Bloomberg reports that US officials have said that they do not believe Tehran violated the terms of the interim agreement governing nuclear talks, even though critics of the Iranian regime have repeatedly highlighted incidences of Iranian scientists feeding uranium into more advanced centrifuges after the agreement banned the nation from expanding its nuclear enrichment capabilities.
Officials have not denied that these tests occurred, but they have apparently written them off as merely a “mistake,” suggesting that the tests were spearheaded by low-level researchers, in absence of orders from a higher Iranian authority, and that they did not understand that such tests would be in violation of the Joint Plan of Action.
However, there has been no indication that these conclusions are based on reliable intelligence or even on the testimony of Iranian authorities, and it seems plausible that the Obama administration is simply speculating and presenting a scenario that is in line with a narrative that allows Tehran to be defended as a reliable negotiating partner.
This decision to give the regime the benefit of the doubt is evidently at odds with the perceptions of the vast majority of the American people, as well as those of many other members of the US government. The Pew Research Center on Wednesday collected together data from polls conducted over the past two years and pointed out that 62 percent of Americans were found to believe that “the Iranian leadership [is] not serious about addressing international concerns about their country’s nuclear enrichment program.”
These results naturally reflect a stronger opinion among Republicans, who tend to be more hawkish on national security matters. Seventy-seven percent of the Republicans polled agreed with the above statement. But very nearly half – 49 percent – of Democrats also agreed, implying significant bipartisan agreement on skepticism about Iran’s intentions and its status as a negotiating partner.
Recent disputes over the nuclear negotiations have seemed partisan in nature, especially in light of a letter by 47 Senate Republicans to the Iranian leadership which effectively pitted much of that party against the Democratic president. However, congressional Democrats’ opposition to such measures has been tempered by their repeated commitments to continuing to push for a congressional role in the negotiating process, with an eye towards strengthening a deal that appears weak to prominent members of both parties.
In other words, members of Congress seem to broadly agree upon the need for a hardening of the current approach to dealing with Iran, but the two parties differ on questions of the proper extent of that change. This is arguably reflected in the Pew findings, which indicate that citizens belonging to both parties generally support the continuation of a diplomatic approach. The slightly different levels of skepticism about Iran’s intentions may further indicate that the two sides have slightly different conceptions of how subsequent negotiations should be handled.
But what is also clear from the Pew report is that the American public recognizes Iran’s possible attainment of nuclear weapons as a severe danger – a danger that Obama’s opponents accuse him of underestimating or subordinating to other concerns. The administration has declared at various times that all options are on the table, but some of his critics have determined that there is no credible threat of military force exerting pressure on the Iranian regime. Indeed, the administration has attempted to dispel some resistance to the emerging deal by warning that the alternative to accepting it is to endorse war.
But the Pew Research Center indicates that the vast majority of Americans would accept war in extreme cases, if the alternative was Iran obtaining nuclear arms. A majority of Democrats (57 percent) and three quarters of Republicans (75 percent) agreed that it is important to prevent this outcome, even if it means resorting to military force.
Bloomberg quotes Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as saying that the Obama administration seems unwilling to undertake any sort of aggressive enforcement, even through the application of economic sanctions, and that the Iranians are increasingly aware of this.
“They are testing the boundaries of our willingness to respond,” Dubowitz said of the accusations of illicit Iranian enrichment, which the administration has downplayed. “There were no sanctions, there was no economic cost and the message to Iran is: when there is a comprehensive agreement, you can cheat incrementally.”
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s preference for the benefit of the doubt extends beyond incremental cheating and into fundamental interpretations of the Iranian regime’s nuclear work and its negotiating tactics.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported on the present importance of Ali Akbar Salehi, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, to the conclusion of negotiations, which he became a part of last month. The Journal notes that American and European officials have expressed reservations about Salehi’s presence, owing to several factors.
Salehi played a role in the hardline government of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and United Nations nuclear weapons inspectors have identified him as a major player in secretive nuclear work that was likely related to a weaponization program. In the 1980s and 90s, he served as chancellor to Sharif University, which the International Atomic Energy Agency found to serve as a front for procurement of weapons-related equipment. These connections between the nuclear weapons program on one hand and the university and other civil institutions on the other were reaffirmed late last year in a report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Naturally, his proximity to the issue gives Salehi particular incentive to preserve whatever aspects he can of the nuclear weapons program that he is apparently personally invested in. His resulting expertise may also put him in the position of knowing what aspects of that program to conceal in negotiations, and how. Although all of this seems to justify the expressed reservations of Americans and Europeans, those same parties now “view Mr. Salehi’s presence at the talks as crucial for their efforts,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
But Salehi may not even be the most important of the Iranian figures whose intentions in these negotiations are questionable. And yet these others have apparently never raised concerns among the Obama administration, which famously embraced the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a victory for moderation.
Another report in Bloomberg looks at the Rouhani administration’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who serves as the counterpart to US Secretary of State John Kerry in nuclear negotiations, and whom Bloomberg describes as “an enigma to many.” The report quotes Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying that “Zarif is the most effective diplomat Iran has had since the 1979 revolution.” But Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies adds that he is “an Islamic revolutionary” who absolutely rejects Western values, albeit in a mild-mannered fashion.
As further evidence of this, Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University, points out that Zarif enjoys a close relationship with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in all matters in the Islamic Republic. “Zarif will do whatever Khamenei asks of him,” Amirahmadi said, arguably undermining the narrative that there is an ongoing dispute between moderates in the Rouhani administration and hardliners associated with Khamenei.
While the Obama administration continues to comment on negotiations with Zarif in a way that implies he is a good negotiating partner who is potentially poised for compromise, the majority of the content in Bloomberg’s report may give considerable support to the contrary opinion of the majority of the American people, who apparently still stand with Congress in questioning Iran’s commitment to the nuclear talks.