Iran Update: Number 148

• Talks in Istanbul fail to break impasse
• Sanctions and economic impact on Iran
• Speculation intensifies over Iranian nuclear capabilities
• Foreign Minister Mottaki replaced with nuclear chief Salehi
• Revelations in the WikiLeaks cables

Talks in Istanbul fail to break impasse

As expected, meetings between Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Saeed Jalili, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, on January 21 and 22 in Turkey failed to make progress. Ashton, who was representing the E3+3 (France, Germany, Britain, the United States, Russia and China [otherwise known as the P5+1]), announced after the meeting that she was “disappointed,” while Jalili sounded vague, saying that the meetings in Istanbul “focused on common ground for cooperation.”

Expectations had been low following the last round of talks held in Geneva in early December. Both sides have been holding out for concessions, but none has been forthcoming and both sides continue to blame each other for the lack of progress. The P5+1 maintained the position that Iran would need to show more cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend uranium enrichment before sanctions would be lifted. Iran has said that it wants sanctions lifted before it will negotiate the substance of its nuclear program, and in Istanbul, asked for a statement from the P5+1 acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Iranian negotiators have apparently sought to focus on the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Israel, and other regional security issues, during recent meetings. There had also been some effort to revive the proposal for a fuel swap to replenish the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) in exchange for giving up a portion of its own stock of enriched uranium, but according to an unnamed senior Western diplomat, Jalili had said in Istanbul that Iran is no longer interested in such a deal because it has found other sources and ways to fuel the reactor. Many remain skeptical of this claim, believing it to be a negotiating ploy.

Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad said afterwards that Iran would still be willing to engage with the P5+1, and that "The ground is prepared now so that if the other party is just, a positive agreement will be concluded in later sessions.”

China urged patience. Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Hailong said that “each side needs to be dedicated to talks and negotiations in a flexible and pragmatic spirit.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also urged caution in prejudging the outcome, calling for more dialogue. He had already suggested that the P5+1 should be willing to discuss ways to ease sanctions on Iran and criticized the EU and U.S. unilateral sanctions imposed beyond those agreed by the U.N. Security Council.

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie expressed dismay, saying Iran’s position "made it impossible for any discussion of concrete steps to move forward.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “The choice is now Iran's. We have made every effort to make progress.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel admonished Iran, saying that "It is up to Iran to dispel doubts which remain over its atomic program. ... Otherwise, things will continue along the sanctions route."

No dates have been confirmed for another round of talks between Iran and the P5+1.


Sanctions and economic impact on Iran

Iran’s economy showed signs of deepening problems. The government’s decision to phase out subsidies, including on food and fuel, in an effort to control government spending, sent inflation sky high. The action was originally delayed to control inflation. Security forces had been deployed in Tehran in expectation of a backlash, but it appears expected protests did not materialize. Instead, tensions rose in the political elite, particularly between President Ahmadinejad and the Majlis (parliament) over the economic troubles, including recent efforts to control the President’s choice of Central Bank governor.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that Iran’s troubles over its nuclear program were down to sanctions. Ahead of the meeting in Istanbul, she warned that Iran might suffer additional unilateral sanctions if no progress was seen, while Iranian representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said that continued sanctions and even military strikes would not end his country’s nuclear enrichment program.

After the Istanbul talks, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced an Iranian offer to Turkey the rights to develop a number of gas and oil fields. Turkish leaders have already said they are not obliged to follow tighter sanctions that have been imposed unilaterally by the United States and EU countries. Iranian media also reported that the Iranian National Gas Company and Iran Saderat Bank signed a $4 billion contract to construct refineries, that will tackle Iran’s vulnerability to sanctions targeting the energy sector.

Stuart Levey, coordinator of the U.S. effort to tighten international financial sanctions against Iran, North Korea and Al Qaeda, stepped down this week. U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Levey’s deputy, David Cohen, to replace him but the choice must be approved by Congress.

The U.S. Congress is requiring the Defense Department to develop and update lawmakers on a “national military strategic plan” for addressing Iran’s nuclear and conventional military capabilities in 2011. Also, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (Republican-California) told Bloomberg News that he will lead hearings – summoning experts and government officials “to lay out the full range of possible military activities and operations to counter Iran’s capabilities.”

Speculation intensifies over Iranian nuclear capabilities

The outgoing head of the Israeli Mossad, Meir Dagan, said that Iran would probably be unable to produce a nuclear weapon before 2015. Some U.S. officials were hoping that this extended timeframe may relieve some of the pressure coming from Israel for military action and that Iran may still change course in the meantime. Not long after Dagan made his estimate public, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, tried to push back on the estimate, saying that Iran could have a nuclear weapon one or two years after the Supreme Leader would make such a decision, although he added that Iran was not currently working on a nuclear weapon, and would need additional years for placing a nuclear warhead on a long range missile. He also doubted the claims of leaders from the United States and other world powers that sanctions could slow down the nuclear program.

Iran has taken thousands of malfunctioning centrifuges off line. Speculation pointed to the possible impact of a computer virus named Stuxnet, which could be a creation of the United States and Israel in an effort to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. The Stuxnet malware could cause centrifuges to spin out of control and damage them. Iranian officials admitted that their nuclear facilities, including centrifuges, were affected by a computer virus, but have claimed that they stopped the virus before extensive damage was done. Iran announced in mid-January that it will invest in “cyber police” in part to prevent similar kinds of virus attacks in the future.

Iran state-run television reported earlier in January that officials had arrested a “network of spies” while conducting an operation to penetrate the Israeli Mossad in connection to the assassination of an Iranian physics professor in Tehran a year ago. Masoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by a remote-control bomb attached to his motorbike as he was leaving his home last January. His connection to Iran’s nuclear program, however, has been unclear.

Iran decided to open up its Natanz enrichment facility and its nascent heavy water reactor at Arak to a number of countries. Diplomats representing Cuba, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela, the Arab League, and the Non-Aligned Movement were among those led on the tour by Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh. Notably, Brazil, China, Russia, Switzerland, and Turkey passed on the invitation, as did EU representatives. U.S. officials had described the tour as “antics” and pointed out that the visits were not equivalent to cooperating with the IAEA. Iran did not invite Britain, France, Germany, or the United States to join the tour.


Foreign Minister Mottaki replaced with nuclear chief Salehi

President Ahmadinejad has formally nominated the head of the Iranian nuclear program Ali Akbar Salehi to the position of foreign minister, to be approved by the Majlis. The nomination follows Salehi’s assignment to temporarily fill the position after President Ahmadinejad decided to fire Manouchehr Mottaki in December. The installation of a nuclear expert led to speculation about the increased emphasis on the nuclear program in Iran’s foreign policy. Salehi is believed to have been given broader powers and has stated that two of his primary goals are positive relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, adding, "In order to achieve a pragmatic and effective foreign policy, we should focus our attention on the Islamic world and our neighbors."


Revelations in the WikiLeaks cables

Among the relevant WikiLeaks cables, Middle Eastern powers have expressed greater nervousness in diplomatic meetings about Iran’s impact on security in the region. Saudi Arabia has urged the United States to consider taking pre-emptive action against Iran’s government. King Abdullah suggested that the United States “cut off the head of the snake,” while leaders in Bahrain and Jordan have also expressed grave concerns over Iranian intentions.

The Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted in cables from June 2009 saying that there is a period of "between six and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable," and then after that point, “any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was documented as having said in a meeting with then-French Defense Minister Hervé Morin on February 8, 2010 that a conventional weapons strike “would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker.” The remarks were similar to ones that Gates has made in public. According to another cable from November 2009, Israeli and U.S. officials “discussed the upcoming delivery of GBU-28 bunker busting bombs to Israel, noting that the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid any allegations the U.S. government is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran.”

In another WikiLeaks revelation, President Ahmadinejad was apparently willing to contemplate a fuel swap about a year ago but was prevented from doing so by hard-liners in the Iranian government who believed that it would be a “virtual defeat” if it were to happen. The leaks suggested that Iran also trusted the United States more than Russia to follow through on the deal, which would have required Iran to give up much of its stock of low enriched uranium in exchange for fuel prepared for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a facility used primarily for medial purposes.

The substance of the WikiLeaks cables has provoked criticism from the leader of the Iranian opposition, Mir Hossein Mousavi. He suggested that "Some of these documents clearly show our vulnerable situation in the region, a situation fuelled by adventurism." The cables have been dismissed by President Ahmadinejad, who has accused the United States of deliberately fabricating them in order to embarrass Iran.


With additions from David Adelman, Chris Lindborg, Paul Ingram, and Lukas Milevski, BASIC

 

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