National Security Network

Iran Under Pressure as Nuclear Talks Begin

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Report 6 December 2010

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A unified international coalition of representatives from the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, France, England and Germany sat down today in Geneva with the Government of Iran to begin a new round of talks about Iran's nuclear program.  Against the backdrop of a troubled nuclear program and increasing internal political pressure on the regime, Iran comes to the talks under significantly more pressure than the last time similar discussions took place 14 months ago.  The two track policy approach - pressure and engagement - has created a new window for diplomacy to take effect.  Yet despite the increasing effectiveness of this approach - or perhaps because of it - opponents of this policy are increasingly calling for dangerous, counter-productive, and self defeating military actions for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.  These calls, if heeded, would undercut American national security in the Middle East, harm our allies, and damage our country's ability to sustainably resolve this complex issue.  Now is the moment to build on the momentum that the increasing international pressure has provided for serious diplomacy, to take advantage of political strains inside Iran, and to reassert broader American security goals.  Now is not the moment to ramp up reckless talk of war.

The time is ripe for diplomacy, which is a core part of a comprehensive, dual-track, effort.  The New York Times reports this morning, "Six world powers began two days of talks with Iran on Monday to seek reassurances that Tehran's nuclear ambitions are peaceful. Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the United States and its allies are looking to see if Iran will enter into discussions ‘with the seriousness of purpose required to begin to address international concerns.'"  As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with The Cable, "I want, very directly, to let Iran understand that we are serious about this engagement. We were serious from the beginning of the Obama Administration. The door remains open. And we hope that the negotiations in Geneva bear some results.  But at the same time, we're realists, and we know that they're probably coming back to the table because sanctions are working. And I don't think they believed that we could ever put together the international coalition we did for sanctions. And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they're worried about the impact. And so they're returning to Geneva and we hope that they're returning, willing to negotiate."

The dual-track approach of pressure and engagement has been part of a comprehensive Iran policy that has been consistent throughout the Obama administration.  As Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress recently wrote, "The truth about Obama's Iran policy, and this is something Obama was quite clear about even during the presidential campaign, is that not only do engagement and pressure work together, engagement itself can be a form of pressure, as it has been with Iran." [Hillary Clinton via The Cable, 12/3/10. Matt Duss, 11/29/10]

Iranian government enters talks under pressure, isolated internationally and divided domestically. Yesterday, Iran proclaimed that its nuclear program was advancing, despite the views of Western experts who believe that the announcement indicated nothing new.  "In Tehran on Sunday, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's nuclear program who is leading his country's delegation in Geneva, said the country had succeeded for the first time in domestically producing uranium concentrate from uranium ore mined inside Iran," the NY Times reported.  Yet as Voice of America noted, "A senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mark Fitzpatrick, points out the announcement appears unusual because experts believe Iran already was able to produce yellowcake.  ‘The announcement is surprising because many outside analysts thought Iran had been producing its own yellowcake for at least two years...'"

"Iranian-born analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington argues Salehi's announcement appears to have little solid substance, adding that he believes it was intended for political purposes. ‘The way he sort of formulated [the announcement] suggested to me that it is aimed as a political message, because he very swiftly turns around and makes the connection to the upcoming talks, which start [Monday] and he says ‘We are not going to go to the table of negotiations from a position of weakness,' said Vatanka."  Vatanka says Iran may be trying to play tough for its domestic audience, but be more willing to negotiate in private once in Geneva.  As Laura Rozen reported yesterday, "Despite Salehi's boast, Iran's nuclear program has experienced considerable technical difficulties. Those setbacks include the Stuxnet worm that has reportedly infected Iran's centrifuge program, the killing of two Iranian nuclear scientists and the wounding of a third in bomb attacks in Tehran the past year, and other reported difficulties that have led to almost half of the centrifuges at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility being taken offline, according to recent reporting by the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Iran is also feeling the pinch internally.  As Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack recently outlined, "The new sanctions, both those contained in the [UN Security Council] resolution itself and those enacted by member states (particularly the EU, Japan and South Korea) in conformity with the provisions of the resolution, go far beyond what most believed possible. They truly are harsh measures... And they have gotten Tehran's attention, with no less a figure than former-President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warning his countrymen that the sanctions are no joke and that the country's situation is dire."  And as insideIRAN noted, President Ahmadinejad also recently struck a defiant tone after the release of the WikiLeaks documents painted Iran as increasingly isolated among its Arab neighbors. "At a press conference November 29, Ahmadinejad dismissed WikiLeaks as an American psychological operation and said the information was without credibility. According to a report on President Ahmadinejad's official website, the Iranian chief executive accused the United States of orchestrating these stunts in order to make political gains." [Alex Vatanka via VOA, 12/5/10. Laura Rozen, 12/5/10. Kenneth Pollack, National Interest, 11/10., 12/2/10]

A military attack would be counter-productive to America's security goals and interests.  While some, including Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Elliot Abrams and Reuel Marc Gerecht, ratchet up the rhetoric and call for a military strike against Iran, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently laid out the consequences of such an action.  He said, "A military solution, as far as I'm concerned ... it will bring together a divided nation. It will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. And they will just go deeper and more covert."  This analysis from Gates is similar to what has been repeatedly said by top experts and military strategists:

General David Petraeus, Afghanistan Commander and former CENTCOM commander, warned that the military option risks unleashing a popular backlash that would play into the hands of the regime:  "There is certainly a history, in other countries, of fairly autocratic regimes almost creating incidents that inflame nationalist sentiment," said Petraeus. "So that could be among the many different, second, third, or even fourth order effects (of a strike)."  [David Petraeus, 2/3/10]

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I worry, on the other hand, about striking Iran. I've been very public about that because of the unintended consequences of that..." [Admiral Michael Mullen, 4/18/10]

General Anthony Zinni, former CENTCOM commander: "The problem with the strike is thinking through the consequences of Iranian reaction...You can see all these reactions that are problematic in so many ways. Economic impact, national security impact -- it will drag us into a conflict.  I think anybody that believes that it would be a clean strike and it would be over and there would be no reaction is foolish." [Anthony Zinni, 8/04/09]

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former Bush Administration Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: "Air strikes would undoubtedly lead Iran to hit back asymmetrically against us in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider region, especially through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. This reminds us of Churchill's maxim that, once a war starts, it is impossible to know how it will end." [Nicholas Burns, 5/06/09]

Arab leaders also fear consequences of military strike, despite widely covered - and incorrect - narrative resulting from WikiLeaks dump.  Marc Lynch, of the Center for a New American Security, corrects the false narrative by closely examining the cables.  He writes: "The cables thus far released show that most Arab leaders deeply fear rising Iranian power and want the U.S. to solve their problems for them... But there's also plenty of evidence of their reluctance to get involved in military action.  In February, for instance, the office director of Kuwait's Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying that ‘Kuwaitis are equally concerned about military pre-emption, which they believe would not prove decisive and would lead Iran to lash out at US interests in the Gulf.' An Omani military official says ‘he advocated a non-military solution as the best option for the U.S.' The Saudi Foreign Ministry ‘strongly advised against taking military action to neutralize Iran's program.'  In other words, ‘while Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.'" [Robert Gates, 11/16/10. Marc Lynch, 11/29/10]

What We're Reading

The United States has stepped up diplomatic pressure on China by accusing its leaders of "enabling" North Korea to start a uranium-enrichment program and to launch attacks on South Korea.

Officials from Israel and Turkey met in Geneva, Switzerland, in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two nations in the wake of an incident earlier this year involving an aid flotilla to Gaza.

Alassane Ouattara, the winner of a presidential election in Ivory Coast, formed his government while the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down.

Protesters in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince clashed with police at a demonstration demanding the annulment of last week's presidential elections.

India and France signed a multibillion agreement to build two nuclear power plants in India as French President Nicolas Sarkozy worked to drum up business for his nation during his four-day visit.

Russian news reports say a rocket and its payload of three communications satellites has fallen into the Pacific Ocean after failing to reach orbit, the latest setback to that country's attempts to develop a system to rival the U.S. Global Positioning System.

Four officials of an Afghan election commission were arrested by President Hamid Karzai's government, which has been deeply critical of the panel's handling of disputed parliamentary elections.

Two explosions at a government office in the Mohmand tribal region in Pakistan killed at least 40 people and injured dozens more.

A long list of key facilities around the world that the U.S. describes as vital to its national security has been released by Wikileaks.

The withering of Thailand's democracy is closing potential avenues for political resolution of the country's ongoing crisis and may lead toward widespread violence, and possibly even an armed revolt.

Commentary of the Day

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen warns delaying ratification of the New START treaty is a dangerous and unnecessary gamble with our nation's security.

Roger Cohen argues Shariah is the new hot-button wedge issue, seized on by Republicans to mobilize conservative Americans against the supposed "stealth jihad" of Muslims in the United States and against a Democratic president portrayed as oblivious to - or complicit with - the threat.

Daniel Drezner makes the case why Wikileaks is bad for scholars.