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Iran: Growing Concerns over Nuclear Trade-Offs

The same editorial references a number of recent human rights issues as reasons for questioning these trade offers. These are primarily the execution last weekend of Reyhaneh Jabbari, the several acid attacks that have apparently been directed against women deemed to be improperly veiled, and the latest report by Ahmad Shaheed, the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who pointed out that there have been at least 850 executions carried out by the Iranian regime in a one-year period.

There has been no indication of prior human rights abuses slowing down amidst negotiations with the West, and indeed by some accounts the situation has gotten considerably worse in recent months, especially where women are concerned. This makes it perhaps natural for Iran critics to ask whether the United States is giving away human rights issues in the interest of securing a nuclear deal.

While that question concerns the rightness of an apparent chosen policy, there are also unresolved questions about whether that policy is even workable. Among those who question the Western powers’ approach to the ongoing negotiations, there are many who worry that Iran’s intentions are only to extract concessions in exchange for nothing of substance. Along these lines, Dr. Emily Landau of the Institute for Non-Proliferation Studies spoke at a conference last week where she commented on Iran’s refusal to compromise.

“What we’ve been hearing from Iran over the past year is a resounding ‘no,’” Landau explained. “Iran has said ‘no’ to almost everything. It said ‘no’ to dismantlement of centrifuges; it actually wants to increase the number of centrifuges almost ten-fold. ‘No’ ceasing of uranium enrichment. No closing Fordow, the enrichment facility or Arak, the heavy water plant. No discussion of weaponization aspects of its nuclear program. …  No discussion of ballistic missiles.”

This view seems to stand in contrast to the picture of the talks that has generally been painted by negotiators on both sides. A common refrain in public statements on the negotiating sessions has been that “good progress has been made,” although these statements are usually accompanies by acknowledgment that proffered proposals have still not been accepted. Claims of progress may be especially pertinent in the coming three weeks, as negotiators are likely to be in the position of having to justify an extension of talks past their already-extended deadline of November 24.

But comments this week by Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham gave support to Dr. Landau’s view of the talks, further undermining claims of progress. Afkham once again reiterated that Iran has a number of red lines that its negotiators may not cross, which effectively declare that there will be no Iranian compromise on central issues including the extent of the nation’s uranium enrichment capacity.

Afkham also plainly stated that “no agreement has been reached on any issue and the only agreement is about the name and title of the final agreement.”

While refusing to compromise with Western demands, Iran is also making bold demands of its own. Majid Takht-e-Ravanchi, an Iranian nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, was quoted by Iran’s Press TV this week as saying that the West must agree to remove all economic sanctions immediately if there is to be an agreement. US officials have said, however, that their firm position is that sanctions will be removed only gradually, as Iran demonstrates its commitment to the agreement.

Takht-e-Ravanchi also described the Western powers’ demands as “excessive.” But while Iran’s stated red lines have remained in force and have even grown stronger, the P5+1 has detailed numerous different proposals over the course of negotiations, leading many Western critics toward the view that negotiators have already given up far too much to Iran in exchange for nothing of substance.

The latest example of this continual shifting of the Western position is a proposal that would allow Iran to keep the vast majority of its uranium enrichment infrastructure but would compel it to reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium, which would be sent to Russia. The proposal would also involve new uranium supplies being sent to Russia for conversion to fuel that would then be used in Iranian power plants.

This speaks to another trade-off that the West may be facing in its pursuit of a nuclear accord, because such an arrangement may further encourage a special relationship between Iran and Russia, which could be leveraged by both of those nations in opposition to Western interests. This is a problem that becomes even more pronounced when one considers the role of China, which the Washington Post described this week as having a growing “blue water friendship” with Iran.

Iran and China recently conducted joint naval operations in the Persian Gulf, signifying a potential challenge to the Western presence there and also the possibility of Iran receiving a significant boost to its largely outmoded navy. Similarly, Russia and Iran have conducted joint maneuvers in the Caspian Sea.

All of this threatens to increase Iranian leverage in talks where it has seemingly already secured many concessions from the West. This may explain why Iranian officials feel comfortable conflating unrelated demands with the nuclear issue, and basing their demands on multiple domains.

Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported on Tuesday that Iran had sent a protest letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is conducting a probe into possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, complaining that the United Arab Emirates had laid claim to three disputed islands and had labeled the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf in a map that appeared in the IAEA’s Country Nuclear Power Profiles report.

The three islands are a major source of discord between Iran and the UAE but they are virtually uninhabited, have no relationship to the nuclear issue, and are not subject to IAEA probes of investigations. The IAEA did not produce the map reproduced in its report, but Iran’s protest letter appears to claim political bias in the UN organization. This claim may be another part of Iran’s pursuit of greater leverage, or it may count among future justifications for walking away from the deal while claiming that it had tried to negotiate in good faith.

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