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Opinion: The US is talking to Iran, but about what? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry after a statement early on November 24, 2013 in Geneva. (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

Is Washington beginning to feel buyer’s remorse about the deal struck in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program? Judging by recent statements by several members of the administration, that might well be the case, although President Barack Obama’s foreign policy often defies rational analysis.

A long-time supporter of the Khomeinist regime in Iran, US Vice-President Joseph Biden has warned the mullahs against reverting to their cheat-and retreat tactic. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, another former senator starry-eyed about the Islamic Republic, has tried to dash the mullahs’ hope of driving the US out of the Middle East anytime soon. Even the US Secretary of State, the hapless John Kerry, is no longer waxing lyrical about visiting Iran together with his half-Iranian grandson.

The strongest indication of buyer’s remorse has come from National Security Advisor Susan Rice. In a television interview last Sunday she insisted that the sanctions imposed on Iran could only be lifted with a putative resolution of the United Nations Security Council. More importantly, she insisted, any such resolution would include the possibility of re-imposing the sanctions in response to any Iranian attempt at cheating. Translated into plain language this means that Iran should convince the Security Council that it is not trying to build a nuclear arsenal. Thus we are back to square one, with Iran required to prove a negative.

As things stand today it is practically impossible for Iran to maintain its nuclear program at the current level while meeting the litmus test fixed by Rice. As far as scientific, technical and industrial means are concerned, Iran has already crossed the so-called threshold after which it would be able to build a bomb, if it so decided. Even if Iran were to carry out all its commitments under the Geneva deal it would still not revert to its pre-threshold position. This is why the six resolutions already passed by the Security Council were designed to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program and transfer all the enriched uranium stock abroad, not to freeze things at the current high level. The most that the Geneva deal could achieve would be to put Iran’s plutonium project on hold for six months while its uranium enrichment program is frozen at five per cent. Thus, Iran could build its stocks flow of enriched uranium without limit, with an eye on the possibility of breaking the freeze deal and resuming enrichment at higher levels and a faster pace when and if the leadership decides to make a bomb.

Against such a background, Rice’s statement makes little sense. Passing a seventh resolution to re-impose the lifted sanctions would be of little use if Iran has already built a nuclear arsenal. A version of that policy has already been tried and tested in the case of North Korea, which made a series of deals with Washington but, nevertheless, ended up building a nuclear arsenal. In any case, it is a safe bet that if Rice were to table a seventh resolution at the Security Council, the Russians would simply veto it, if only to thumb their nose at Washington.

The only sanctions that seem to have actually had an effect are those imposed by the US in conjunction with European and Middle Eastern allies. Thus the threat of another UN resolution is unlikely to make much of an impression on the mullahs in Tehran. In that context, the Obama administration’s policy suffers from a major contradiction.

Obama and Kerry have made it clear they will do everything they can to prevent the US Congress from imposing any new sanctions. In other words, the administration has transformed itself into a lobby group for the Khomeinist regime.

Paradoxically, Obama’s policy makes it more difficult for anyone in Tehran to argue for a genuine attempt at defusing this time bomb. With Obama promising to veto any new Congressional sanctions against Tehran, and Rice making any final outcome conditional to a Russian veto at the Security Council, the mullahs have no reason to abandon their nuclear ambitions, whatever they may be.

The continuation of this diplomatic rigmarole is bad for Iran, bad for the Middle East and bad for world peace in general. Already crumbling, the so-called “Geneva deal” might give former Iran President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s faction a tactical advantage in the power struggle going on in Tehran. It might also give Obama a fig leaf to cover his diplomatic nakedness until his term ends in 2016.

The only realistic approach would be to return to the Security Council resolutions already passed, demanding that Iran comply with them in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

Between 1992 and 2003, the international community led by the US tried to make a deal with Saddam Hussein by circumventing a series of resolutions passed by the Security Council. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan even won a Nobel Peace prize for one of the many deals made with Saddam. The net result, however, was to persuade Saddam that he could do as he pleased and to silence all in his entourage who argued against his adventurist policies.

I am not against talking to the mullahs and trying to find a diplomatic solution. What matters is what the talks are about. The talks should be about implementing the UN resolutions, which were passed because the Khomeinist regime violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and publicly admitted to having done so.

Regardless of what Rice says, the Geneva format is deigned to circumvent the UN resolutions. This is why, far from defusing the situation, it may lead to an even bigger conflict in the future.