At Hot Air, Jeff Dunetz wrote that it “seems impossible to reconcile” Iran’s new construction plans with the fact that the government claims to have frozen the development of its nuclear program for the duration of negotiations with the P5+1.
This latest announcement is far from being the first incident that has raised concerns about the sincerity of that supposed freeze. Last month a US delegation to the United Nations presented evidence that Iran had purchased and imported new equipment for the Arak heavy water facility that could provide Iran with a plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon.
The reports were not denied by Iranian officials, who instead claimed that while the installation of such equipment would violate the terms of the Joint Plan of Action signed in November 2013, the mere acquisition of that equipment was technically allowed.
Earlier in the period of negotiations, Iran was found to have fed uranium into newly developed enrichment centrifuges, in apparent violation of terms that banned the nation from expanding its enrichment capacity prior to the conclusion of talks. This was also disputed as a violation, on the basis of Iran having reconverted the enriched uranium after the test.
Nonetheless, this incident has been cited by many critics of the regime as proof that Iran has already violated the terms of the interim agreement. Such observations contribute to severe skepticism about negotiations with Tehran among members of the US Congress. Amidst the newly established Republican majority in both houses, increased pressure on Iran has been a prominent priority.
Reuters reported on Thursday that Republican Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had told reporters that a legislation regarding Iran’s nuclear program would be brought up for debate on the Senate floor by early February, at the latest. Two pieces of legislation are being considered: one to give the more hawkish Congress a more direct role in the negotiating process, and one to impose new economic sanctions in the event that that process does not lead to a viable deal.
These two pieces of legislation arguably go hand-in-hand, because some lawmakers are concerned that the Obama administration may agree to a weak deal that does not really limit Iran’s ability to breakout to a nuclear weapon. These concerns are compounded by the perception of slipping Western leverage, something that was referenced by The Tower in two separate reports on Wednesday.
In the first place, it points out that Senator Bob Casey had warned that Iran’s position in the negotiations had only been bolstered by the sanctions relief that it has enjoyed as part of the Joint Plan of Action. Pending sanctions legislation would be aimed at compensating somewhat for this effect. In the second place, an author with The Tower Magazine echoes Casey’s sentiments, writing that “the interim deal has fatally undermined the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] by watering down Iran’s compliance obligations, undercutting the IAEA’s authority in matters of verification, and ignoring the military dimensions of the program documented by the Agency, which are all at the heart of the dispute.”
The Tower also notes that critics of the talks were at odds with the US State Department’s denial of the notion that Iran’s newly announced nuclear construction constitutes a violation of the JPOA. Regardless of which claim is correct, the new construction serves as the latest evidence for long-established anxieties.
The Washington Free Beacon quoted a US foreign policy official as saying that President Hassan Rouhani’s announcement of that construction so close to the resumption of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 made the move particularly provocative. Meanwhile, Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution noted that the project confirms the seriousness of Iran’s commitment to a dramatic expansion of domestic nuclear enrichment in the next several years.
Indeed, in yet another report, The Tower notes that the Iranian Foreign Ministry described the construction projects in explicitly confrontational terms, quoting Rouhani as calling the Bushehr nuclear reactor “the symbol of a nation’s steadfast resistance.”
This may be read as a reference not only to resistance to compromise on Iran’s enrichment capacity, but also resistance to the authority of international sanctions, insofar as the project relies on Russian contractors and is part of joint efforts by Iran and Russia to evade sanctions through barter and exchanges in local currencies.
It remains to be seen how effective these measures can really be at alleviating the economic pain of sanctions that have been credited with largely crippling the Iranian economy. That effectiveness will presumably be made less by other external economic factors, chief among them the recent decline in oil prices – a reality that Iran has had to begrudgingly acknowledge. The Economic Times reported on Thursday that Tehran had adjusted its national budget for the upcoming year, which begins in March, reducing the expected average oil price from 72 dollars per barrel to 40 dollars per barrel, much closer to the current prices.
Despite the change, Iranian officials are holding to the narrative that says this situation, possibly perpetuated by Saudi policies that seek to increase pressure on Iran, will not harm the Islamic Republic. The decline “will not bring us to our knees and we plan to turn it into opportunities,” said Iran’s Finance and Economy Minister Ali Tayyebnia.
This may be mere rhetoric, or Iranian officials may genuinely believe that they are capable of weathering the storm through measures like increased taxation and sanctions-evasion with the help of regional and global partners. Information has not yet been released indicating how the revised oil prices will affect the rest of the Iranian budget. But what is clear already is that the enhanced economic pressure has not yet led Tehran to publicly consider compromising with the West in order to secure badly needed sanctions relief.
Capital News reported on Thursday that Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani addressed Western nations by saying that they “cannot haggle with us” and must “make correct use of the opportunities offered to them.” In the same speech, Larijani said that Tehran might respond to US legislation instituting triggered sanctions by pulling away from negotiations and committing to full-scale uranium enrichment.
Such enrichment would presumably be at greater levels than previous to negotiations, especially in light of the development of two new nuclear plants. Even if the construction of those plants does not alone signify open defiance and strengthening of Iranian leverage, Larijani’s comments may do so.