in dealing with Iran. These two countries were receiving lip service encouragements to negotiate as they were expressing their urge to do so, but everybody had mentally closed the file opened by the stretched hand of Barack Obama in the summer of 2009. The idea at the time was to drop hope to solve in one stroke all the problems raised by Iran’s behavior, and rather to engage Iran on a limited subject in order to build confidence on a first success.

And to everybody’s amazement, Mr.Ahmadinejad had immediately expressed his interest for the proposal. But the Iranian President had soon to meet with the resistance of his own environment. And the Western diplomats, confronted to Iran’s procrastination, gladly returned to their usual practice : negotiating about Iran between themselves and with the whole world, excepting Iran. Never mind if such a practice had, over the years, reinforced, not weakened, the Iranian regime, and had been unable to curb the development of the Iranian nuclear program. Of course, Tehran was simultaneously offered to negotiate on nuclear affairs, but the prerequisite attached to the offer  ̶  the suspension of its enrichment activities -̶  was too conspicuously similar to the West’s objective : the complete surrender of such activities. And the tripartite Tehran agreement was signed just at the moment when Hillary Clinton had finally succeeded in convincing the Russians and the Chinese to sponsor a new resolution at the Security Council. Two trains which were never supposed to meet collided spectacularly.

A set of circumstantial arguments had to be immediately deployed : a few days before, Iran’s refusal to send its uranium abroad was hinting at its evil intentions, its acceptance was now presented as a new trap for the International Community, in which two credulous countries had fallen. The Tehran agreement was criticized for leaving aside the problem of Iran’s enrichment activities, forgetting that the original proposal did not touch, even remotely, upon the subject. People were reminded that the 1,200 kg of uranium to be sent abroad represented 80% of the whole amount of Iranian low-enriched uranium at the time of the first proposal, but only 50% by May 2010, leaving in Iran enough material for a possible nuclear bomb. The figures were right, but they would have been the same had the agreement been signed in the fall of 2009. Finally, it was underlined that the new Iranian program of enrichment up to 20% was against the spirit of the original proposal. The assumption was correct but the problem could be solved among the numerous questions of implementation to be addressed on the wake of the Tehran agreement. To make it brief, the Turks and the Brazilians were wrong all along the line.

But the sudden change of mind of the United States will long be remembered in Brazil and Turkey. In Iran, people opposing any kind of arrangement with the Americans can feel comforted in their assessment of America’s duplicity. And finally, one cannot but feel that Barack Obama has been defeated in this affair by his own Administration : at least the first Obama, the one who believed in the possibility of restoring the relationship between Iran and his country. We have seen him being brought back by his own troops, Hillary Clinton leading, to the position of George W.Bush, for whom the only solution to the Iranian hurdle was a Regime Change. Will he regain the will and the strength to impose his own vision?

Looking at the familiar attitudes in which people on both sides have settled anew, one comes to wonder if the present situation is not somehow convenient for a large range of actors. It could be indeed a fairly comfortable situation if, everything being well considered, the Iranian nuclear threat had not the intensity usually attached to it. For twenty years people have been crying wolf on the basis of a constant flow of revelations. Perhaps the time has come to admit that the dark horizon of the Iranian Bomb recedes as we go forward. Most certainly, Iran has made great progress in the highly sensitive field of enrichment. But he still meets problems in fully mastering this technology which could give it access to the prime material of a nuclear arsenal. From what we can see and presume from observations of all kinds, Iran does not yet possess the full array of skills, touching a very diversified range of fields, necessary to put together a credible bomb. Finally, if Iran were to reach this point, all of this would become visible. Means of detection have made immense progress. Experience gathered on the last thirty years demonstrate that such complex programs, when they come close to maturity, cannot remain clandestine, on the condition of course that the World is fully awakened to the risk.

In waiting for such a moment, if it ever comes, international tension cultivated around this file gives to the Iranian regime a permanent leverage on its population to keep it united against the outer world. And the Regime does not meet much internal opposition on this matter of national pride and sovereignty. Thus, even the isolation inflicted upon the Islamic Republic helps it keeping hold of its own country. Israel, too, can find some benefit in such a situation. Each verbal attack coming from Iran, each announcement about some new missile experiment, reinforce the credibility of an existential menace on which the Israeli government can lean to rally not only its population but also and foremost all Israel’s friends abroad, and degrade to second priority the solution of the Palestinian question. The States of the Arabic Peninsula can find in such a subject an easy and welcome matter for agreement between themselves and for wooing American support. As for the United States, they find here a good opportunity to tighten their camp around their case for non-proliferation, and to feed some legitimacy into their anti-ballistic programs facing South. The main victim of this convergence of opposites could well be the Iranian people, caught in some kind of crossfire. Pressed on one side by the sanctions, on the other side by the whole power structure of the Regime, it is a miracle that they still stand up and keep hope.

[1] http://www.politicaexterna.com/archives/11023#axzz0rBk02bP1
[2] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2010/05/141816.htm