Iran’s confirmation that the computers of a number of their officials have been attacked by a new virus will give further ammunition to those who argue that the nuclear threat from the Islamist regime can be neutered by intelligence coups and technology. Like the Stuxnet virus which supposedly flummoxed Iran’s scientists last year, the new Flame worm may cause some havoc in Tehran and the nuclear facilities scattered around the country. And it will give Western and Israeli intelligence agencies and government officials a chance to crow about their capabilities, much as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon did today.
But even if this is Israel’s handiwork and the damage it does is greater than then the mere temporary inconvenience wrought by Stuxnet, no one should be fooled into thinking a virus will ultimately stop Iran’s nuclear program if the regime is determined to persist in its goal. Any technological attack will spawn a defense and a counter-attack. Though Flame may give Israel and/or the West a temporary advantage in the cyber war being conducted with Iran, it cannot by itself or even in combination with other covert activities such as assassinations, solve the problem. That is only possible by diplomacy or force.
Most Western diplomats have spent the last day patting themselves on the back for showing a little spine during the latest P5+1 nuclear talks in Baghdad. Faced with yet another Iranian refusal to agree to the conciliatory proposal to ease the way toward an end to the crisis, the West did not give in and remove the tough sanctions that have been belatedly imposed on the Islamist regime. Nor did they promise not to implement the oil embargo on Iran that is supposed to go into effect in July. But by agreeing to another meeting next month in Moscow and the implicit promise to go on negotiating all summer and fall if need be, Iran knows that its centrifuges can keep spinning and they can get closer to their nuclear goal while they allow the clock to run out.
The West already knew this, but it appears t the danger is worse than anyone in the Obama administration or Europe thought. The Associated Press is reporting this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have discovered the Iranians are refining uranium at a rate of up to 27 percent at their Fordo enrichment plant. This is far higher than previous estimates of their capacity that was only at 20 percent. Because the West has been attempting to cajole Tehran into giving up refinement at that 20 percent level, the news that they have already far exceeded that level ought to dispel the administration’s complacent attitude that assumed Iran’s program was already operating at maximum capacity. Because the 20 percent fuel is already at the level where it can easily turned into weapons grade material, the uranium spike is a troubling sign for those who assume that the West has plenty of time to keep talking about the problem before the Iranians achieve their goal.
Last Monday, Geneive Abdo — who is the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and who will never be mistaken for a neocon — described optimism emerging from the P5+1 talks as a “pretense” designed to “buy time to avert a unilateral attack by Israel” and buttress “Obama’s wish to get through the November election.”
Abdo specifically cited statements made by Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, to the effect that Iran’s “national resistance” had put the country on an “irreversible” nuclear path. A few days later Reuters passed along IAEA information indicating Iran has installed 350 new centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility. (In February the IAEA reported that Iran already tripled its output of 20 percent uranium at Fordow, but apparently the Iranians concluded that wasn’t enough.) Perhaps as a kind of exclamation point, Iran also held military maneuvers this week ostensibly aimed at “global arrogance.”
To their credit, Western negotiators at the P5+1 talks in Baghdad did not completely fold before the negotiations began. They presented a proposal that, while still granting legitimacy to the Iranian nuclear program, did not remove existing sanctions or the threat of an oil embargo in advance of Tehran’s agreement to stop refining weapons-grade uranium and to ship their stockpile out of the country. The Iranian reaction to this mild offer was predictable. They claimed it was not only unreasonable but that it violated what the Islamist regime says was agreed to at the previous meeting in Istanbul.
That means those who feared the Baghdad meeting would lead to an unsatisfactory agreement that could be represented as ending the crisis but by no means removing the Iranian nuclear threat can exhale. But that does not mean the danger of an Iranian diplomatic victory is averted. Quite the contrary, the Iranians view their indignant refusal as just the start of the bargaining process by which they will ultimately get what they want: the West’s endorsement of their right to a nuclear program and removal of sanctions. The question here is whether the negotiators, led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and backed up by political leaders such as President Obama and French President Hollande, have the will to stick to this position rather than being enticed into a bazaar-style barter in which the Iranians are bound to win. If, as is reported, the West’s stance is just a preliminary bid, then we will soon know the answer.
Iran took another step toward convincing the West it is showing flexibility about its nuclear program this week by inviting the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Tehran. IAEA chief Yukio Amano has been a thorn in the side of the Iranians as his agency has reported clear evidence of their work on military applications of nuclear power and their refusal to allow inspectors access to vital sites. But by signing an agreement with Amano to belatedly allow IAEA personnel entry into their facilities, the Islamist regime is creating the impression that it has turned over a new leaf of cooperation that will make it easier for the West to allow it to keep its nuclear program. Though the talks with the IAEA are separate from the P5+1 negotiations that will soon resume in Baghdad, by seeming to give in to the international community on inspection issues, Iran is hoping to strengthen those in the West who are inclined to ease up on them.
But this move, like other alleged concessions on Iran’s part, must be viewed with extreme suspicion. Like the idea of removing their stockpile of refined uranium to another country, the new inspections cannot conclusively allay our fears about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Deceptions are possible on both scores, especially as long as Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is left intact. Given the limited and belated nature of these alleged compromises, it is impossible to disregard or discount the very real possibility that the West is once again being played for suckers by Iran.
In just the latest of what has been a series of featured articles on U.S. policy on Iran all generated by leaks from “senior administration officials,” the New York Times led its front page yesterday with a piece outlining Washington’s nearly unbridled optimism about securing a nuclear deal on Iran. Using the Times as its mouthpiece, the Obama administration again sent a very loud signal about its naïveté about Iran’s determination to realize its nuclear ambitions, and its willingness to start making concessions to the ayatollahs in order to keep negotiations going throughout the rest of the year so as to avoid the necessity of taking action on the issue during the president’s re-election.
The outline of the president’s plans to make the Iran nuclear threat go away is pretty clear. The West’s negotiators at the P5+1 talks in Baghdad later this month will start the process of backing away from the serious sanctions that were belatedly applied to the regime in the hope that the Iranians will consent to a deal that would, at least in principle, halt their refining of uranium that could make a bomb. If the Iranians agree, then that would lead to more frequent meetings during the summer that could culminate in an agreement. But rather than the harbinger of a successful diplomatic offensive, the administration’s decision to present the Iranians with a present in advance of the meeting will only confirm Tehran’s belief in the president’s weakness and give it even more confidence that the talks are the perfect venue to achieve all of their nuclear goals.
America’s ambassador to Israel sounded a reassuring note today to Israelis and others wondering whether the direction of the West’s negotiations with Iran was leading inevitably to appeasement of Tehran. Ambassador Dan Shapiro seemed to be echoing the tough talk uttered by President Obama when he spoke to the AIPAC conference in March when, according to the AP, he made the following comments:
Shapiro told the Israel Bar Association the U.S. hopes it will not have to resort to military force.
“But that doesn’t mean that option is not fully available. Not just available, but it’s ready,” he said. “The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready” …
“We do believe there is time. Some time, not an unlimited amount of time,” Shapiro said. “But at a certain point, we may have to make a judgment that the diplomacy will not work.”
Though it would certainly be to the advantage of the West were Iran to believe it is in genuine peril of an attack if they refuse to abandon their nuclear ambitions, given the fact that it is EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton who is running the P5+1 talks, and not someone like Shapiro, Iran’s obvious confidence that it will prevail in the negotiations is hardly unfounded.
As we noted yesterday, the celebratory tone of a senior Iranian figure about all his country has achieved in the negotiations with the West should scare those Americans who have been speaking with confidence about the Obama administration’s determination to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Despite the brave talk from the president, the Iranians are right to think they’ve got him on the run. Since the Iranians have crossed every red line intended to halt their progress, they can’t be blamed for thinking that the next round of talks or the ones that follow as the process drags out over the summer will ultimately lead to Western recognition of not only the legitimacy of their nuclear program but also their right to refine uranium. Indeed, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in charge of the talks and with France no longer led by a president who is committed to a strong policy on Iran, it is difficult to imagine any other outcome at this point.
All of which puts the public concerns expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the negotiating process that provoked the scorn of President Obama and much of the chattering classes in both the United States and Israel and in a very different light. Though the consensus in the foreign policy establishment is that much more time must be given to let diplomacy work, if this is the direction in which the talks are heading, Netanyahu is to be forgiven for thinking the Iranians have played the West for suckers.
Since the beginning of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran, foreign policy establishment figures have been bubbling with optimism about the negotiations leading to a deal that will settle the crisis. The inauguration of the talks is considered a master stroke that will head off the possibility of a Western or Israeli attack on Iran and allow the European Union to back off its pledge to implement an oil embargo on the Islamist regime. All that will be needed, we are told, is a little patience, and then EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will broker an agreement that will involve the removal of refined uranium from Iran but allow Iran to continue its “peaceful” nuclear research.
But if President Obama thinks the negotiations are the perfect way to kick the nuclear can down the road while he is running for re-election, the Iranians think the talks are a triumph for their nuclear ambitions. As Hamidreza Taraghi, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated in a startlingly frank interview with the New York Times, the regime’s stalling tactics have been an unmitigated success, allowing them to transgress every red line set by the West and forcing them to accept Iran’s terms. As the Times notes:
In continually pushing forward the nuclear activities — increasing enrichment and building a bunker mountain enrichment facility — Iran has in effect forced the West to accept a program it insists is for peaceful purposes. Iranians say their carefully crafted policy has helped move the goal posts in their favor by making enrichment a reality that the West has been unable to stop — and may now be willing, however grudgingly, to accept.
Taraghi is, of course, absolutely right. The opening of the talks in Istanbul gave the Iranians reason to believe the international community was prepared to accept their nuclear enrichment program as well as buying the fiction that Iran’s Supreme Leader had issued a fatwa against a nuclear weapon. The question these conclusions pose for President Obama is whether he is really prepared to allow Ashton and the Europeans to broker a deal while he is running for re-election that will, in effect, give the international seal of approval to an Iranian nuclear program that is likely, deal or no deal, to lead to a nuclear weapon?
The initiation by the West of a new round of talks with Iran about its nuclear program has had the effect of depressing interest in revelations about how much progress the Islamist regime has made toward its goal of a weapon. In recent months, skepticism about the Iranians has reigned but, as Ha’aretz reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency appears to be in possession of evidence that the widespread belief that the ayatollahs haven’t yet made a decision to weaponize their nuclear research is unfounded. Information obtained by the nuclear watchdogs seems to prove Iran is already testing equipment that demonstrates it is working on a military application of nuclear power.
According to the AP:
A drawing based on information from inside an Iranian military site shows an explosives containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests that UN inspectors suspect Tehran has conducted there. Iran denies such testing and has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a chamber.
The computer-generated drawing was provided to The Associated Press by an official of a country tracking Iran’s nuclear program who said it proves the structure exists, despite Tehran’s refusal to acknowledge it.
That official said the image is based on information from a person who had seen the chamber at the Parchin military site, adding that going into detail would endanger the life of that informant.
Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.
While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.
On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.
That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.
While President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have attempted to talk tough about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, by agreeing to the P5+1 talks that were launched last week in Istanbul, the administration has set in motion a process that is clearly lurching out of their control. The Iranians scored a not insignificant victory by convincing the West to wait several weeks until the next meeting in late May. And as Laura Rozen reported in Al Monitor last week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a fierce critic of Israel, is in clear charge of the negotiations and may be steering the talks toward a deal that will fall well short of an agreement that would force an end to the Iranian program. But a key element to the creation of such an unsatisfactory conclusion to this process will be to convince the West that the Iranians are genuinely interested in a deal. And as Rozen notes today, the Islamist regime is working hard to give onlookers the impression that accommodation is their priority.
If all this sounds to good to be true it’s because it almost certainly is. The spin coming out of Tehran is aimed at creating false confidence in their willingness to abandon their nuclear ambitions and sign a deal that would allow the Europeans, as well as Iran’s Russian and Chinese friends to pretend that worries about the ayatollahs getting their hands on a nuke are put to rest. But since the Iranians have already successfully played this cat and mouse game with Western negotiators before, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the “positive signals” coming out Iran is that the regime is aiming at driving a wedge between the United States and the other members of the P5+1 delegation.
For some in the foreign policy establishment, the solution to all the problems of the world are as obvious as the noses on our faces. Worried about Iranian nukes? Just cut a deal with them allowing the ayatollahs to develop nuclear power for peace purposes like medical research while theoretically denying them the ability to build a weapon. And make it all happen with “confidence-building” measures that will break down the barriers of distrust. David Ignatius’ column in the Washington Post outlining the deal with Iran that he thinks will ultimately come from the negotiating process begun last weekend in Istanbul is just one of many voices proclaiming that an end to the confrontation with Tehran is already well-understood, and all we have to do is stop listening to the alarmists and let the danger pass.
If the claim the blueprint for an Iran deal is apparent seems familiar it is because it is strikingly similar to the arguments about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. There, too, we are informed the outline of an accord is already well-known, and all that remains to be done is to force the parties to sign on the dotted line. But as is the case with the Palestinians, the chattering classes’ confidence in the diplomatic process tells us more about their own lack of understanding of the other side in the negotiations than it does about the actual prospects for a deal. Just as the Palestinians have no real interest in peace with Israel, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will always trump the seemingly sensible solutions proposed to get them off the hook with the international community.
Laura Rozen’s account of the behind-the-scenes action during the Iranian nuclear talks in Istanbul undermines the notion that President Obama is in control of the P5+1 diplomatic process that he fiercely defended during the weekend. As Rozen’s reporting makes clear, it is the European Union’s Catherine Ashton who was clearly in charge of the affair, and as long as that fierce critic of Israel is calling the shots, it’s unlikely the Iranians will surrender their nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, by championing Iran’s right to nuclear development, which could be ultimately used for military purposes, Ashton may be steering the negotiations toward a deal that will be represented as defusing the crisis while not removing the threat of an Iranian bomb. Though the Europeans are championing the idea that the talks have value, the Iranians seem to be back to their old tricks in convincing their negotiating partners of their interest in a solution while sticking to a playbook whose only objective is to remove the threat of an oil embargo in exchange for giving up nothing. This may be Obama’s idea of a ticking clock, but with Ashton dragging out the process, there is, as even Rozen concluded, little likelihood that real progress is in the offing.
President Obama responded sharply yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim the P5+1 talks with Iran constituted a Western “freebie” to the Islamist regime because it gave it five more weeks to continue to enrich uranium. Speaking during his visit to Colombia, the president let loose with another barrage of tough talk about his intentions to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Warning “the clock is ticking” for Iran, he directly addressed criticism of the talks by saying he wouldn’t allow it to turn into a “stalling process” and that far more draconian sanctions would be put into place against the regime if it didn’t take advantage of the diplomatic process.
That’s reassuring rhetoric, but the problem with America’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue remains the same as it has always been: the disconnect between President Obama’s public rhetoric and the process by which U.S. diplomatic efforts has allowed Tehran to do the stalling that he claims he opposes. With reports of Saturday’s meeting showing that nothing other than a commitment to future meetings in Baghdad (the venue has been changed from Turkey to suit Iran’s latest whim), it’s not clear why Israel or anyone who cares should have much confidence that the negotiators are doing anything but allowing both the ayatollahs and a president who wishes to avoid a confrontation during an election year to run out the clock in contravention to what Obama has pledged.