Following Zarif Interview, New Doubts about Iran Nuclear Negotiations

 An editorial published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reminded readers of remarks made in late January on the topic by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The author asserts that the views of this foreign policy expert have been given short shrift, and he quotes Kissinger as saying that the Obama administration’s goals have shifted “from preventing proliferation to managing it.”

The editorial goes on to say that Kissinger has been extremely skeptical about the prospect of Iran’s nuclear development being manageable through inspection alone. Tehran has been averse to allowing those inspections to rise to the level required to provide a reasonable level of assurance to the International Atomic Energy Agency. That is, it has refused to accept the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has denied agency access to suspect sites including the Parchin military base, and has failed to provide a full explanation of suspected past military dimensions of the nuclear program.

All of this is part and parcel of more general Iranian intransigence and anti-Western rhetoric that makes the regime an untrustworthy negotiating partner for people like Kissinger. In fact, in the wake of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s comments upon nuclear negotiations at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, there appear to be new doubts about Iran’s commitment to the process, coming from persons who were formerly on the fence about the issue.

David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist who interviewed Zarif at the Sunday conference, wrote in an editorial on Monday that he is now more doubtful than ever about the prospects for nuclear negotiations, based on Zarif’s apparently unrealistic expectations about immediate, across-the-board sanctions relief and his unwillingness to discuss various Iranian positions.

Ignatius’ article also speculates about what might be expected from both sides in response to their failure to reach a final agreement. He suggests that each side may adopt a “wait and see” approach as they preserve the current status quo but also strive to deflect blame for the failure to the other side.

But preservation of the status quo may be difficult considering the steps already taken by the more hawkish legislatures of each country. The Iranian parliament has introduced legislation to renew full-scale enrichment immediately if new sanctions are put in place. Senate Democrats in the US have deferred to President Obama in delaying a vote upon new sanctions until the deadline for a framework agreement at the end of March. But the legislation has passed the Senate Banking Committee and is prepared to be put into effect virtually at the moment of the diplomatic failure that is anticipated by a growing number of policy experts.

Providing additional evidence that such a failure is in the offing, The Tower noted on Tuesday that Ayatollah Khamenei, in his comments on Sunday, had rejected the very structure of the current negotiations, describing as “not logical” the agreed-upon efforts to reach a framework agreement in March before hashing out the details by the end of June. If this discourages negotiators from maintaining the current approach, it could spoil the chances of a framework and give the US Congress adequate justification to vote on new sanctions.

Khamenei’s comments also included familiar, general rhetoric against Western powers, referring to them as “the enemy” and insisting that Iran is prepared to break their sanctions even if a nuclear deal does not emerge. Interestingly, Zarif suggested in his interview on Sunday that such rhetoric does not exist on the Iranian side. Dismissing Ignatius’ questions about Iranian officials criticizing Zarif for taking a walk with his American counterpart, the Iranian foreign minister declared, “We have not seen an end to the hostility that has been exhibited in the United States against Iran.”

It is difficult to square this view with the notion that the Obama administration has been excessively deferent to the Iranian side throughout the negotiating process, and Zarif’s seeming narrative of one-sided aggression was also undermined by some of his own remarks in the interview, including the claim that Iran’s enrichment centrifuges have proliferated at the time of the sanctions that were supposed to contain the country’s nuclear program.

Zarif also misrepresented or overstated the status of negotiations and inspections on other points. He said that IAEA inspectors have turned up no evidence without mentioning Iran’s denial of inspector access. He asserted that Iran has in no way misbehaved under the Joint Plan of Action, but critics have accused Iran of outright cheating on that interim agreement, as when it tested new, more advanced centrifuges with real uranium.

Furthermore, Zarif accused his interviewer of misreading the JPOA when Ignatius quoted from it to support the idea that sanctions will be phased out gradually in a reciprocal process if a deal is concluded. The incident may have recalled some readers or listeners to one of the earliest disputes in the negotiating process, when Tehran announced that its interpretation of the JPOA differed from Washington’s in several key ways almost immediately after it was signed.

The full text of Zarif’s interview has been published at the Washington Post.

David Ignatius’ newfound doubts about the nuclear negotiating process may be seen as recognition of Iran’s fundamental unwillingness to cooperate with Western powers and particularly the US. And given that confrontation of the West has been a major defining feature of the Iranian regime since the revolution that brought it into power, this unwillingness can be seen in many other areas aside from the nuclear talks.

It can be seen in Iran’s recent attempt, as reported by The Tower, “to block a move by the United States and Russia to present a mildly worded statement to the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCM) that would have merely expressed “serious concern” about the likely use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria.”

It can also be seen in Iran’s continued attempt at litigation against the US over its refusal to grant a visa to Iran’s former chosen UN ambassador. The US objected to Hamid Aboutalebi’s connection to the 1979 hostage taking at the American embassy in Tehran, but Iran refused to withdraw its choice and insisted that it had the right to choose whomever it wanted. Tehran remains intent on suing to force Aboutalebi’s acceptance, but last month it finally named an alternative occupant for the position.

Gholamali Khoshroo was quickly accepted by the US, but the Washington Free Beacon suggests that he is still representative of the hardline Iranian views that pit Muslims against the Western world. “While touted by some as a more moderate choice for the post,” the outlet says, “Khoshroo has displayed much of the anti-Israel animus common among Iran’s leading politicians and diplomats, according to his past remarks,” which have, for instance, called for Muslims around the world to “unite around resistance against Israel.”