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Why Iran Nuclear Talks Failed and Why They Will Get Tougher


The chance for a first preliminary agreement between Iran and the six powers (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China) to resolve the decade-long conflict over Iran's nuclear program was lost during the weekend because of a deliberate French policy of preventing agreement at the behest of Israel and the Obama administration's lack of commitment to reaching a comprehensive settlement of the issue.

Those two major reasons for the breakdown of the negotiations without agreement reveal just how fragile the diplomacy surrounding the Iran nuclear question is and how close it is to falling into serious stalemate. Moreover, the remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry about the episode, far from assuaging Iranian doubts, are likely to create new doubts about the Obama administration's commitment to a comprehensive solution to the issue.

The US Covers for Israel and France

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took the other foreign ministers of the six powers at the Geneva talks by surprise Saturday when he used an interview with France-Inter radio to voice objection to "several points that … we're not satisfied with, compared to the initial text" and called the draft agreement a "con game." That language clearly paralleled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attack on the agreement and appears to have been calculated to prevent an agreement from being reached.

The following day, Kerry and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman introduced a new explanation for the failure of the talks to reach agreement during the weekend that appeared to deny that disunity among the six powers was a problem.

Kerry asserted in a news conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday that France had joined the six powers in making a united proposal to Iran – a point that seemingly cleared France of the accusation of diplomatic sabotage – and that it was Iran that had not been able accept the text without further consultation. The same explanation was given to reporters in Jerusalem by an unnamed "senior American official" – presumably Sherman, who was heading the US delegation visiting Israel to report on the talks.

A reconstruction of the events of the weekend indicates, however, that the US account was a disingenuous effort to provide cover for the French and Israeli allies.

Sometime after Fabius had given his approval for the draft to go forward, he attacked the agreement over Arak and the issue of Iran's 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile. It was merely rhetoric for public consumption, moreover. Western diplomats were quoted as saying that Fabius was "holding out" for tougher conditions on the Iranians than those that had been agreed to by the other five powers and that he was indeed sabotaging the deal.

The objections voiced by Fabius were not based on genuine technical issues.

The draft agreement language required that Iran not "activate" the Arak heavy-water research reactor, rather than requiring an immediate end to all work on the construction of the reactor, according to a leak by two senior Obama administration officials to CNN published November 8.

The reason is that Arak is not a short-term proliferation risk. The idea that Arak would produce enough plutonium for one nuclear bomb per year frequently cited in media coverage of the issue is extremely misleading because, in fact, Iran has no facility for reprocessing the plutonium – as Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association has pointed out.

And the PowerPoint presentation by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the preliminary meeting in mid-October indicated that Iran was ready to agree to arrangements for removal of all plutonium produced by the reactor, so that it would be unable to decide to reprocess it in the future. A detailed agreement on Arak that would be part of the comprehensive agreement would provide assurances against reprocessing of plutonium.

The language in the text on Iran's 20 percent-enriched uranium said Iran would "render unusable most of its existing stockpile." That language had been leaked to CNN November 7 and thus had been under discussion for at least two days prior to the arrival of Fabius in Geneva. And it did represent a shift from what the six powers had been demanding at the outset of the preliminary meeting in mid-October, which was that Iran would "ship out" most of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.

But Zarif's PowerPoint presentation in October had offered a plan to convert all of Iran's 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel rods, and Zarif's explanation of the plan convinced the Americans that the stockpile could be disposed of by continuing the process of turning it into fuel rods for a nuclear reactor, rendering it "unusable" for the higher-level enrichment necessary for nuclear weapons.

Why Fabius Turned on the Draft Agreement

The real reason Fabius suddenly attacked the draft was that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned up the heat on Fabius and the French government to refuse to support the agreement.

We now know that, in addition to at least one phone call from Netanyahu, according to a report in Israel's Channel 2 on Sunday, Fabius also was called by Meyer Habib, a Jewish member of the French Parliament representing French citizens living in southern Europe, including in Israel, and threatened a Netanyahu attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Habib, who is also deputy of the Jewish umbrella organization in France, is known as a longtime Likud Party activist and friend of Netanyahu who has been considered the Israeli prime minister's personal representative in Paris, according to Haaretz.

"If you don't toughen your positions, Netanyahu will attack Iran," the report quoted Habib as telling the French foreign minister. "I know this. I know him."

The foreign minister of an independent state normally would bristle at such open diplomatic extortion by threat of force. But the French government has had the most pro-Israel and anti-Iran policy of any European state ever since Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Jacques Chirac as president in 2007. Despite the shift from the Center-Right Union for a Popular Movement government of Sarkozy to the Socialist government of Francois Hollande in 2012, that policy has not shifted at all.

Unlike the United States, where the pro-Israeli influence is exerted through campaign contributions coordinated by AIPAC, in France the presidency has nearly complete control over foreign policy. A small group of officials has shaped policy toward Iran and Israel for the past six years. The people who are now advising Fabius on Iran are, in fact, the same ones who advised Sarkozy's foreign ministers Bernard Kouchner and Alain Juppe. "There is, in the ministry of foreign affairs, a tightly knit team of advisers on strategic affairs and non-proliferation which has played a major role in shaping the French position on Iran over the years," a knowledgeable French source told Truthout. The direction the group has taken French policy generally has coincided with that of the neoconservatives in the United States, according to close observers of that policy.

At the center of that tight-knit group is the former French ambassador to the United States during the George W. Bush administration, Jean-David Levitte. He was appointed diplomatic adviser to Sarkozy in 2007. Levitte, who has been called by some the "real foreign minister" of France, has family ties to Israel and Zionism. His uncle, Simon Levitt, was co-founder of the Zionist Youth Movement in France. 

This was not the first time that France has played a spoiler role in international negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recalls in his memoirs how the French delegation came to the October 2009 meeting with Iran in Vienna on a "fuel swap" proposal armed with "scores of amendments to our prepared draft agreement." In that case as well, it appeared that the French role was to ensure that there would not be any agreement.

The "Right to Enrich" and the "End Game"

The Israeli ability to manipulate French policy was not the only obstacle to a nuclear agreement with Iran. A potentially bigger issue was the US refusal to reflect in the agreement that Iran has the right to enrich uranium. The New York Times reported Sunday that Iran had insisted on the recognition of its right to enrich and that the US position is that there is no "inherent right to enrich." Kerry, in Abu Dhabi on Monday, declared that no nation has an "existing right to enrich."

Both of those formulations imply that any right of Iran to enrich would be conferred on Iran by the United States and the other powers if and as they saw fit.

The US position, as explained to the Times, was that any enrichment that might be allowed to Iran in a comprehensive agreement would depend on Iran's agreement to specific limits on that enrichment. The administration was clearly holding on to that concession as bargaining leverage it could use in later negotiations. In the meantime, the United States would give up only marginally important sanctions while maintaining the sanctions that were most clearly hurting Iran's economy and society – those on oil exports and banking.

The interim agreement would impose no limits on Iran's enrichment to 3.5 percent except for the use of more advanced centrifuges, so the refusal would have no practical effect on the situation during the duration of the interim agreement.

But it did have major implications for the Iranian willingness to trust the United States to negotiate a comprehensive agreement and therefore could be a deal-breaker for Iran. President Hassan Rouhani implied as much in a speech to the Iranian national assembly Sunday, saying Iran's "rights to enrichment" were "red lines" that could not be crossed. Those “red lines” coincide, of course, with the provision of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that went into effect in 1970 and which represents the global regime governing the issue of the right to nuclear technology. But the United States has been violating Iran’s rights under the NPT ever since it first began pressuring its allies to refuse to cooperate with Iran’s fledgling nuclear program in 1984. More recently it has justified its refusal to acknowledge such a right by citing UN Security Council resolutions (which Washington maneuvered to create) demanding that Iran cease all enrichment activities.

From the beginning of the talks in October through last week's negotiations, Iran had been proposing an agreement that would outline the reciprocal actions each side would take in three stages of the process and the "end game" to which they would lead. The end game for Iran meant the removal of all the sanctions against Iran in return for Iran's acceptance of strict limits on its enrichment and the acceptance of much more intrusive monitoring by the IAEA. That had been the central point of the original Iranian framework presented in Zarif's October power point.

But agreement on the "end game" in the preliminary interim agreement was much less important to the Obama administration than it was to Iran. What concerned US officials primarily was whether Iran could achieve a breakout to a bomb. As a senior administration officials told CNN last week, the preliminary agreement was designed to "stop Iran's progress" and "the shortening of time by which they could build a nuclear weapon."

If Iran ended its 20 percent enrichment and systematically was eliminating its stockpile of uranium that could still be enriched to weapons-grade levels (90 percent), the Obama administration might feel that the urgency of the crisis had lessened. Achieving the additional limits on Iran's enrichment by removing the sanctions, moreover, would be an exercise that certainly would provoke all-out conflict with Israel and with the Congress.

Kerry made the point in his Abu Dhabi press conference Monday that "no agreement has been reached about the end game here." His decision to emphasize that point may be primarily to fend off criticism of the agreement from Israel and Gulf Arab states of the "end game." Nevertheless that remark, along with the effort by the United States to cover up the obvious effort to sabotage the talks by Israel and France, is bound to raise a serious question for Rouhani of whether the United States is really committed to an end game in which the sanctions will be removed in return for Iran cashing in its nuclear negotiating chips. If the end game is at best an afterthought and, in the worst case, something to which Washington may have a political aversion, then Iran would be putting its own bargaining position in jeopardy by agreeing to US terms for the interim agreement.

When the diplomats reassemble November 20, therefore, the United States is certainly going to face a much more skeptical and troubled Iran than it encountered last week.

Gareth Porter (@GarethPorter), an independent investigative journalist and historian covering US national security policy, was awarded the Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 by the UK-based Martha Gellhorn Trust. 

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