Iran: Deal or No Deal

With the recent talks at Geneva not failing - and perhaps even being modestly successful - we're now finally at the start of real, substantive negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 powers.

So the diplomatic track is back on. That's something to be pleased with, coming as it has after the election of Hassan Rouhani, his conciliatory tweets and phone call with President Obama. Each of those developments has been surprising: in sum, they represent a repudiation of the tone, at least, of the very unpleasant Ahmadinejad era.

Indeed, for the first time in about a decade, there is a sense that things might just be moving towards peaceful resolution. I’m as pleased with that as anyone else. It’s hard work being both an optimist and an Iran analyst.

Of course, there’s a very good chance that things could still go wrong. There’s a mountain more work to be done and many thorny issues still to be negotiated; and the diplomatic process could still be torpedoed – from any of a thousand directions. But none of the problems we face in solving the nuclear dispute are intractable (and particularly not if creative solutions are applied).

Here’s some things to remember as the world powers go about trying to build a deal with Iran.

Myth 1. It’s only the Supreme Leader that matters.

Pessimists looking at Rouhani’s election rightly point out that the ultimate decision-maker in the Islamic Republic is Supreme Leader Khamenei, a cranky old cleric who is extremely antipathetic towards compromise. It’s true that Khamenei is by far the most important figure in the Islamic regime; and also true that he will always have the final say on foreign and national security policy. Nuclear weapons will never be produced without his endorsement.

But – and this is an important qualifier – Khamenei is not a dictator. His ascension to the role of Supreme Leader and the subsequent criticism of his lack of religious and revolutionary credentials haunts him and makes him a conservative thinker. Khamenei feels he cannot afford to be out of step with the regime’s centres of power (that’s the IRGC; Iran’s clerics; the military; conservative members of the Majlis and the country’s economic magnates) for fear this would cause his own fall from power. That means Khamenei is highly unlikely to ever go out on a limb and order nukes to be produced unless he has – or perceives that he has – the support to do so.

So it certainly doesn’t hurt after the election that a) there are a few more pragmatists floating about in the Supreme Leader’s circles and b) some of the centres of power are tilting a bit more to the left.

Myth 2. Everyone in the Iranian government has the same view about nuclear weapons and whether to build them or not.

On the contrary: we know that there is a diversity of views across the Iranian government as to what do with that nuclear program that they’ve spent thirty years developing. And, critically, that there is a spectrum of views on whether it’s worth the risk of making the sprint to nuclear weapons, or whether Iran would be better off just staying put with its cherished uranium enrichment capability.

How do we know this? Because some very well-informed people have told us. According to public accounts of the 2011 US National Intelligence Estimate – generally regarded as the definitive status report on Iran’s progress towards nuclear arms – since about 2007, there have been increasingly heated debates amongst senior Iranian officials about whether to move ahead and build nuclear weapons.

So what does this debate look like? Well, it has the Supreme Leader at the top and the most important players in Iran’s centres of power jostling for position below him, trying to pull him in various directions. It looks something like this:


In their wildest fantasies, pretty much most of these men probably wouldn’t turn down the prospect of having a couple of nukes in their pocket. After all, Iran lives in a pretty rough neighborhood; imagines itself as a regional, if not world power; has been the subject of repeated invasions and foreign‑led regime changes; and perceives that its most powerful enemies still want to usurp the Islamic regime.

But the more shrewd of these operators – including, historically, the Supreme Leader – recognise that they don’t live in a wild fantasy. Because of the constant scrutiny of the IAEA; pressure from sanctions; and Iran’s need to adhere to international norms in order to keep its few remaining foreign partners onside, these Machiavellians are making constant cost‑benefit analyses of how far they can push things with the nuclear program. They understand the scale of the mind-boggling, regime‑threatening, alpha-strike-incurring danger that would be incurred if they get caught making any attempt to covertly produce nuclear weapons. (These men are far from stupid: they do things like in-depth analyses of the US Nuclear Posture Review.)

The militarists, on the other hand, are much more ignorant of world affairs and global capabilities. They’re the ones who think the Mahdi will safely see them through any sprint to nukes. It’s these men that we have to worry about.

Myth 3. We can’t do anything; it’s inevitable that Iran will get the bomb.

The fact that there is debate at the most senior levels of Iran on the question of whether to go for nukes or not is, paradoxically, a good thing. It means that there is still room to influence Iranian officials to back away from the precipice. And Rouhani’s election hopefully means that the scales will be tilting away from nuclear weapons production, at least for a while.

But the fact that there are serious players in Tehran who really do want to produce nuclear weapons, consequences be damned, leaves us in a situation that is still incredibly dangerous and precarious.

So how do we bolster the risk-averse and undermine the militarists?

Tough question. But there are some easy ways to start. What I think isn’t understood well enough across the spectrum of Iran’s government is just how transparent their ostensibly secret projects are.

I’m a disaffected analyst armed with nothing but the Google and too much time on my hands and I’ve already been able to dissect Iran’s secret ICBM program. AMAD’s metallurgy work. SPND’s explosives research in CREST. Danilenko and his nuclear weapons assistance. Shahmoradi and the PHRC. Iran’s nuclear submarine program pretext. NMRI and Fakhrizadeh’s radiation safety cover companies. And there are many, many more subjects still to cover.

So if that’s just me and my modem, the members of Iran’s political system need to think about what more significant players could identify...

Read through that material or anything published by David Sanger over the last decade and it’s pretty clear that Western intelligence is all over Iran’s strategic industries with spies, technical accesses and satellite surveillance. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s SPND organisation looks to be shot through with moles; the AEOI can’t hide much, if anything, from the IAEA; and the Fordow experience proved that covert enrichment facilities will be busted far before completion. Even the IRGC Self Sufficiency Jihad Organisation (SSJO) has proven unable to keep its uber-secret ICBM program under wraps.

With that in mind, if anyone can describe a pathway upon which Iran could conceivably divert its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (in secret), further enrich it (in secret), build a metallurgy facility (in secret), convert uranium hex into metal (in secret), fashion that metal into a spherical pit (in secret), restart a weapon design and diagnostic program (in secret), validate that design (in secret), put the pit in an implosion device (in secret), make a nuclear-capable ballistic missile re-entry vehicle (in secret), prepare a test site (in secret), and conduct all the associated logistics and organisational upgrades needed to undertake these steps (in secret) – all without having any of those secrets blown – I’d love to see it. Truth be told, there is no pathway: just a gaping chasm that can’t be jumped over.

Risk-averse men in Tehran: the facts may be uncomfortable, but they are on your side. You have all the evidence to convince the militarists to get real and acknowledge that it’s practically impossible to produce nuclear weapons and get away with it. The stupider and more incompetent these men are seen to be within the Islamic Regime, the better positioned Tehran – and Iran – is in the long run.

The worst case scenario is that those militarists convince the Supreme Leader that the impossible gap can be leapt over. Some of these advisers have been pretty ridiculous in the past (i.e. secret ICBM program – not such a great move). And some of them (Ta’eb, Naqdi) are, frankly, insane. I suspect each of these men thinks Iran is a mere heartbeat away from a nuclear deterrent and is constantly jostling to bust out the defibrillator.

Remember: deal – Iran wins. No deal – Iran loses, badly.

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