Iran’s recent reversal suddenly suggesting that the Russian proposal has merit should remind everyone how expert the Iranians are at gaming the international system and buying time. In recent months, the Iranians have successfully played the Bush administration, the E.U.-3, and the International Atomic Energy Agency for fools, all the while avoiding being referred to the U.N. Security Council for “non-compliance” with their nuclear program.
We should never forget that the Persians invented the game of chess. When sorting through the communications the Iranians give on their nuclear program, we should not be surprised by contradictions or apparent internal disagreements among Iranian factions. For years, we heard how Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami were “reformists,” meaning that they intended to introduce principles of free speech and democracy, moving away from the religious fundamentalism of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution. This turned out to be nothing more than a strategy.
Throughout the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami, the radical clerics ruling the regime remained the ultimate authority regardless what the Majlis (parliament) voted. We have seen dissent brutally suppressed in Iran repeatedly, with the direct approval of Rafsanjani and Khatami when they were president. Yet, even in the run-off to the last presidential election, the mullahs had the nerve to represent Rafsanjani once again as “reformist” alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, during the last election, a large number of voters refrained from voting as a protest, but even that did not matter much – the election was fixed from the beginning. The only candidates were the restricted list approved by the mullahs and Ahmadinejad won because Ayatollah Khamenei at the last minute threw his support Ahmadinejad, the hard-line former mayor of Tehran.
Now, Iran has taken the seals off of Natanz, the nuclear facility where they enrich uranium. In August 2005, Iran started up Isfahan, the nuclear facility where they process uranium. Look at the distinctions the Iranians have tried to draw. When Isfahan was opened, the mullahs told the world that processing uranium was not enriching uranium. They were right. Isfahan processes uranium ore to produce uranium, followed by uranium hexafluoride gas; uranium hexafluoride gas is not enriched uranium until it is enriched by the centrifuge cascades which are installed at the Natanz facility. But so what? Why would Iran open Isfahan in defiance of the E.U.-3 unless they were intending to ultimately enrich uranium?
Now, at Natanz, the Iranians say they only want to be involved in uranium enrichment “research and development,” and they argue that “research and development” does not constitute full-scale uranium enrichment. Again, the point is correct, but so what? The only reason you would want to conduct uranium enrichment “research and development” is because you are preparing to engage in full-scale uranium enrichment. Otherwise why bother? Uranium enrichment is a very well understood scientific process and the Iranians surely are not promising the world that their scientists can make advancements in theoretical nuclear science at Natanz. Yet, the ruses continue. The Iranians also suggest they want to run only a few centrifuges at Natanz, or produce a little bit of enriched uranium, nowhere near the amount needed to constitute full-scale commercial production. Again, we are all expected to fall for the dodge.
Let’s look at the history of the Russian proposal. At first, the Iranians rejected the Russian proposal to enrich uranium on Russian soil because Iran claimed a right as a sovereign nation to “pursue the full fuel cycle” on Iranian soil. Again, the language was a ploy – “pursuing the full fuel cycle” is code language meaning enriching uranium. So, the Russian proposal was rejected because the Iranians were insisting upon their right to enrich uranium in Iran, even though they said Natanz was only for “research and development,” or that they only wanted to enrich a little uranium with a few centrifuges.
Now at the last minute, when the United States is pressing the IAEA to vote the Iranian portfolio to the Security Council, the Iranians suddenly say the Russian proposal is “interesting” and that the idea merits further elaboration. That is the same Russian proposal that Iran rejected just a few days ago. Again, the communication is just a gambit. Here’s the point: If the proposal is under serious consideration, then certainly the world community would give Iran enough time to work out the details with Russia? That would be reasonable, wouldn’t it? Again, the gambit buys Iran even more time and further confuses anyone who takes the argument seriously.
Iran has not said that Isfahan and Natanz will be shut down again and sealed. Is anyone mentioning these important details? No, we are expected to forget about Isfahan and Natanz in our rush to contemplate where Iran should best enrich the uranium they need for “peaceful purposes.” Most likely, Iran to keep both Isfahan and Natanz open, while enriching uranium in Russia as well. Should Iran begin enriching uranium in Russia, we are certain to hear Iran’s claim that producing a little uranium at Natanz is only intended to supplement the supply provided by Russia.
Most recently, reports circulated from Iran that the Russians had agreed to bring other countries into the uranium enrichment process, increasing the chance an agreement would be reached. This was presented as a great concession which made avoiding a crisis more likely. But why was this even relevant? In a different gambit, Iran had suggested that being dependent upon Russia for their supply of enriched uranium would threaten Iran’s national security. “What would happen if Russia shut off the supply of enriched uranium, like Russia recently shut the natural gas pipeline to the Ukraine?” the Iranians had asked. So, bringing in additional countries would mean Iran could be enriching uranium all over the world, with somebody always willing to supply Iran enriched uranium, even if Russia were mad at Iran. Was this really important or just a diversionary tactic? Since Iran never planned to shut down Natanz, the goal of the “multiple country participation” gambit was probably just more slight-of-hand misdirection.
The Bush administration has now wasted a year relying upon the E.U.-3 to negotiate with Iran. Even now, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei are doing everything possible to bend the rules in favor of Iran. Russia has just announced a $1 billion weapons deal with Iran and China has multi-billion dollar, multi-year oil and natural gas contracts with Iran. We doubt the IAEA will vote Iran to the Security Council in the planned IAEA Board of Governors meeting Feb. 2 in Vienna. The vote will probably be to postpone decision until March, when the IAEA has a chance to complete yet another report on Iran for ElBaradei.
Iran generally wins the negotiation game because the mullahs are masters at verbal deception. Listen to Ahmadinejad long enough and he will try to convince you that the Holocaust never happened. After all, he will assert, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that is non-compliant with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the United States is the only nation to have used an atomic weapon on civilians.
Now the Iranians say they will meet with the E.U.-3 in Brussels ahead of the Feb. 2 meeting of the IAEA board in Vienna. Why bother? Iran’s only point is to look like they want to negotiate, when the reality is that Iran has no intention of closing down Isfahan and Natanz permanently. The Iranians are masters at reframing reality in their advantage – the Bush administration is out of their league even thinking Condoleezza Rice can compete. We would welcome being proved wrong in this assessment.