A rash of recent articles in U.S. media have been exploring the rapidly evolving nuclear discussions between Iran and the U.S. (under the auspices of the P5+1, also including China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K.). While most of the reported news has focused on the negotiations, opinion writers and other outlets began clamoring for military strikes against Iran or, unsurprisingly from the neocons and their allies, more direct U.S. support for regime change in Iran even before Obama’s now-lapsed year-end goal for a diplomatic solution.
The picture painted is clear: Even as protesters in Iran continue their struggle against the alleged June election fraud and subsequent oppressive crackdown, and even as nuclear talks are on-going, the ground is being prepared for bombing Iran in the event that a deal can’t be struck which would significantly set back the Iranian nuclear clock.
The move may have been a tack to try to harden the soft-deadline, thereby crossing out diplomacy on the checklist of ‘things to do before bombing.’
But not so fast, hawks. While the soft U.S. deadline expired at the end of the year, Iran has finally proffered a counter proposal for a nuclear swap, with a month long deadline for a U.S. response. (Though one could cite the old pot and kettle cliche if Iran is dead-set on their time frame.) The noise from the right has been conspicuously absent today on the scant details of the Iranian-authored initiative that emerged. It doesn’t exactly bolster their narrative that negotiations have unequivocally failed when said talks are continuing beyond the original deadline.
Laura Rozen reported that Iran reinvigorated nuclear talks with the U.S. with the counter-proposal to this fall’s P5+1 offer. That proposed deal would give Iran highly enriched uranium for medical purposes in exchange for a significant chunk of Iran’s low enriched uranium. Iran’s counter-offer modifies that to send their LEU to Turkey (instead of Russia or France) in batches of 300 to 400 kg, rather than en masse (1200 kg). But the U.S. appears to be balking at that proposal:
A U.S. nonproliferation hand confirmed Sunday that Iran had offered a formal response in late December or early January. While the Iranian fuel-swap response was said to have been conveyed by the highest levels of the Iranian government, U.S. officials contacted Sunday gave no public indication that they have any interest in the counter-offer.
“The Iranians have been saying different things for weeks, but what matters is whether they will accept the IAEA’s proposed TRR deal, which they agreed to in principle on October 1 but then walked away from,” an administration official said. “They know what they need to do to satisfy the international communities concerns and to date they have not done so.”
Nonetheless, another source tells Rozen that the U.S. may be eager to salvage the deal in any form:
“My understanding is that they [U.S. officials] have not given up on the TRR deal,” one Washington Iran hand said on condition of anonymity Sunday. “They need it. So if there was a chance of salvaging something …. They still want to get a deal.”
“As long as under no situation over the next year there is enough LEU to produce a bomb, whether Iran ships out the fuel in one, two or three batches, is just a logistical issue,” he said.
But even as the international negotiations continue — evidenced by this movement — hawks already started building the case for war, oblivious to the fact that talks are going beyond the original deadline. The calls for strikes started in earnest as the now-blown year-end deadline approached in December. The hawks are setting their own watches — the international clock and Iran’s democracy clock be damned — as my colleague Daniel recently commented:
The Washington clock, however, has been advancing more steadily and inexorably. The hawks’ plan, from the time Obama took office, has been to set a firm deadline for diplomacy (the end of the year or before) at which point the U.S. would move to sanctions. When sanctions failed to show results within a few months (as nearly everyone agrees is likely), the push for war would begin in earnest.
Then came a piece by David Sanger and William Broad on Jan. 3 in the Times where they gleaned what the White House was thinking from six unnamed officials working on Iran issues (no administration officials went on record).
In the piece, the authors cite a reported reduction in the Natanz enrichment facilities production — possibly due to espionage or technical difficulties, they say — and the internal turmoil as reasons to place the Iranian nuclear clock at no less than 18 months:
These factors have led the administration’s policy makers to lengthen their estimate of how long it would take Iran to accomplish what nuclear experts call “covert breakout” — the ability to secretly produce a workable weapon.
“For now, the Iranians don’t have a credible breakout option, and we don’t think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two or three years,” said one senior administration official at the center of the White House Iran strategy.
As Sanger and Broad (and Daniel, among hosts of others) noted, the administration is using the time line as cover to pursue sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards rather than wide-reaching sanctions on companies that seek to send refined petroleum to Iran — a tack that, in addition to hurting ordinary Iranians (the IRGC will still get all the gas it needs), is unlikely to work.
But the hawks continue their march, blissfully oblivious to ongoing developments of the counter-offer and revised nuclear clocks. See here, for example, where Michael Goodwin, in his NY Post column, doesn’t mention strikes by name, but does rail against what he sees as Obama’s lack of a “Plan B,” crystallizing in the notion that engagement having failed, and sanctions unlikely without Chinese cooperation,
the Iranians know what they want — the bomb. The only question is whether we will stop them.
Everything has failed, we are told. The proclamation may be premature, but that won’t stop the right from pushing for the next steps towards confrontation.