Can the West Trust Iranian Commitments?
Right now the common theme being sounded in the capitals of the West is that this time the Iranians are serious. Western diplomats note that the Iranians came to the last negotiations in Istanbul with the P5 +1( the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) without preconditions and were prepared to talk about the nuclear file, rather than avoid it as they did in 2011. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, took this a step further, stating that it was her ambition that in Baghdad “we come away with the beginning of the end of the nuclear weapons program in Iran.”
Ashton’s optimistic assessment, in particular, does not correspond to the experience that the West acquired from past negotiations with Iran. After the Iranian uranium enrichment infrastructure was first disclosed in 2002, with the U.S. busy with its preparations for Iraq, it fell to Britain, France, and Germany to negotiate with Iran a cessation of its enrichment program. The EU-3 actually reached an agreement with the Iranians “to suspend all uranium enrichment activities” as well as halt their work on plutonium production efforts. What happened in the aftermath of this agreement illustrates how the Iranians handle their diplomatic commitments.
First, after the agreement was reached, Iranian diplomats immediately argued over its scope. They asserted that it only covered the actual insertion of uranium gas into the centrifuges in the Natanz facility, but not all the preceding steps which they continued to undertake. They claimed that they had the right to manufacture centrifuges, which they continued to produce.
The step before enrichment is called “conversion” and it involves taking a uranium product called “yellowcake” and producing uranium gas that is fed into the centrifuges. When the negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran began in 2003, the Iranians did not even have a uranium conversion facility. By 2005, when the negotiations ended, the Iranians had completed building the facility in Isfahan and began operating it. They canceled their agreement with the West and announced that their suspension of enrichment was over.
In a secret speech in Tehran, the head Iranian negotiator at the time, Hassan Rowhani, boasted that while the negotiations were taking place, the Iranians were building their conversion plant in Isfahan: “When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.” Cyrus Nasseri, another Iranian negotiator, admitted in 2004 that Iran “needed to gain time” to finish certain nuclear projects. Mohammad Larijani, a deputy foreign minister whose brother, Ali Larijani, replaced Rowhani as the chief negotiator, explained the logic of Iran’s diplomatic strategy: “Diplomacy must be used to lessen pressure on Iran for its nuclear program.”
In 2003, the Iranians feared that after the fall of Baghdad, the Bush administration would continue the war on terrorism by launching a war against them. They neutralized this challenge by backing the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. and Britain. As U.S. forces got mired down in the years that followed the risks of an attack on Iran diminished. Meanwhile, their diplomats bought time at the negotiating table.
While Rowhani and his team were replaced by Ahmadinejad in 2005, lately he has been enjoying a rehabilitation of sorts in Tehran with the publication of his memoirs. Iranian websites have even been reporting that he might have been recruited by the regime for some back-channel contacts with the West in Vienna. He remains one of the leading Iranian experts in manipulating the West. Thus, his admissions about his negotiating strategy remain important.
The story of how Iran exploited negotiations to further advance its nuclear program touches upon one of the key elements of Iranian diplomacy: deception. In his book “Islamic Government,” written before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini tells his followers: “If someone wants to speak about Islamic government, he must observe the principle of taqiya,” which has been explained as showing one intention but harboring a different intention.
Rowhani and his diplomats applied taqiya to the nuclear negotiations, leading a senior French official to comment to his American counterpart that the Iranians “lie all the time.” A British ambassador to Iran in the 1970’s, Sir Denis Wright, once commented on the phenomenon of taqiya, saying, “The Iranians are a people who say the opposite of what they think and do the opposite of what they say.” These were not racist comments, but rather reflected how an old Shiite religious practice, stressed by Khomeini himself, was repeatedly used in diplomatic contacts between Iran and the West.
A second critical element in any negotiations with the West is the principle of transparency, opening up Iranian hidden facilities to inspection. In the past, when the Iranians suspected they were about to be caught violating their commitments, they delayed the inspections that the International Atomic Energy Agency announced it wanted to conduct and used the time to bury any incriminating evidence. There was the case of the Kalaya Electric facility, where the Iranians removed all the tiles of several rooms, so that if inspectors swiped their walls, they would not find out that radioactive experiments with new centrifuges had been conducted.
At the Lavizan Research Center, where weaponization work was done, the Iranians simply demolished six buildings and even removed several meters of topsoil in order to avoid detection if ground samples were taken. During a January 2005 inspection of Parchin, the Iranians simply restricted IAEA inspections to very few buildings. To this day, the IAEA is still asking for full access to Parchin. What is important to recall is that while the Western leaders of seven years ago have been replaced, the key figure on the Iranian side responsible for decision-making on nuclear issues remains the same, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To answer whether Iran will respect any agreement that is reached, it is essential not to get bogged down in technicalities. Back in July 1991, after he had just taken over as Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei explained how he was drawing up the National Security Strategy of Iran: “Do we look to preserve the integrity of our land, or do we look to its expansion?” He answered his own question: “We must definitely look to expansion.” Khamenei’s description of Iranian policy is exactly what happened. Maj. Gen. Qasim Suleimani, whom Khamenei promoted to head of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, actually declared several months ago that “Iraq and Southern Lebanon are under Tehran’s dominance.”
Thus the West is not negotiating with just another state with a nuclear infrastructure, like Japan or Sweden, but rather with a revolutionary regime with pretensions to become a hegemonial power in the Middle East. It has claimed Bahrain as Iranian territory, and its forces are active in supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan and the besieged Assad regime in Syria. As long as this is the Iranian political agenda, Tehran will seek to free itself in time from any shackles that are placed on its nuclear program, regardless of the optimism that Western diplomats are now projecting at the end of every round of negotiations.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.