international analysis and commentary

The Iranian nuclear vampire is far from dead

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I must sheepishly confess to a wholly guilty pleasure: The Hammer Horror films of the early 1960s. The key boilerplate scene in Hammer classics occurs the moment some gormless hero abruptly comes round to the fact that the vampire is far from dead. Often a hammy rendering of the phrase, “It’s alive, It’s alive,” clues the audience into the fact that the movie still has at least one reel to go.

For the life of me, I found myself uttering these very words under my breath to describe the state of play in the just concluded first round of Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna, designed to at last reach a definitive settlement for this slow-moving Cuban missile crisis. Like a good Hammer film, things are simply not as they seem; far from the specter of war and conflict receding, early indications from the talks point in an altogether more sinister direction. Crunch time over Iran for the West is probably only about a year away.

To put it mildly, this is not the standard analytical view. The conventional political risk analysis goes like this: an Interim Agreement with Iran was reached on November 24, 2013, against the odds, at the end of last year; talks on a final status nuclear solution – begun just these past few days – have six months to run, with a possible further extension of six months being on the cards, if both sides request it.  Yes, the opening positions between the two sides are far apart, but, after all, what did we expect? The Iranians are asking for far more than they expect to get (just as we would) but after a year’s worth of haggling will settle for a reasonable deal at the end of the day. Now that rational, reasonable President Rouhani has succeeded the erratic President Ahmadinejad, all will ultimately be well.

Such interpretation is wrong on several counts. First, it remains the fact the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say over Iranian nuclear policy, just as he did in the bad old days of Ahmadinejad. Pressed to make predictions, Khamenei flatly stated that he believes the talks will “lead nowhere.” Going on he said, “I am not optimistic about the nuclear talks, but I am not opposed to them either.”

Second, the opening negotiating positions that the two sides have just revealed tells an entirely more frightening story. The opening stances of the P5 Plus One (US, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany) and Iran do not reveal slight differences made artificially larger as initial negotiating gambits. Rather, they glaringly illustrate the chasm in worldviews between the two sides. These positions are likely to be unbridgeable, and surely will not be resolved within a year’s time. That means that the real and unavoidable reckoning in US-Iranian relations is only about twelve months away.

Listen for a minute to America’s opening demands at the talks as though you were an Iranian mullah. Iran must decrease the number of its centrifuges from the current 19,000 to less than 5,000. The enrichment plant of Fordow – buried in the side of a mountain and thought impregnable to attack by anything except America’s most potent bunker-buster bombs – must be closed. The heavy water reactor at Arak, which offers an alternative plutonium route to a bomb, must also be dismantled. A full and truthful account of all of Iran’s past nuclear weaponization activities must be handed over to the West. An unprecedented highly rigorous and intrusive consent to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections must be agreed to. And, oh yes, after all that, we can discuss removing sanctions over time. Could any Iranian leader of any stripe agree to even a portion of this and physically survive the day?

Worse still, the first round of Final Status talks in Vienna revealed that the Obama administration is not above shifting the negotiating goalposts, even at this late date. Following the talks, and wholly out of the blue, US officials have insisted that any final nuclear deal must include Iran agreeing to also limit its ballistic missile program because of Western concerns that such weapons could be used to deliver a nuclear payload.

By expanding on already-known demands, the White House has just made reaching an overall accord much harder. What is to stop the French, or others, from adding their favorite non-nuclear item to the talks? How about opening the door to Iran’s legion of grievances with the West? Even more importantly, what’s to stop the whole focus of the talks from widening to the point of farce? The in-tray for Iranian-Western disputes stretches back decades. The real reason to have hope following the interim accord is that at least it was focused, restricting discussions to the Iranian nuclear file alone, and leaving the contentious rest for later.

Now that admirable specificity seems to be drifting away. Not surprisingly, the Iran negotiating team has angrily and categorically rejected the new demand, insisting that no specifically non-nuclear matters be included in the final talks. This laundry list approach simply will not succeed; instead at best, it will waste valuable time. No Iranian leader can possibly accept such a Western over-stretch. 

Now imagine you are part of President Obama’s negotiating team, nervously looking over your shoulder at a fire-breathing Congress, that even with the signing of the Interim Agreement cannot wait for any excuse to slap new sanctions on Iran. Here is what President Rouhani is offering. First, none of Iran’s existing nuclear plants will be destroyed, including Arak. Second, Iran has the right to “industrial-scale” enrichment, meaning obtaining over 50,000 centrifuges. Surely naively assuming such differences can be quickly swept aside is more than a little complacent.

It is thought that Rouhani’s diplomatic strategy envisages a deal which allows for the freeze of Iran’s nuclear program for three years, after which time – having shown good faith to the international community by signing onto intrusive inspections – Iran, now trusted, with its program wholly undestroyed or even limited, will be allowed to expand enrichment to the industrial scale it wishes. These are terms no American president could possibly accept.

In turn, the Obama White House seems to want to make it as hard as possible for Tehran to make a dash for a nuclear weapon, denying it the ability to produce large enough new amounts of fissile material to escape detection and disruption. But however much we slice and dice things, these two wholly contrary diplomatic stances cannot both be accommodated.

The White House is not prepared to accept that Iran is de facto a nuclear threshold state, which is probably the end game the Iranians have been aiming for all along. Worse still, after a year’s talks – and with all that ill-founded optimism now bubbling over – imagine the Hammer movie-like shock when no deal is reached.

It is in those wretched circumstances that long-lasting geostrategic decisions about the Iranian nuclear program will have to be reached. We are a long way from slaying the Iranian nuclear vampire. In fact, by underrating him, we are setting ourselves up for a painful fall.