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.


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