Sabotaging Talks, or Disrupting Iran’s Nuclear Progress?

 Twenty-one of those members of parliament have reportedly demanded that Zarif appear before them to discuss the incident. Many commentators in the West have described this and other incidents as examples of an attempt by Iranian hardliners to confront a supposedly moderate presidential administration over charges that it is giving away too many concessions in the nuclear talks. But The Tower questions this narrative, suggesting that such internal criticism is part of a strategy to give the false impression that Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani are far closer to the political center than their purported domestic opponents.

The Tower emphasizes that Rouhani and Zarif have both been very clear about refusing compromise on key points in the ongoing negotiations, including, most crucially, the issue of limits on Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability. Indeed, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has plainly stated that any such limits are a red line for Iran’s negotiators, and those negotiators have shown no signs of rebelling against the conservative position.

This does not preclude the possibility of genuine disagreements between the Rouhani administration and domestic hardline elements, but it does support the views expressed by The Tower and by critics of current Western policy toward the West. Those critics are notably doubtful about the prospects for a final agreement that favors Western interests, regardless of whether the Iranian contribution to that agreement comes from Rouhani, from Khamenei, or from the Revolutionary Guards.

Ali Safavi, a member of the Iranian Resistance Movement, expressed these views on Monday in an interview with Newsmax TV. Safavi said, “The Iranian regime and its leaders are bad actors in the region,” making no distinction between different factions within that government. He also pulled no punches in calling for an end to negotiations or in advocating for a “decisive and firm policy” and “a strike… to destroy these [nuclear] capacities of Iran.”

Not all critics of the Iranian regime are so definite regarding a military solution initiated by the West. But even among those who emphasize the effectiveness of economic sanctions and other methods of pressure, many share the notion that there is not a politically powerful moderate faction within the Iranian government that could push for a worthwhile agreement in absence of that pressure. While some point to the lack of moderate domestic outcomes for the Rouhani administration as evidence that its views are not far from those of conservatives and hardliners, others emphasize that the Iranian system of governance gives ultimate authority to the supreme leader alone.

This is something that has been briefly emphasized by Foreign Minister Zarif himself, according to Naharnet. In the context of the threat of triggered sanctions legislation by the US Congress, Zarif pointed out that unlike the US President Barack Obama, President Rouhani has no veto power over measures by the conservative Iranian parliament. Zarif used this to support his argument that the world must stand against the threat of US sanctions. But the same observation could be used to support the notion that negotiations are doomed to failure since they are not supported by those conservative Iranian voices.

Naharnet points out that the Iranian parliament has reacted to the prospect of new sanctions legislation by starting the process of introducing its own legislation to allow the resumption of full scale uranium enrichment, and to use more advanced centrifuges, which would allow Iran to move toward development of a nuclear weapon much more quickly. But while the prospective US legislation would only be triggered by failure of negotiations or by violation of a final deal, it is not clear that the Iranian legislation would similarly wait for the negotiating process to finish before coming into effect.

The Obama administration and others in the West have objected to prospective congressional legislation out of fears that it would provoke the type of legislative and diplomatic retaliations that are apparently underway. This has led many to accuse Congress of actively trying to sabotage the talks.

Ellie Geranmayeh made this very accusation on Sunday in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times. But she also acknowledged that negotiations should be making much more progress in light of the threat from both sides. Her assertion that members of congress are acting as saboteurs has been embraced by some opponents of the talks, who feel that the current talks cannot be resolved in favor of Western interests.

“The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence — a feature, not a bug,” said freshman Senator Tom Cotton, according to CNN. But the majority of the critics of current strategy toward Iran, including the sponsors of the sanctions bill, have said that the aim of that legislation is to demonstrate the consequences of abandoning the talks or violating a deal, and thus to compel Iran to take a more serious approach toward those talks.

But representatives of both of these camps see danger in the continuation of President Obama’s policies, which they fear have given up far too much of the US’s initial negotiating position, leaving Iran poised to continue large-scale enrichment, expand its ballistic missile stockpiles, limit international negotiators’ access to suspected nuclear sites, and still receive relief from US-led economic sanctions.

What’s more, the case of former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling, which Politicoreports as facing possible deadlock within a federal court jury, recalls attention to the possibility that past errors of US policy and strategy may have helped Iran to move even closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon than it otherwise would have. Sterling is facing charges that he leaked details of a CIA operation that was aimed at providing Tehran with flawed nuclear weapons designs as a form of sabotage, but which may have ultimately given it an opportunity to identify and correct those flaws.

Some disagreements between supporters and opponents of the current approach to nuclear talks are focused on different views on the current status of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and whether its program has been frozen by the interim agreement between it and the P5+1. Ellie Geranmayeh argues that maintenance of this supposed freeze is one reason why Congress should not push for sanctions legislation.

But an article posted on Monday at Western Journalismsuggests that as Iran’s involvement in other Middle Eastern countries expands, so will its ability to evade effective inspections and to deceive the West about its nuclear advancements. This conclusion is related in large part to the news that Iran is apparently contributing to the development of nuclear facilities in Syria, in an area that has been controlled by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps since 2013.

The exact nature of these facilities is as yet unknown, and Western Journalism suggests that they might be capable of producing plutonium through a process learned from North Korea, making them possible ancillaries to the heavy water reactor at Arak. This possibility is especially relevant because Arak is subject to the supposed freeze on new development, and yet Tehran has made no secret of its continued investment in construction at the site. Research and development is banned at Arak during the course of negotiations, but research and development into similar facilities at other locations is technically allowed.

This contributes to the notion that even if Iran is complying with the letter of that agreement, it has violated its spirit – a charge that is now being levied against the US Congress’s sanctions push. It also stokes concerns that Western policymakers are looking the other way on Iranian misdeeds while insisting that nuclear negotiations are working. This trend may have begun even before the signing of the interim nuclear agreement, as some reports note that Western intelligence has for at least two years been in possession of evidence of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting Western countries.

To this date, claims of a freeze on Iranian nuclear development are heavily qualified, and Western Journalism quotes International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano as saying, “As far as Iran is concerned, the Agency is able to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared to us by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement. But we are not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is for peaceful activities.”