The L.A. Times on Monday reported on developments in the Iranian position over the course of the first six months of talks. These developments set the stage for the extended period, and they suggest that the gap between key US and Iranian positions is only becoming wider on account of the absolute authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has been at the head of what non-proliferation expert Robert Einhorn describes as Iran’s “rights creep”: its habit of raising its demands as soon as it gains concessions from the West. The L.A. Times points out that now that the Obama administration has accepted that Iran has a right to some enrichment, Iran has come to insist upon being treated as any other nation and permitted to endlessly expand its enrichment capabilities.
This trend has been the source of some of the criticism of the Obama administration’s apparently soft stance with Iran. Supporters of the administration would no doubt emphasize that despite Khamenei’s rising demands, Iran has made some concessions during the interim period, including one required step that it reportedly took just on the cusp of the deadline: converting its more highly enriched uranium into an oxide form that is difficult to enrich further.
But Reuters points out that none of the Islamic Republic’s steps do much on their own to reduce its breakout time for a nuclear weapon. If Iran retains or expands its current enrichment capability, it will be able to quickly reverse the purported gains from negotiations. While many take this to mean that Iran’s stockpile of enrichment centrifuges must be drastically reduced, others recognize that too drastic a reduction will not be attainable, and suggest that inspections will serve as the main deterrent to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology. To some experts, this means that regardless of the final number of centrifuges, Iran must accept the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Of course, the fact that Iran’s supposed good faith gestures have not so far signified willingness to reduce breakout time is a major red flag for critics of the Obama administration. The Washington Post indicates that some former Obama advisers, along with representatives of United Against a Nuclear Iran and the American Israeli Political Action Committee, are strongly criticizing the steps that Obama has taken to get us to the situation in which the extended talks have begun.
The Post quotes Michael Makovsky, chief executive of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, as accusing Obama of the strategic foolishness of “seeking diplomatic success through reduction of leverage.”
And in a Wall Street Journal blog, Michael Singh emphasizes that the reduction of leverage is made worse by the fact that the administration has actually “belittled” the US’s prior positions that had placed serious demands on Iran. Now, he says, Western negotiators have already articulated their minimum acceptable positions, while Iran alone has room to negotiate, allowing for it to give the impression that it is more willing to compromise.
CONFLICTS OVER SANCTIONS AND ASSETS
Furthermore, the Obama administration agreed to the release of an additional 2.8 billion dollars in frozen assets as an incentive for continued talks, without requiring Iran to provide additional assurances to the international community. Some critics are now calling for sanctions that would be triggered immediately by the failure of a deal, and provide a much different incentive by being so severe that they amount to a “virtual economic blockade” of the Islamic Republic.
The Tower reports, however, that the administration has fallen far short of committing to such moves. Indeed, while some lawmakers insisted last week that Secretary of State John Kerry expressed qualified support for imposing triggered sanctions, other State Department representatives later denied that Kerry had made any such remarks. Another article indicates that administration officials were pressed by reporters on former comments suggesting support for more sanctions in the absence of a deal. None of those officials were willing to declare those statements to still be valid.
This hesitancy helps to highlight the major differences between Obama’s supporters and his critics, including but not limited to Republican congresspersons. And that difference helps to explain why the extension of negotiations goes only until November 24 and not the full six months that would have been allowable under the Joint Plan of Action. The New York Times points out that a November deadline means that Obama could still have a month to push more sanctions relief through the Senate before midterm elections threaten his party’s majority there.
The Times also attempts to explain part of the administration’s justification for its soft approach. Obama officials have apparently been championing the fact that they will maintain sanctions on vital sectors like oil and gas. Some have also suggested – with characteristic optimism – that there is a forthcoming “sweet spot” at which the effects of sanctions will become pronounced enough to finally compel Iran to make serious concessions.
Key Iranian officials disagree. For instance, the Brookings Institution reports that Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, has reiterated the “Iran will not budge” on any of the major points under discussion with the P5+1.