Obama Administration is Botching Iran Nuke Talks
Image Credit: flickr/European External Action Service - EEAS

Obama Administration is Botching Iran Nuke Talks


Hate to say we told you so.

When Iran and the P5+1 concluded an interim agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program back in November, Ankit and I warned that the fact that the deal heavily favored the Western parties could impede progress on reaching a comprehensive solution. Specifically, we wrote:

“The harder part of the P5+1-Iran talks was always going to be reaching a lasting comprehensive solution. The lopsided nature of the interim agreement may have further complicated this process.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“Specifically, since Iran has made the bulk of its necessary concessions during the interim agreement, it will have few additional concessions to offer to reach a comprehensive solution. The only obvious concessions it could offer, besides extending all the concessions from the interim deal, would be to dismantle some of its existing centrifuges, close down one of its enrichment facilities, and reduce its stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium. By contrast, by offering so few concessions in this round of talks, the P5+1 will have to make the bulk of its concessions on sanctions and Iran’s right to enrich uranium during the final deal. Opponents of diplomacy in the U.S. and allied capitals will seize upon the ostensibly lopsidedness of the comprehensive deal to try and derail its implementation.”

Many of these concerns are being borne out this week as the P5+1 and Iran convene for talks in Vienna aimed at reaching the coveted comprehensive nuclear deal. By all accounts, the negotiations have not gotten off to a good start. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the weeks leading up to the talks saw Iran and the U.S. stake out increasingly opposed (and specific) positions on what a final agreement would have to include (or omit). More troubling, they have increasingly outlined their positions publicly, which cannot help but constrain negotiators’ freedom to maneuver later on.

Most reports this week cite disagreements over Iran’s ballistic missile program as a large sticking point. U.S. officials—allegedly with some other P5+1 members in agreement—are now insisting that any final nuclear deal must include Iran agreeing to limit its ballistic missile development because of concerns that these would be used to deliver nuclear weapons. As White House spokesman Jay Carney explained: “They have to deal with matters related to their ballistic missile program.”

Iranian officials have categorically rejected this demand. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who has been intimately involved in the negotiations, summed up Iran’s positionfor reporters this week by stating: “We will not allow any other issue aside from the nuclear matter to be introduced in these talks.”

It’s not clear when the U.S. decided that a nuclear agreement must include limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile program. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Washington is citing UN resolutions which prohibit Iran from developing technology to deliver nuclear weapons. This indeed is the most sensible use of ballistic missiles, given that they tend to be widely inaccurate. However, this is hardly the only way to use ballistic missiles.

In fact, according to a January 2012 Arms Control Association analysis, 31 states are known to have ballistic missiles, while only nine of these have nuclear weapons. Some of these countries—such as Afghanistan and Yemen—could not develop nuclear weapons in any conceivable scenario. Obviously, then, they acquired ballistic missiles for different reasons. Moreover, a myriad number of Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East are cited by Arms Control Association as having ballistic missiles. Besides Yemen, this includes Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

It’s also only partially sensible to demand that Iran not have ballistic missiles as part of Western efforts to ensure it doesn’t become a nuclear-armed country. Although the ability to place a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile is an essential part of becoming a nuclear weapon state (assuming a country doesn’t have nuclear-capable bombers or submarines), the U.S. and its allies have never acted this way before. In fact, most observers—particularly Iran hawks—have insisted that Iran will, for all intent and purposes, become a nuclear weapon state once it produces weapons grade uranium or plutonium. Most in the West therefore insist that the U.S. must prevent Iran from developing this HEU and weapons grade plutonium. In terms of when the U.S. must decide whether to attack or live with a nuclear-armed Iran, Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities are seemingly a non-factor.

Thus, the fact that the Obama administration is now putting the whole Iranian negotiations at risk over Tehran’s ballistic missiles suggests that it has seemingly realized it’s going to need significant additional Iranian concessions in order to sell a comprehensive agreement at home. Since Iran made most of the possible nuclear concessions it can make during the interim agreement, Washington needs to find new issues outside of (but preferably related to) Iran’s nuclear program from which to gather Iranian concessions. Ballistic missiles are one such issue.

There are significant dangers to this approach however. To begin with, reaching a comprehensive nuclear accord was always going to be challenging enough. Adding new issues to the agenda only makes this task more challenging, which is why third parties who oppose a nuclear agreement with Iran have started demanding that the Obama administration shouldn’t agree to a deal until Iran has improved on human rights, ended its support for Western designated terrorist groups, stopped supporting Bashar al-Assad, and accepted the U.S.-led regional order.

The real danger in all this is that many in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, genuinely believe that the U.S. in reality opposes the Islamic Republic’s very existence. To these Iranian leaders, the U.S. has just used the nuclear issue as a useful mechanism for undermining the Islamic Republic, which is their ultimate goal. They have long warned Iranians that if the nuclear issue is resolved the U.S. will just turn to other issues to isolate Iran.

As Khamenei once again explained in an hour long speech broadcast on national Iranian television on Monday:

“The nuclear issue is an excuse…. Even if one day, against all the odds it is solved based on the Americans’ expectations, then Americans will seek another issue to follow it. Just pay attention to the spokespersons of the U.S. government, who have also raised the issue of human rights, missiles and arms.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief