Iran’s mullahs, U.S. Congress complicate nuclear talks

New York TimesJuly 13, 2014 

— Secretary of State John Kerry arrived here early Sunday in an attempt to rescue negotiations with Iran that have stalled on the question of how large a nuclear infrastructure that nation will be permitted to have over the next decade or two. But he quickly confronted the fact that the problem might be less at the negotiating table here than with mullahs in Tehran and members of Congress in Washington.

During 11 days of intensive negotiations in a palace just steps from where Beethoven and Mozart once lived and worked, a team of sophisticated, westernized negotiators from Iran’s new government have given a bit of ground on how some of the country’s facilities will be used and how others will be inspected, according to officials who have been in the rooms where the wording was being discussed.

But the Iranians appeared taken a bit by surprise when their Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a speech in Tehran last week that went into extraordinary detail about how much nuclear enrichment capacity Iran would need – statements that seemed to circumscribe their ability to come up with face-saving ways to dismantle a good portion of Iran’s facilities while still portraying their program as moving forward.

The Americans face their own constraints at home: A letter from key members of the Senate to President Barack Obama describes what a deal to prevent Iran from producing a weapon should look like and suggests that anything short of that would not lead to the lifting of sanctions, the only incentive the U.S. team can dangle in front of the Iranians.

It was a reminder for Kerry that there is not one negotiation underway to strike this deal, but three. Kerry and his counterparts from five other nations are struggling to reach an accommodation with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s U.S.-educated foreign minister, who has been camped out for the past 11 days in the Coburg Palace, which has become a luxury dormitory for the American, West European, Russian and Chinese negotiators, who are living and working just doors away from one another.

But Zarif has a parallel negotiation underway with Khamenei and the generals of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which runs the military side of the nuclear program and barely trusts its foreign minister. Obama, meanwhile, has been in a constant behind-the-scenes struggle with members of Congress who argue for more sanctions and more pressure. Obama has threatened to veto such efforts for fear they will undermine chances for a deal he believes would be a more lasting solution than permanent sanctions or military action against Iran’s nuclear sites.

“It may be the most complex negotiation I’ve ever seen,” said a U.S. official who has been advising the White House on strategy, declining to speak on the record about the details of the discussion. “Everyone is using the constraints they face back home as a reason to avoid compromise. And the fact of the matter is that there are many generals in Iran and many members of Congress in Washington who would like to see this whole effort collapse.”

Kerry, who arrived here after grappling with the electoral crisis in Afghanistan, said little in public other than to make clear he was evaluating the process to determine whether to recommend to Obama that the talks be extended beyond the July 20 deadline.

“Obviously, we have some very significant gaps still,” he told reporters on his way into the palace. “It is vital to make certain that Iran is not going to develop a nuclear weapon, that their program is peaceful.” While Kerry is not talking about extending the talks - which is permitted under an interim agreement reached in November - that now seems inevitable.

“We are trying to find solutions to narrow the difference,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said to a state-run Iranian news service in an interview here. “Given this context, it’s possible that negotiations will be extended by a few days or weeks.”

U.S. officials will not talk about an extension, for fear it will derail their chances of making progress by the deadline next Sunday. But for Obama, the downside of an extension is small. The relatively modest number of sanctions lifted since November, under the preliminary deal, have not resulted in the wide-scale dismemberment of the sanctions regime predicted by Israeli officials. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency say the Iranians have scrupulously observed their part of the temporary deal, blending down the fuel that the United States feared was closest to conversion to bomb grade.

But every one of the steps the Iranians have taken so far is easily reversible. And the U.S. negotiators, led by Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, are haunted by memories of how quickly North Korea reversed a dismantlement program that it negotiated with President George W. Bush seven years ago.

Indeed, when it comes to stopping a country from getting a weapons capability, history suggests there are deterrents, but no certainties. There are just educated assessments about how much warning time can be created by limiting a country’s access to certain technologies, reducing the amounts of fuel that can be quickly converted to bomb-grade fuel, and by exposing the history of weapons-making efforts. Those bets failed in North Korea and Pakistan; they succeeded in South Africa and South Korea, both of which ultimately decided that a bomb program was not worth the long-term economic and political cost.

But it is far from clear that Iran’s leadership - divided between those who want a long-term accord with the West and those who seek a restoration of Iranian influence in the Middle East - have made a decision. Zarif represents the faction that seems “genuinely convinced,” in the words of one U.S. negotiator, “that a weapons capability doesn’t buy them much.”

Indeed, Zarif said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday: “I will commit to everything and anything that would provide credible assurances for the international community that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, because we are not. We don’t see any benefit in Iran developing a nuclear weapon.”

But Khamenei, in describing Iran’s long-range needs, talked of a 10-fold increase in enrichment capacity - something so large that it would, if carried out, give Iran a “breakout time” to produce weapons-grade fuel of just weeks. He was vague about when Iran intended to create that industrial capacity. A senior U.S. official briefing reporters on Saturday said that Iran would have to accept sharp limits on its number of working centrifuges - meaning fewer than the 10,000 it has today - for a decade or more.

That is at the core of the problem. Robert Einhorn, who was a central player in developing the U.S. strategy until he left the administration last year, noted recently that “rather than prepare the political ground for some concessions, the Iranian leadership has locked itself into a narrative that they need an industrial capability to produce all their own nuclear power fuel.”

The one power reactor that Iran is running today receives its fuel from Russia under a long-term contract; it would take years, if not decades, to build additional reactors.

Obama is getting tied down, as well. If a deal is struck, he will need Congress to revoke sanctions. But that is a hard vote for Democrats as well as Republicans, and a letter to Obama now being circulated in the Senate by Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, lays out a series of protections they say they will insist upon if Congress is to relax sanctions as part of any deal.

Among them are robust inspections arrangement that “lasts at least 20 years” and “access to any and all facilities, persons or documentation” sought by the International Atomic Energy Agency to suspected past work on weapons.

Two years ago, the Obama administration was talking in similar terms, and sometimes still does. But officials close to the negotiations say they will need some negotiating leeway, and fear Congress is cutting it off.

“We’re in the position now where you have to ask whether the perfect is the enemy of the good,” said Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, which strongly backs a deal.

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