Showdown at Natanz – Iran’s Centrifuges Spin

Breakfast With Bwana

By Anil Madan

The subject of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions is a stew of contradictions. On the one hand, Iran has insisted all along that its nuclear research is entirely peaceful and that it is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons. If that is true, there was no need for the deal with the Obama administration in the first place when Iran agreed not to do what it was not doing anyway. On the other hand, the JCPOA agreement reached with Iran by the US, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, was hailed as extending the lag time for Iran to gather enough fissile material to produce a nuclear bomb from 2-3 months to 12 months, and giving the US and the IAEA enough time to assess whether such an effort was underway. That is, of course, the nuclear bomb that Iran was not developing.

The IAEA did certify way back in 2016, that Iran was in compliance with steps it had agreed to undertake to keep its nuclear program exclusively peaceful. In return, the US had agreed to lift nuclear-related sanctions. Notwithstanding the IAEA report, there was ongoing concern that Iran was not allowing adequate access to all of its nuclear installations and that it was not to be trusted. Moreover, Iran continued its proxy wars in the Middle East and its support of terrorism, actions that were not addressed by the JCPOA.

President Trump changed things dramatically when he announced that he was withdrawing from “the Iran deal” which he called the “worst deal in history.” President Trump’s actions validated Iran’s assertions that the US could not be trusted. Trump not only restored the previous sanctions but added more stringent restrictions. 

What is not generally appreciated is that the “deal” was a non-binding political commitment under US law. It was not a treaty required to be ratified by the Senate. And provisions allowing Congress to vote on it were of little consequence as even a resolution to extend the time for Congressional review did not pass. But from Iran’s point of view, it was a binding commitment by the US.

Iran saw Trump’s action as a reason to step up its nuclear activities, implementing measures that would have been prohibited by the JCPOA. The US protested but that protest rang hollow with Trump’s disavowal of America’s commitment to the deal. On the other hand, Germany and the other EU countries who still had a “deal” with Iran cried out in anguish for Iran to continue to comply. 

Notwithstanding President Trump’s efforts to impose additional sanctions on Iran, he found no support from China, Russia or Germany and the EU countries.

The lack of trust goes beyond the mutual distrust that the US and Iran have. Israel and the Sunni majority countries in the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia, feel threatened by Iran and do not trust the Ayatollahs. They see an urgency to ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. 

Under these circumstances, why would Iran talk to the US and why would the US want to talk to Iran at all? The simple truth is that to the extent that Iran’s nuclear program can be contained, the world is safer. More importantly, if Iran’s nuclear program is not cabined, it is likely that Saudi Arabia will seek to develop its own nuclear capability. And who knows which other Middle East nations will feel compelled to follow suit? Israel, of course, is already reputed to be a nuclear power. But that fact only increases the likelihood of preemptive action against Iran especially if it is viewed as an existential threat to Israel. That Iran is an existential threat to Israel cannot be doubted because the Ayatollahs and Iran’s presidents have called for the destruction of Israel. Just how far Iran has to go before Israel feels compelled to act is not something anyone wants to find out.

So, what’s the problem? If Iran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons, why should it be so difficult to get to an agreement that it will not do so? The problem, in large measure, is that the US, urged on by Israel, acts as if Iran cannot be trusted on this subject and Iran, while insisting that it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful research, sees great leverage in maintaining opacity about whether it indeed can be trusted. Kim Jong Un of North Korea has demonstrated how that kind of leverage works as his country’s nuclear program has progressed from one threatening a nuclear weapons capability to one capable of testing nuclear explosions.

How do two nations, one that does not trust the other, and the other that acts as if it cannot be trusted, come together to negotiate a deal? Under the Obama administration, they found a way. In large measure, the path was one by which the US pretended that Iran could be trusted not to build nuclear weapons capability and Iran pretended that it had no intention to build such a capability while taking baby steps on the way to doing precisely that.

Today, the situation has changed. President Biden announced well before he was elected that he would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal as if coming in and out of the “deal” is a unilateral choice by the US Iran, as expected, rejected that approach and rejected the idea of negotiations with the US. At the same time, Iran has found a way to negotiate with the US.

But why should this be so? After all, Iran wants US sanctions lifted and the best way to do that is to negotiate an indirect deal with the US. Or is it?

Iran had a different strategy in the wings. Recently, China has announced an accord with Iran under which China will invest $400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years in exchange for oil. The significance of this deal is that it effectively wipes out the punitive effect of US sanctions. And it effectively substitutes China as Iran’s negotiator.

So, Iran suddenly announced that it would negotiate with the US. But it did so in an insulting way. Iran refuses to meet with the US directly because its Supreme Leader says the US cannot be trusted. Iran will meet with the Europeans in Geneva who will be go-betweens with the Americans who are staying at a different hotel. Strange as it may seem, the US agreed to this arrangement. In the negotiations under the Obama administration, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif often spoke of the need for Iran to be treated with respect and as an equal. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State obliged. Now, Iran turns that notion on its head and treats the US with disrespect, in effect not recognizing its existence.

So, what is going on here? In recent days, the Iranians have announced that the talks are showing signs of progress and an agreement is likely to be reached. Well, this is not surprising since no one other than the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia seems to be in favour of continuing sanctions against Iran. The US already realizes that sanctions have effectively been eviscerated by China’s deal with Iran.

It is not more important to curb Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb more than it ever was, if only to prevent proliferation that will see Saudi Arabia and perhaps a Gulf nation become nuclear powers.

Iran’s announcement, in recent days, that it would enrich uranium to 60% purity adds urgency to the situation. Iran has said that it would use 60% enriched uranium for nuclear powered ships. That’s fine, except Iran has no nuclear-powered ships. There’s the trust factor rearing its ugly head again. 

Last week an explosion rocked Iran’s Natanz facility. Not unexpectedly, Iran blames Israel. 

So what can we expect from this latest round of talks? There is hope for an agreement of some sort. The Biden administration is desperate to get to an agreement not the least because it shows up Trump. Iran is anxious to get sanctions lifted and has the backing of China and probably Russia as well. India, more inclined to the US now than at any time in the past is also reliant on Iranian oil supplies so the US has sketchy support from Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The only consideration that militates against a US deal with Iran is that if Iran’s threat to Israel and the Middle East is negated, the incentive for Israel and Saudi Arabia to work toward rapprochement is lessened. Against that, the notion of a safer, nuclear free Middle East is far more attractive.

The net result is that we can expect an agreement that is not favorable to the US position of isolating Iran. And most certainly, Iran will get relief from US sanctions. Even if it doesn’t, it is clear that the Chinese couldn’t care less about US sanctions and they have the clout to not to care.


* Published in print edition on 20 April 2021

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