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Thinking ahead on Iran

Negotiations need to focus on Iran's failure to disclose its nuclear weaponization research and testing

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” the old saying goes. But in the case of Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, would have the world believe that where there’s smoke, there’s a picnic with a barbeque of peace, dignity, and respect. Never mind the 19,000 centrifuges and those Ghadr ballistic missiles, “Iranian nuclear energy is about [the] Iranian nation moving forward as an equal in a new realm defined by peace, prosperity, and progress,” Zarif tell us in an elegant five-minute Youtube video released yesterday. And despite the smoke surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, the world seems eager to embrace Zarif’s message. This, in a nutshell, is the state of affairs as negotiations are set to resume in Geneva today.

It is well understood that the West must maintain pressure on Iran even if there is an interim deal. Holding the sanctions regime together won’t be easy, but it can be done if any cracks are quickly identified and remedied. Israel should press for new sanctions to be passed and implemented at the expiration of an interim deal, if necessary. Israel should also quietly push for new Iranian front companies and cutouts to be identified, publicized, and added to the list of sanctioned entities, as necessary.

Nevertheless, we must begin crafting a new message that anticipates the next phase of negotiations. The current talks are only the first phase of a longer, more intricate diplomatic process; we need to be be thinking two to three steps ahead to best Iran at its very sophisticated game of Three-card Monte — a street hustle based on sleight-of-hand or misdirection.

At this stage Iran’s decision to negotiate after years of static “dialogue” has led everyone to focus on the horse-trading over the number of centrifuges, the amount of enriched uranium, and the array of sanctions. This is the conversation Iran wants; this is part of the misdirection.

We need to reshape the public debate. Instead of negotiating in the media, we should be reminding the world that Iran has not answered the IAEA’s questions regarding the military dimension of its nuclear program outlined in the IAEA’s November 2011 report.

While the statesmen argue about whether to “cap,” “freeze” or “roll back” Iran’s uranium enrichment, the world remains in the dark regarding Iran’s nuclear weaponization research and testing, what the IAEA has referred to as the potential “military dimension” of Iran’s nuclear program.

If Javad Zarif insists Iran’s intentions are peaceful, that Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian nuclear purposes only, then it should be eager to prove it. Why did Iran repeatedly stonewall the IAEA’s repeated requests to inspect the Parchin military facility in 2012 and 2013? Some officials suspect Iran has conducted tests on a neutron initiator, which is an important component of a nuclear warhead at the Parchin site. A German journalist, Paul Anton-Krueger, described this device as “compared to a grill-lighter: just as it kindles the fire in a pile of charcoal, neutrons initiate fission in a nuclear warhead.”

As recently as July, even after Rouhani was elected, Iran has repeated false and misleading statements about its activities at Parchin. Instead of producing videos to the world about dignity and respect, Iran’s negotiating team should answer questions about Parchin in front of the international media in Geneva. A respected nuclear watchdog has diligently recorded the modifications at this site, and among other things determined that during the last year and a half Iran “Modified, sanitized, and possibly replaced the roofing of the explosive chamber building as well as the roofing of the northern-most building, which also is suspected to have housed suspicious activities. Iran altered the exterior of both of these buildings…”  Focusing the conversation on the outstanding and unanswered military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program will put the onus on Iran to prove Zarif’s declarations that the Iranian program is civilian-only and peaceful.

Nevertheless, the discussion should not focus exclusively on Parchin.   Israel, needs to make sure the conversation also deals with Iran’s plans for new nuclear facilities under construction, as well as updated design information about the Arak research reactor. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) noted in March 2012, Iran has been eager to talk about the past instead of focusing on future nuclear activity and the unknown (military) dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program that most concern the international community.

In other words, uranium enrichment is simply one aspect of Iran’s nuclear program. And it may not be the most dangerous part. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, it feels as if the international community is at an international airport with three (or more) runways, and it is only talking about the take-offs and landings on one of the runways. If Iran wants the world to embrace its message of peaceful nuclear energy, it needs to show the world what is happening at its other two (or more) runways sooner rather than later and then close them.

An old colleague of mine was fond of repeating the old journalists’ adage that “if your mother tells you that she loves you…check it out.” This cynical bit of wisdom meant that you should verify the words against commensurate actions. In the case of Iran, full and unmediated transparency, coupled with unconditional and unlimited international monitoring, is the only way anyone should be convinced that the honey-laced words of its new president and foreign minister is anything more than a nuclear Three-card Monte, an elaborate and dangerous game of high stakes misdirection.

If Iran agrees to transparency and monitoring and then reneges on it, as it has in the past, this will strengthen the case against Iran and legitimize harsher punitive measures. Israel can play an important and constructive role in ending this ruse by quietly and firmly working with its allies to push for sustained multidimensional pressure as well as full and immediate verification of all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. With a diplomatic grace and eloquence equal to Javad Zarif’s, perhaps an elder statesman will quietly step forward and remind the Iranians that respect is not unconditional; one earns it with actions, not words.

About the Author
Brandon Friedman is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. Prior to pursuing his academic career in Israel, Brandon spent seven years working for a risk advisory consulting firm in the U.S.