(Iran/Riflessioni strategiche) P5+1 – Iran Talks Kick Off Again: Last Chance to Prevent Big Trouble (Andrei Akulov, Strategic Culture Foundation, 10 febbraio 2013)

10.02.2013 14:20

The P5 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) - Iran talks are to kick off in a few days. The process got stalled since last year’s June meeting in Moscow that ended up without any get ahead. Since then there were constant attempts to arrange another round of negotiations. Now it appears that Iran, which is about to enter its presidential election season, has finally agreed to get back to the round table. On January 5 Teheran announced that it would join talks in Kazakhstan on February 26… 

No doubt the 49th Munich International Security Conference, which took place on February 1 - 3, made a definite contribution to the discussion about Iran’s nuclear program. US Vice President Joe Biden said the United States was prepared to meet with Iran’s leaders on a bilateral basis, a proposal soon to be refused by Iranians. At the same time, Iran agreed to a date and venue for a new round of negotiations with the P5+1 international nuclear mediators during the conference proceedings.

While making a proposal for a bilateral meeting, Biden threatened Iran again. According to him, the «diplomatic window» for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem is closing. He said that if Iran’s leaders do not live up to their international obligations, the country will come under even tougher sanctions. The difficulties in finding a compromise have grown, The «tougher sanctions» approach has the reverse side of the medal. It makes the other side more recalcitrant and gives rise to anti-West feelings among grassroots, because it’s common people who suffer most as a result. 

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke at the conference in unison with Washington. According to her, «We shall never cease to strive to find ways to bring them to the table and to have that diplomatic solution…» She noted that political and economic pressure is forcing Iran to recognize the importance of negotiations, and she expressed the hope that Tehran would respond to that quickly.

The positive outcome on setting the date is to great extent the result of Russia’s urgent efforts intensified in view of the West and Iran’s inability to get the sleeves up, sit at the round table and pitch in. «Some of our partners in the six powers and the Iranian side cannot come to an agreement about where to meet», Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow on January 28. «We are ready to meet at any location as soon as possible. We believe the essence of our talks is far more important (than the site), and we hope that common sense will prevail and we will stop behaving like little children», the Russian top diplomat added. 

Military preparations on the way

Last March President Barack Obama reportedly offered Israel bunker-buster bombs and other advanced weapons in exchange for postponing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities until 2013. Back then Israel unveiled an improved precision, bunker-burrowing weapon, the latest in a series of operational upgrades aimed at honing a military option against Iranian nuclear threat. The 500-pound MPR-500 is an electro-optical or laser-guided projectile that can penetrate double-reinforced concrete walls or floors without breaking apart. The lethality, precision and relatively low weight enables its use against multiple targets in a single pass. The MPR-500 bridges an operational gap between the 250-pound US GBU-39 small-diameter bomb - 1,000 of which were approved for sale to Israel - and the 5,000-pound GBU-28. In parallel, the Air Force is planning to enlarge its Boeing 707-based aerial refueling tanker fleet. Once deployed, the expanded tanker fleet will be capable of providing nearly 2 million pounds of fuel, allowing dozens of Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighters to carry more weapons for long-range strategic bombing missions. In 1981, Israel attacked Iraq’s nuclear reactor and in 2007 is widely believed to have destroyed a suspected nuclear site in Syria. In December 2012 the U.S. Department of Defense notified Congress of a $647 million agreement to provide the Israel Air Force with 10,000 bombs — more than half of which are bunker-busters — along with 6,900 joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) tail kits, which convert unguided free-fall bombs into satellite-guided «smart» weapons. The last time the U.S. sent Israel bunker-busters was in 2009. The sale included 55 GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators. This time around the U.S. is providing 1,725 BLU-109 and 3,450 GBU-39 bunker-buster bombs.

Last July the US. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the biggest conventional record-breaking bunker-buster became operational after years of testing. The Pentagon has spent $330 million to develop and deliver more than 20 of the precision-guided Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bunker-busters, which are designed to blast through up to 200 feet of concrete. The new conventional rocket is six times the weight of the previous bunker-buster used by the US Air Force and carries an explosive payload of 5,300 pounds. According to US military officials, the weapon was built to attack the fortified nuclear facilities of «rogue states» such as Iran. It has been repeatedly claimed by different sources the bomb is being tailor-made to disable Iranian nuclear facilities at Fordow. At best, the US believes a successful strike could set the Iranian program back several years, and, at worst, to at least collapse the passageways to the facility and force substantial rebuilding work. Two bombs can be mounted simultaneously on a modified B-52 bomber. A sustained U.S. attack over multiple days would probably render the plant unusable by collapsing tunnels and irreparably damaging its highly sensitive centrifuge equipment and wires. During training exercises bombers assaulted similar targets in deeply buried bunkers and mountain tunnels. U.S. officials stress the necessity of multiple strikes as they warn Israel against a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear installations because it lacks the United States’ more advanced munitions and the ability to wage an air bombing campaign over sustained period of time, weeks and even months, if need be. Nonetheless, even if the MOP can be of limited effectiveness against Iran, the United States has little alternative because the only other weapon capable of destroying such a facility is a tactical nuclear munition.

Meanwhile, the Israeli new Depth Corps Force is honing its skills to conduct subversive actions in faraway areas. Modeled after the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the creation of the force indicates Israel's military envisions that long-range, largely clandestine and multi-service missions will have a much higher priority than the conventional operations. It also suggests that Israel expects future wars to be long, difficult and not limited to fighting along its own borders.The Depth Corps Force comprises some 100 soldiers and officers. The army does not intend for this force to deal with every long-range mission, it is responsible for only the most special and complex ones. Predictably, some are calling the corps «the Iran Command». Israel has another command to fight Iran - the Mossad intelligence agency—which has been involved in doing the heavy lifting in the campaign against the Iranian nuclear threat. 

US stance

The negotiations will be a serious test for the Obama administration and for John Kerry, the new Secretary of State. After the Obama’s re-election, the administration has not signaled it has anything else to offer to Iran aside from tough economic sanctions. This is an important test for President Obama’s new national security team: John Kerry, the Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan at the helm of Central Intelligence Agency. Some think tanks say there is a chance for the «shop, ship, and shut» policy in case the P5+1 could lift some of the economic sanctions and agree to limited Iranian enrichment. There is a consensus any sanctions relief for Iran will occur gradually, not all at once, along with steps taken by Iran and open access for the inspections and oversight by the IAEA. The U.S. stepped up the pressure against the Iranian government on February 6 introducing new sanctions in response to its nuclear program and, also, targeting institutions that censor political dissent. The Department of Treasury, working with Department of State, expanded the scope of sanctions restricting the use of oil revenue held in foreign financial institutions. Beginning this February, the banks that support the sale of Iranian oil, may lose access to the US banking system. The US officials believe the new measures will keep Tehran from receiving payments from banks, and that, in turn, will impede its oil sales. This way Iranian oil revenues will be confined to the countries that buy Iranian oil and can only be used to purchase goods from those countries. Exceptions are still being made for humanitarian items, such as food, medicine and medical devices. The latest sanctions come on top of a number of restrictions from both the US and other foreign governments, and have already had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Iran's fragile currency, the rial, has plummeted in value against the dollar over the past year.

Will it be effective remains to be seen, many say it is counterproductive. Still we have what we have - the Obama administration and US Congress believe that ever-tougher sanctions will cause Iran to cave in at the talks. At that, some say the nomination of Hagel for Secretary of Defense may be a sign that the White House is beginning to realize that sanctions, and threats of military action, won’t force Iran’s hand. As has been widely reported, neo-conservatives and members of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington have lambasted Hagel for his past comments and positions on Iran (he had previously been a sharp critic of a military attack on Iran and doubted the efficiency of sanctions). Within days of his nomination Hagel clearly backtracked from his earlier stance under the Congress hawks pressure. 

It interesting to remember the opinion of a person, who has rich experience behind him and knows all the ins and outs of US foreign policy shaping process. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk gave a forecast that the United States would go to war with Iran in 2013. On September 16, speaking during a panel discussion on the CBS program Face the Nation, Indyk said: «I'm afraid that 2013 is going to be a year in which we're going to have a military confrontation with Iran». Indyk, who is currently head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institute think tank, said that «Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon», but added that there's not a lot of time left until it does. «There is still time, perhaps six months, even by Prime Minister Netanyahu's own timetable, to try to see if a negotiated solution can be worked out».

On December 6, 2012 two top US foreign policy officials told The Times of Israel that if the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program were not resolved diplomatically till the end of the year, it would be resolved militarily by the end of 2013. The two officials spoke with The Times of Israel at the gala dinner of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. «I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails (to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons) - to use force», according to Dennis Ross, a former Mideast envoy during the Clinton administration, and until November 2011 President Obama’s top advisor and planner on Iran in the National Security Council. James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security advisor and, for the past two years, the US ambassador to Iraq, agreed with Ross’ assessment. «I think (Obama’s) first choice will be a negotiated settlement. Failing that, I think that we’re going to strike», Jeffrey said.

Diplomatic efforts and Russia’s contribution

The issue has a long history of diplomatic initiatives. Thus far, none of those proposals have gained acceptance, mainly because of Iran’s intransigence. Russia has come out with a number of initiatives widely welcomed, including Iran’s first positive reaction. Somehow each time the Iran’s position changed later to reject the proposals commonly accepted as constructive. 

In 2005 Russia proposed  that Tehran share ownership of a uranium-enrichment plant located in Russia. Iran ultimately rejected the proposal in 2006. 

China, Russia, and the United States joined the three EU countries in June 2006 to offer another proposal for comprehensive negotiations with Iran. They included the provision of state-of-the-art light water reactors to Iran through joint projects, along with nuclear fuel guarantees and a 5-year buffer stock of fuel. Iran said no again. 

In 2009 Iran refused a Russia-initiated plan to send 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be made into special fuel for a Tehran reactor making medical materials. Iran would send a significant quantity of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for further enriching and processing in Russia and France respectively, so that it could be used as fuel in its research reactor in Tehran, which makes isotopes for medical uses. Up to 1,200kg of LEU could be involved, three-quarters of Iran’s declared stock. It would be further enriched in Russia from below 5% purity to just under 20% – enough for the research reactor, but not enough for a warhead. The reasons for Iran’s refusal were hard to understand by experts, the initiative provided Iran with each and every opportunity to go on with the peaceful nuclear program, it was a result of great effort and real diplomatic art. There were great hopes pinned on it. It’s not late to go back to it by the end of February. 

In 2011 Russia's «step-by-step» reciprocity-based approach on Iran's nuclear program was dismissed by Iran. The approach, laid out by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, would enable Iran to address questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over its nuclear program. Iran could revive negotiations to alleviate IAEA concerns about its nuclear activities and be rewarded by partial removal of sanctions. According to the proposal Iran was to limit enrichment to Natanz, to stop installation of any additional centrifuges, and to halt the production of advanced ones. It was to provide early design information to the IAEA under Code 3.1., to cap the enrichment level at 5% and allow greater IAEA monitoring over its centrifuges. He P5+1 were to suspend most UN sanctions and gradually lift unilateral ones. In case Iran implemented the IAEA Additional Protocol the P5+1 would have suspended the UN sanctions in a phased manner. 

At the 49th Munich Security Conference on February 2, 2013 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, «The use of military force against Iran is not an acceptable option… And the issue must be approached both in the context of the Iranian nuclear problem and in the context of regional security». The talks to start on February 26 are a good opportunity to grab. Probably, it is the last chance to address the issue and find a compromise. Threatening with tougher sanctions on the part of the West cannot be the only solution. On the other hand, rejecting al the proposals by the government of Iran hardly meets the interests of the country and common Iranians. There may be changes, amendments and revisions, but by and large the proposed «step by step» approach is the right way to get ahead. This is the time of patience, wisdom, responsibility and diplomatic aptitude. Failure is a price too dear to pay.