Can the Iran Nuke Crisis be Defused?

Former CIA analyst.

On Tuesday, August 22, Iran responded formally to the demand of the European Union, represented by France, Germany and Great Britain of July 1, that, in return for unspecified economic and other benefits, it permanently give up the enrichment of uranium for its nuclear power plants and submit to certain other limitations on its nuclear program or face possible United Nations sanctions (unspecified) per Security Council Resolution 1696 of July 31. The Iranian response, delivered to EU Foreign Secretary Javier Solano, but not yet made public, reportedly declares Tehran’s willingness to negotiate on all points-including, apparently, uranium enrichment and regional security issues-but pointedly rejects pre-conditions for talks. This official response was repeated in public statements by Iranian government figures and political and religious leaders. They emphasized Iranian openness to negotiation but unwillingness to submit in advance to European demands, seen as being of US origin, that would limit Iranian international law and treaty rights.

It is important to note that the ostensible reason for the US and EU push is fear, indeed for many, conviction, that Iran, although a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which prohibits member states from producing nuclear weapons, secretly intends to do so. Their government spokesmen continue to argue this case despite the fact that since 2003 Iran, fearful that the US might subject it to the treatment given Iraq over that country’s supposed (but non-existent) nuclear weapons program, has submitted to extraordinary inspections of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under an “Additional Protocol” going far beyond its obligations under the NPT. These inspections have resulted in repeated findings by the IAEA that Iran is in “substantial compliance” with its NPT obligations. Granted, the IAEA has expressed displeasure that some past Iranian nuclear activities were not disclosed until establishment of the additional protocol, but IAEA chief Mohammed al-Baradei, even under heavy pressure from the US and UK which tried to have him removed from his post, has stuck to his conclusions, receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his integrity.

The Iranian answer, given precisely on the date Tehran had promised, resulted in immediate expressions of disappointment from European leaders and predictable cries of outrage from the United States, even though Washington is, by its own decision not to deal directly with Iran, not formally a party to the process. Notably, the New York Times, apparently having learned little from its humiliating experience in leading the press in making false charges about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction during the runup to the US invasion of that country, published a lead editorial on August 25 commenting on the document just issued by the staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). The editorial rightly condemns the ludicrous attempt by Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich) and ex-CIA analyst and assistant to the US’s Iranophobic UN ambassador John Bolton, Frederick Fleitz, to use an ostensible critique of US intelligence on Iran to whip up war frenzy against Tehran by ‘”helping the American people understand” that Iran’s fundamentalist regime and its nuclear ambitions pose a strategic threat to the United States.’ It then astonishingly states: “It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Hoekstra believes there is someone left in this country who does not already know that.” Further on, the editorial, after more cautionary remarks about the dangers of cooking intelligence to policy preferences says: “It’s obvious that Iran wants nuclear weapons, has lied about its programs and views America as an enemy.”

The Washington Post, if anything, waved the bloody shirt even more vigorously. Its lead editorial of August 25 titled “Iran Stalls: A test for Russia and China” rants: “It’s been four years since the existence of Iran’s nuclear program was confirmed and since then Iran has succeeded in stalling the world’s efforts to ensure that the country’s enriched uranium is used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

The Post fails to acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear program is of long standing.: In the 1960s the US built for Iran-then ruled by the Shah who had been made sole ruler of Iran by the United States after a CIA-directed coup d’etat in 1953 over threw the elected parliamentary government of Mohammed Mossadegh-its still functioning nuclear research reactor in the center of Tehran. At the same time-forty not four years ago-the US provided Iran with 10 pounds of weapons-grade enriched uranium. There is nothing secret about the facility which trains nuclear engineers from Iran and other countries.

Iran’s NPT right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes is not acknowledged and its submission to IAEA inspections, going even beyond its NPT obligations, are scoffed at as mere attempts to stave off sanctions. The Post deplores Iran’s alleged ability to avoid meeting the demands of the EU by proposing negotiations rather than merely accepting the package of demands, and finds “scandalous” the possibility that Russia and China might endorse this and thus prevent the UN from imposing sanctions, the only way, in the Post’s judgment, to “defuse the Iran crisis” and “an eventual war over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

The official US public response, despite obvious undertones of anger, was relatively low key. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said only that, “their response falls short.” UN Ambassador Bolton, evidently accepting the near certainty that China and Russia will veto any attempt to have the Security Council impose serious sanctions on Iran-and that France, if the most recent statements of its foreign minister Philippe Dousty-Blazy about the unwisdom of a confrontation with the Iranians and the need “to hold out our hands to them” are any indication, no longer will back the US and UK-muttered about having something like a coalition of willing nations individually establish their own economic sanctions regimes on Iran. The US, which essentially has allowed no trade with Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1978, is pressuring Japanese and European banks to freeze the assets of Iranian leaders and refuse to handle Iranian transactions. Already, a US Treasury spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise, told the Los Angeles Times on August 26, that the Union Bank of Switzerland had cut off relationships with Iran and that other financial institutions might not want to be bankers for a country which had nuclear bomb ambitions and supported Hezbollah.

Whether international banks or the economics ministries of European nations currently doing business with Iran will be swayed by this moralistic argument is questionable. France and Germany each currently export forty to fifty billion dollars worth of goods to Iran annually and, of course, are as reliant as anyone else for oil on the world’s second largest producer of petroleum. Even as pundits talked of the dire political consequences of Iran’s refusal to submit to the European demands, economists raised the possibility of world oil prices soaring past $100 per barrel if no compromise was reached. Italy, a country thoroughly disillusioned with US Middle East policy and now rapidly pulling its troops out of Iraq, just this past weekend demanded that it be made a party to the EU talks with Iran to make sure that its own considerable economic interests there are protected.

As to the “eventual war” with Iran predicted, and apparently even desired by the Post, it is true that the Bush administration continues to maintain that the unilateral military option “remains on the table.” However, there are clear signs that while use of that option was a strong probability back last spring when the EU issued its ultimatum to Tehran and in July when Resolution 1696 was passed by the Security Council Iranian diplomacy, insufficiently reported on in the US press, has been enormously successful both in the Islamic world broadly and in the Middle East, producing near total opposition to the EU (read US) position. In addition, the war in Iraq has so drained American ground force capabilities as to make very dubious any successful attack against Iran by US forces alone or even with the assistance of the only possible ally, Israel. This does not mean that US air and naval power could not, as in Iraq, quickly eliminate Iran’s very limited air and armor forces. But, as in Iraq, Iran has the capacity and, apparently, the will, as it showed in its 1980s war with Iraq, to employ irregular infantry to great effect. According to Pentagon sources most senior Army and Marine Corps officers are arguing strongly against any military attack on Iran regardless of the outcome of the sanctions dispute. (Some Air Force senior officers, according to the same sources, however, appear eager to launch their bunkerbusters in another display of shock and awe, believing somehow that this time, despite the historical lessons showing the contrary, strategic bombing will win the day.)

Former CIA Middle East specialist Ray Close, however, is among those who argue that Bush and his neo-con allies will not be swayed by logic. Sometime prior to leaving office in 2009-after the inevitable international compromise over Iran’s nuclear program, the UN’s refusal to impose punitive sanctions on Iran, the unwillingness of the EU countries (with the possible exception of the UK) to accept the US position-a frustrated Bush will launch massive air attacks on Iran, possibly with Israeli participation, ostensibly designed to destroy that country’s oh-so-dangerous nuclear power installations before they can be used against us.

The result of such action, Close concludes, will be utterly to the disadvantage of the United States, not only in the Middle East and the Islamic World, but globally. However, Close sees Bush as a maniac, who believes such an outcome is preferable to the personal humiliation that acceptance of a diplomatic solution he openly opposes would be.

On the other hand, more and more analysts are concluding that the forthcoming negotiations with Iran will produce successful compromise. As noted above, Iran has played its diplomatic cards well over the past few months. The New York Times, and Washington Post and the large majority of the American public which takes its opinions from them may, as the most recent Angus-Reid poll shows, fervently believe that Iran has or is busy making nuclear weapons However, the rest of the world, including such old Iranian foes as Saudi Arabia and, ironically, most western intelligence agencies, their credibility in tatters since 2003, accept the fact that there is no substantial evidence to prove it.

A good brief summary of the way the situation might well play out is provided by Trevor Royal, diplomatic editor of Australia’s Sunday Herald in his August 27th column, “Negotiated nuclear settlement a possibility.” Iran, he says, “may well be interested in a negotiated settlement. This will be sold [to the Iranian and world publics] not so much as a climb-down but as the introduction of some much-needed common sense, which will spike US threats to push for sanctions. The most likely outcome is that Iran will accept the [EU] offer in principle but question the small print in an ettempt to win concessions. For example, they are desperate to have international support for producing nuclear energy and they need the technology, but before they do anything they require guarantees.” When Royal says “before they do anything they require guarantees” he obviously refers to the EU demand for suspension of uranium enrichment, and he cites Mark Fitzpatrick of the UK’s International Institute for Strategic Studies on the question of whether suspension in some form will occur early or later on in the forthcoming negotiations.

From the perspective of this writer it seems very likely that a negotiated agreement will take something like the following form. Russia, currently Iran’s major nuclear energy supply source, involved in the building of at least one nuclear energy plant in Iran, has long offered to construct a nuclear fuel plant for Iran on Russian soil with its production going exclusively for the Iranian nuclear power program if Iran gives up its own attempts at fuel production. Iran has rejected this on grounds of its NPT right to produce fuel and on the pragmatic argument that it cannot risk having to rely entirely on a foreign supplier, even one as ostensibly friendly as Russia. Moreover, Iran has argued that, by turning over nuclear fuel supply to a foreign power (or powers) and abandoning its own efforts, its ability to advance scientifically will be thwarted, relegating it permanently to second class scientific status. This is something, Tehran declares, represents a European and US policy to keep Islamic nations subordinate and technically underdeveloped.

However, it is clear, and Iran grudgingly accepts this, that it cannot within any reasonable period of time develop the uranium enrichment capacity to fuel its power plants on its own. Therefore, Iran will probably agree to the establishment of the Russian-proposed fuel plant provided that Iranian scientists and technicians form a significant part of the management and staff. Moreover, Iran will also insist that such an arrangement does not cancel its NPT right to pursue nuclear fuel research and development on its own. This would mean that, under IAEA supervision, some sort of international nuclear research program be established on Iranian soil also. Regardless of what arrangements are arrived at, it has to be recognized by not only the negotiating parties but by the US as well that any country of Iran’s size and level of development with a functioning nuclear energy program ipso facto will beable to produce nuclear weapons at some point. Doubtless, whatever the safeguards built in to the agreement suspicions about Tehran’s ultimate intentions will remain. On the other hand, while the US and EU declare that they have no intention of attacking Iran or trying to cripple it economically, Iran on the basis of its experience with the US and its allies over the past 50 years, has even more reason for suspicion. It will take a while for real mutual trust to be established among the parties.

It is certainly in Iran’s interest to show its willingness to enter into the bruited regional security arrangement. The details of this will probably be negotiated separately from the nuclear issue and most surely will involve dealing with the Israeli question, especially the informal alliance between Israel and the US which is at the root of the current Middle Eastern problem. It is too much to expect that there will be any real change in either Washington or Tel Aviv as a result of the EU-Iran talks but merely openly addressing the Israel and US-Israel relationship issues would be a positive step.. However, as things look now, one can be optimistic that the Iranian nuclear crisis-whether real or contrived-will be satisfactorily concluded.

DAVID MacMICHAEL, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, is a member of the steering committee of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).