Thursday, 31 May 2012

Iran Special: Tehran's View of Nuclear Talks --- Insight, Propaganda, or Self-Deception?

International media have been noting Wednesday night's comments by President Ahmadinejad, in an interview with France 24 television, on the nuclear talks with the 5+1 Powers. The President held to the line that enrichment of uranium to 20% was Iran's "right" --- although, unnoticed by the media, he also held open the possibility that Tehran could accept a guaranteed supply of 20% uranium from other countries --- and said, "We are not expecting miracles at the [mid-June] nuclear talks in Moscow."

To be honest, though, Ahmadinejad's remarks are no more than an attention-grabbing diversion. He is now sidelined on the nuclear issue and unlikely to regain a place in the discussions.

Far more interesting are the observations fed to Elie Chalhoub of Al Akhbar by Iranian diplomats appear to have been in the arena during the Baghdad talks two weeks ago. Their presentation of the exchanges matches the construction we have from other sources.

The Europeans [probably a reference to the European Union's Catherine Ashton, who led the 5+1 Power negotiators], who sought concessions from Iran under the pressure of sanctions, verbally put forward a four-point proposal in Baghdad....

- The closure of the Fordow nuclear facility near Qom – although it is no different to other Iranian facilities other than that it is built within a mountain, and is therefore not vulnerable to aerial attack.

- Iran to commit to not enriching uranium to 20 percent – thus reaffirming the 5+1 group’s recognition in principle of Iran’s right to enrich.

- Iran to announce that it agrees to the inspection of the Parshin munitions plant east of Tehran, which US intelligence claims to have suspicions about.

- Iran to sign the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which the Iranian parliament opposed, just as the US Congress did previously.

The proposal offered little incentive to the Iranians, notably the easing of sanctions or "the transfer of the nuclear dossier from the UN Security Council to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]". The Islamic Republic's delegation countered with an offer which --- as Western officials have critically noted in the past --- sidelined the nucler issue in favour of general topics: "Energy Security and Economic Cooperation; Regional Security and Pressing Issues; and Security of Transportation Routes and Global Security".

This exchange effectively guaranteed there would be no advance in Baghdad. The most that could be sought was a play for time, with further talks scheduled for mid-June in Moscow.

But that raises the question of how the Iranians perceived the stalemate, and even setback, in Baghdad. And here Chalhoub enters the murkiness of observation mixed with propaganda:

In Tehran’s mind, the Europeans “fear the outbreak of a war whose consequences they would find unbearable, given the financial bankruptcy they are experiencing. They want a quick way out that halts the oil embargo, which was forced on them by the Americans and Israelis even though they will not be able to bear it for long,” the sources said.

The US “showed at the negotiations that its previous messages were not sincere,” the sources said. ”All it wants is to buy time. It wants negotiations for the sake of negotiations. That would allow the US administration to restrain Israel and prevent it from declaring dialogue with Iran to have failed, and using that to justify the alternative military option, and at the same time to tell the world that it is still putting pressure on the Iranians and keeping their nuclear program under control.”

The second half of that assessment --- Washington's preference for talks rather than an Israeli attack on Iran --- is solid. It is the first half, on the European position, that raises an eyebrow.

The European Union is on the verge of introducing a cut-off of Iranian oil imports, effective from 1 July. That step, confirmed four months, would be a serious escalation of the sanctions that are hindering the Iranian economy. 

Yet, in the eyes of Chaloub's Iranian sources, it is Europe rather than Tehran who fear that prospect. Far from pushing forward the measure, they have been brought to their knees by the US and Israel, to the point of jeopardising their economies.

To be blunt, that is a judgement to the point of either deception or folly. Most European countries --- and, significantly, the three European members (Britain, France, Germany) of the 5+1 --- pressed for the oil cut-off. The fears of others who take much of their oil from Tehran, e.g, Spain, Italy, and Greece, were assuaged by arranging alternative suppliers.

There are some specific effects that have concerned European states --- for example, Britain is trying to assuage the impact on its insurers from the withdrawal of cover for Iranian oil tankers. That, however, is a side-effect, not a core economic concern. The Eurozone crisis has far more to do with issues of liquidity, debt, and financial and Government structures and policies than with the ripples of the Iranian situation.

(Even the Iranian claim of an oil price shock, with prices hitting $150 or more per barrel, is under-cut rather than bolstered. by the European situation. Recession in the Eurozone is having the effect, despite tensions with Tehran, of depressing the global oil price.)

What is important is the perception of the European delegations. EA sources indicate that, far from "seeking a quick way out" because of their fears, they were taking a tough line into Baghdad. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the Americans who were seen as more conciliatory, until their position shifted about a week before the discussions. Ashton's four-point proposal was not imposed on Britain, France, and Germany by a US-Israel axis.

So why this line from the Iranian diplomats? Two dimensions:

1. PROPAGANDA

The lines given to Chaloub match up with those fed to and promoted by Iranian State media for months. The West is in the midst of a historic economic crisis. Occupy Wall Street, spreading globally, and last summer's unrest in Britain marked the transformation --- "European and American Awakenings" to parallel the "Islamic Awakening" declared by the Supreme Leader --- of economic and political systems. The regimes from Washington to London to Paris are trying to hang on, as international and domestic power slips away.

2. PERCEPTION

Nothing surprising about that "propaganda" dimension. Much more intriguing is this intriguing: what if the Iranian regime, from the Supreme Leader to the negotiating team, actually believe the tale they are telling?

The Iranian line is a mirror image of that put out by "Western" diplomats during and after Baghdad, as they proclaimed satisfaction that Tehran was being squeezed by its economic problems and the straitjacket of sanctions. The difference is that those Western sources, while putting out their own propaganda, have some basis for their claim. The Islamic Republic's men do not.

However, the Iranian belief --- if it is is genuine --- that it still has some leverage because of European weakness and fear is significant. It indicates that Tehran will persist with a defiant approach in Moscow. If it even chooses to address the nuclear issue as central, it will restate its demand not only for some enrichment of uranium on its soil, but for enrichment to 20% --- the level beyond bounds for the 5+1 Powers. It will refuse any reduction of activity at the Fordoo enrichment activity, let alone the closure demanded by the US and the Europeans. It will offer no concession, ahead of an easing of sanctions, over inspections and safeguards by the IAEA.

The Islamic Republic will offer none of this because it believes that it can win the game of diplomatic "chicken". The Moscow talks will break up with no advance.

Two weeks later, it will be 1 July and the imposition of the European Union's cut-off of Iranian oil. Then we will see if propaganda and mis-perception gives way to cold economic reality.


from EA WorldView: EA Iran

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