Something is happening behind the scenes in the effort to persuade Iran to call off its 20 per cent nuclear enrichment plan. Some commentators in the US seem to have inside information that an impending deal with Iran over its nuclear programme and the ongoing diplomatic exchanges over the issue are choreographed.
In a Washington Post column, David Ignatius asserts that “the basic framework (for an agreement) was set weeks ago” under which “Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 per cent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 per cent, for use in medical isotopes.”
In return, the US will ease the sanctions imposed on Iran and allow it to continue enriching uranium 3.5 per cent to five per cent.
This was a US proposal that was conveyed to Tehran “weeks before” Iran and the “P5+1” — the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany — met in Istanbul on April 14. Israeli reports had spoken of a “secret channel” between Washington and Tehran. That “secret back channel,” it appears, ran through European foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton to the chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili.
Ashton and Jalili had an exchange of letters, with the EU foreign policy chief proposing “a confidence-building exercise aimed at facilitating a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach.”
Jalili is said to have responded that because the West was willing to recognise Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, “our talks for co-operation based on step-by-step principles and reciprocity on Iran’s nuclear issue could be commenced.”
In any case, the Ashton-Jalili contacts could not be described as “secret back channel” because they are the authorised representatives of the two sides.
On April 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused US President Barack Obama of handing over a “freebie” to Iran and Obama rejected the assertion.
After the Istanbul meeting, Iran acted as if its nuclear rights as a signatory of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been recognised.
“Iran is following the script,” Ignatius wrote, and will “describe their actions not as concessions to the West but as ‘confidence-building’ measures,” while “the West would describe its easing of sanctions not as a climbdown but as ‘reciprocity’.” He described public “language of these talks” an “exercise.”
On April 16, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi explained that “making 20 per cent fuel is our right,” but that “if they guarantee that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need, then that would be another issue.”
According to Ignatius, all these are part of a script.
The exchange between Netanyahu and Obama was aimed at ensuring that Tehran remains under pressure to follow through with the deal.
“Netanyahu played his expected role in this choreography,” by playing “a perfect rebuff – just scornful enough to keep the Iranians (and the Americans, too) worried that the Israelis might launch a military attack this summer if no real progress is made in the talks,” according to Ignatius.
Israel’s Haaretz daily reported that Netanyahu was fully briefed both before and after the Istanbul meeting on the P5+1 strategy.
Haaretz quoted an unnamed US official as saying that in the weeks prior to the Istanbul talks, “detailed discussions were held with Israel, both face to face and by telephone, on coordination of the approach to the talks.”
The head of the US delegation to the talks, Wendy Sherman, fully briefed Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, by phone several hours after the talks concluded in Turkey, said the report.
As such, Netanyahu knew exactly what was being offered to Iran. So, it fits into the “choreography” theory.
Another Washington Post columist, Fareed Zakaria, also referred to the US proposal in an April 12 column with the same details as those given by Ignatius. He argues that for the proposal to succeed Iran should make deep concessions in comprehensive inspections. According to Zakaria, the P5+1 should use a 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report as a checklist of activities that “Iran would commit to refraining from and insist that Iran allow the IAEA unfettered access to its sites until the agency is satisfied that any such military programme has been shut down.”
“Iran would have to receive some reward for accepting such unprecedented inspections, and the obvious option would be the relaxation of sanctions, step by step, as inspections proceed unimpeded,” adds Zakaria.
What all these add up to is that a negotiated settlement of the dispute is possible although there are many uncertainties.
Two points hang in the air. Acceptance of the proposal by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini and by the Republican party in the US.
Khomenei, Zakaria notes, “has consolidated power: he has beaten back the Green movement; accommodated one key rival, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; and sidelined another, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei has also given himself room to make concessions on the nuclear programme.”
Jalili himself referred to Iran’s possible acceptance of the deal. “We made progress” in Istanbul, he said last week, adding that Khamenei’s religious edict renouncing nuclear weapons “created an opportunity for concrete steps toward disarmament and non-proliferation.” He said “the next talks should be based on confidence-building measures, which would build the confidence of Iranians.”
The second point is possible Republican opposition to making any deal with Iran. The heavily pro-Israel Republicans have been calling for military action against Iran and many of them reject the idea of having any dealings with Tehran. They are likely to pose questions and add further conditions to the proposal that Iran might not find acceptable.
If the Republicans, Zakaria writes, “demagogue any deal, or refuse to reciprocate on sanctions, there will be no deal.”
No matter how the effort for a deal turns out, the overriding factor is whether Iran could be trusted to keep its word and whether Israel will be satisfied.