The US shifts ground on Iran


The US has modified the unremittingly hostile stance it has maintained towards Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.  What lies behind the shift must be the US administration’s desire to extricate itself from Iraq.


I may be wrong about this, but the evidence is compelling.  Consider the following, which happened in November 2005, but has gone largely unreported in Britain:-


(1)     President Bush authorised Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Iraq, to talk to Iran about Iraqi issues

(2)     President Bush has endorsed a Russian compromise proposal about Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and the US didn’t press for Iran to be referred to the Security Council at the November meeting of the IAEA Board.


This has happened despite the belligerent noises towards Israel coming from Iranian President Ahmadinejad.


US extremely hostile

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the seizure of US embassy staff in Tehran, the US has been extremely hostile towards Iran, has had no diplomatic relations with it and has applied rigorous economic sanctions against it.  The US did sell Iran military equipment in 1985, in exchange for Iran’s help in freeing American hostages in Lebanon (and the funds so generated were used to supply the right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua with arms, contrary to US law).  In recent years, the US has had occasional diplomatic contact with Iran about Afghanistan (before and after the US invasion) through the UN-sponsored Six Plus Two group – the six states bordering Afghanistan, one of which is Iran, plus the US and Russia.


Despite this contact, President Bush declared Iran to be a member of an “axis of evil”, along with Iraq and North Korea, in his State of the Union address in January 2002, in which he castigated it in the following terms:


“Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom.”


After it became public knowledge in August 2002 that Iran was building a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the US has been even more aggressive towards Iran, accusing it of developing nuclear weapons (of which there is no evidence) and threatening military action to halt the development.  In late September, along with the EU, the US tried to get the IAEA Board to refer Iran to the Security Council, because of its alleged failure to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  It failed.


In late October 2005, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said (quoting Ayatollah Khomeini) that “Israel must be wiped off the map”, which, you might have thought, would have provoked unremitting hostility in Washington towards Iran.  But it didn’t.


Khalilzad authorised to talk to Iran

On the contrary, in November 2005 President Bush authorised his ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to talk to Iran about Iraqi issues.  His authorisation to talk to Iran was revealed in a Newsweek article entitled The New Way Out, by Michael Hirsh, Scott Johnson and Kevin Peraino.  This is liberally sprinkled with quotes from Khalilzad, and describes the US plan to extricate itself from Iraq, without looking as if it’s running away.


The following passage reveals this “departure and adjustment” in US policy towards Iran:


“To secure the country with so few troops, Khalilzad and [General] Casey [the US commander in Iraq] have had to swallow their pride. They are making compromises with Sunni supporters of the insurgency that would have been unthinkable a year ago. President Bush is also doing what he has been loath to do: asking neighboring countries for help, even the rabid anti-American Islamists in Tehran. Khalilzad revealed to NEWSWEEK that he has received explicit permission from Bush to begin a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, which has meddled politically in Iraq. ‘I’ve been authorized by the president to engage the Iranians as I engaged them in Afghanistan directly’, says Khalilzad. ‘There will be meetings, and that’s also a departure and an adjustment.’”


At a press briefing on 28 November 2005, US State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, confirmed that President Bush had given permission for a meeting, but played down its significance, saying:


“It's a very narrow mandate that he has, and it deals specifically with issues related to Iraq”.


McCormack also cited as a precedent for these meetings the US’s diplomatic contacts with Iran in the Six Plus Two group (see above).


However, this is, as Khalilzad said, “a departure and an adjustment”: what is being proposed are one on one diplomatic meetings between the US and Iran of a kind that haven’t taken place since 1979.


At the time of writing, there has been no confirmation that any meetings have taken place.  In fact, it seems that Iran has refused to meet the US about Iraqi issues.  When this was put to McCormack at a press briefing on 1 December 2005, he replied: “I believe we did hear back in that regard from them”.  Perhaps, Iran takes the reasonable attitude that Iraqi issues are the business of the Iraqi government, and not of an occupying power from the other side of the world, which claims to have handed over sovereignty to an Iraqi government a year and a half ago in June 2004.


No US push for referral in November

This shift in US policy to dealing directly with Iran for the first time since 1979 has been accompanied by a dramatic shift in the US tactics for dealing with Iran’s nuclear activities.  After the failure to get Iran referred to the Security Council at the September meeting of the IAEA Board, it was widely expected that the scheduled Board meeting on 24 November 2005 would be the occasion for another attempt.  But it hasn’t happened.


At the time of writing, the IAEA web page devoted to its activities concerning Iran says, in a statement dated 24 November 2005:


“At meetings in Vienna this week, the IAEA Board of Governors discussed the Agency´s verification of Iran´s nuclear programme. It considered a report from IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei circulated 18 November.”


That’s all.  No decision was taken to refer Iran to the Security Council for its alleged failure to comply with its nuclear safeguards agreements with the IAEA.  No resolution was passed about Iran at all. 


No diplomatic initiative

It is not as if a diplomatic initiative about Iran’s nuclear activities was ongoing at that time.  Negotiations between Iran and the EU3 – the UK, France and Germany – which began in October 2003 came to an abrupt halt in early August 2005, when Iran rejected out of hand EU3 proposals that it abandon all nuclear fuel cycle activities, including uranium processing and enrichment, permanently.


This would have meant that nuclear power generation in Iran be dependent on a supply of fuel from abroad, which could be cut off at any time, even though Iran has a plentiful domestic supply of uranium ore.  It was no surprise, therefore, that Iran rejected these proposals out of hand, since they flew in the face of its “inalienable right”, enshrined in Article IV(1) of the NPT,  to have access to nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, as long as they are under IAEA supervision.


As part of an agreement with the EU3 in November 2004, Iran had suspended uranium processing and enrichment activities.  As the agreement was at pains to state, this was “a voluntary confidence building measure” on Iran’s part while negotiations were proceeding, and “not a legal obligation” required by Iran’s treaty obligations.  When the negotiations broke down, Iran restarted uranium processing and enrichment activities, as it was entitled to do, since they are not contrary to any treaty obligations. 


Russian compromise

After the September meeting of the IAEA Board, Russia made compromise proposals regarding Iran’s uranium nuclear fuel cycle activities.


To prepare uranium for use in a nuclear reactor, it has to undergo a number of steps - mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. These steps are known as the “front end” of the nuclear fuel cycle.  After uranium has been used in a reactor to produce electricity it is known as “spent fuel” and may undergo a further series of steps including temporary storage, reprocessing, and recycling before eventual disposal as waste. Collectively these steps are known as the “back end” of the fuel cycle.


The EU3 demanded that Iran abandon all of these fuel cycle activities, and import enriched uranium in the form of pre-fabricated fuel rods and export the spent fuel for reprocessing, after the minimum cooling down period necessary before transportation.


The Russia proposals are that Iran mine, mill and convert its own uranium, producing uranium hexafluoride gas.  Iran seems to have these capabilities already – the Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan is producing uranium hexafluoride.  Iran planned to enrich this at a plant at Natanz, which is not yet in operation.  The Russian proposals are that uranium hexafluoride produced at Isfahan be exported to Russia for enrichment in a plant jointly run by Russia and Iran, then fabricated fuel rods be imported into Iran for use in nuclear reactors and finally spent fuel rods be exported to Russia for reprocessing.


In other words, whereas the EU3 proposals required Iran to forgo all nuclear fuel cycle activities, the Russian proposals envisage Iran using their own uranium and maintaining the activities at the front end of the cycle that they already have in operation.  The Russian proposals therefore represent a compromise between the EU3 proposals and Iran’s demand that there be no restriction at all on their fuel cycle activities, as long as they are for peaceful purposes – which is their “inalienable right” under the NPT.


The Russian proposals fit in with existing Russian commitments to supply Iran with enriched uranium fuel for the reactors they installed for Iran at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf.  This facility has a long history.  In 1975 a German consortium was contracted to build a nuclear power plant there, but construction was halted with the plant only partially built in 1979, after the Islamic revolution, and the plant was damaged by Iraqi air attacks during the Iran-Iraq war.  In 1995, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the US, the Russian state-controlled construction company, Atomstroyexport, contracted to supply and install Russian reactors at the site.  Russia is also to supply the fuel and to take back the fuel after use.  The plant is not producing electricity yet.


Crucially, both the EU3 and the Russian proposals mean that Iran would have to forgo uranium enrichment, and therefore the possibility of producing highly enriched uranium for weapons production.  However, the Russian proposal means that, if Iran wanted to produce highly enriched uranium in secret, it has only to implement the enrichment step, and not the others that precede it in the fuel cycle.


US backs Russian compromise

It is a measure of the shift in US policy towards Iran that it is giving support to the Russian proposals in a way that it never did for the EU3 proposal, which required Iran to abandon all fuel cycle activities.


Up to now, the US has constantly portrayed Iran’s plans for nuclear power generation as a cover for the development of nuclear weapons.  Iran couldn’t possibly want a nuclear power programme, the US said, when it was floating “on a sea of oil and gas”.  On this basis it opposed Russia’s installation of reactors at Bushehr.


The implication of this was that, notwithstanding its right under the NPT to civil nuclear power, the US was going to move heaven and earth to prevent it developing civil nuclear power capabilities.  However, with its backing of the Russian proposals, it seems to have accepted that Iran can have civil nuclear power as long as uranium enrichment, and spent fuel reprocessing, is carried out in Russia.


There is no doubt that the US is now backing these Russian proposals.  President Bush met President Putin at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Busan, South Korea, on 18-19 November 2005.  A Sunday Telegraph report of 20 November 2005 about this meeting was entitled Bush backs offer that would allow Teheran to enrich uranium in Russia.  It began as follows:


President George W Bush has backed a plan to allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia. The sudden change in tactics over Teheran’s controversial nuclear programme has angered hawks in Washington and surprised European diplomats.


“Mr Bush, who met President Vladimir Putin at a Pacific Rim summit on Friday [18 November 2005], told him he would support Moscow’s plan to offer Iran the chance to conduct nuclear enrichment at facilities in Russia. The US was previously against any deal that would allow Iran to enrich its own uranium.


“The latest proposal would allow Teheran to convert uranium if subsequent enrichment, which could have weapons applications, took place only overseas, under Russian control.


“It is the first compromise offer in which America has shown any interest and is designed to develop a joint front with Russia, a long-term ally of Iran.


“Washington previously adhered to a strict ‘hands-off’ approach to any negotiations with the Islamic regime, including the offer that Teheran rejected earlier this year from the so-called EU3 of Britain, France and Germany.”


This report probably exaggerates US support for the Russian proposals, but it is broadly in line with what Stephen Hadley, Condoleeza Rice’s successor as Bush’s National Security Advisor, said at a press briefing in Busan on 18 November 2005.  Asked:


“… should we construe that if the Iranians took the offer on the table by the Russians that they would bring the enrichment out, that that would be acceptable to President Bush as a solution?”


he replied:


“We have talked to the Russians about this, and we have supported their proposal. It has been something that the Russians have been talking [about] to the EU3 -- the U.K., France and Germany -- who are taking the lead in the negotiations with the Iranians. They also support it. We think it's a good avenue to explore, and we've said so.”


Pressed to confirm that the proposal was “acceptable to President Bush”, he replied:


“If we didn't think it was acceptable, we probably wouldn't encourage it to be explored.”


That a shift in US policy has taken place is evident from the reaction from Danielle Pletka of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, who was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying:


“Iran is in breach of its previous commitments to the EU3 and has restarted conversion. …  These were supposed to be the ‘red lines’ on which we would not compromise.  But what do we do when the Iranians flout them? We offer them a compromise that will allow them to enrich uranium, even if it takes place in Russia. It sends all the wrong messages to Iran.”


After this, the expectation was that the Russian proposals would form the basis of renewed negotiations between the EU3 and Iran.  However, Iran rejected the proposals initially and, at the time of writing, there is no sign that Iran has changed its mind – and there is no word of negotiations between the EU3 and Iran having been resumed.  Sean McCormack told a State Department briefing on 14 December 2005:


“… we are attempting with, in support of the EU-3 and the Russian Government to, through negotiations and through an offer of negotiations, deal with Iran's behavior concerning pursuit of nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program. That offer of negotiations has been met with defiance and a failure to engage the EU-3 on what are serious negotiations.”


To the best of my knowledge, Iran has yet to accept the Russian proposals as a basis for negotiations.


“Evidence” of weapons development

So, at the time of the IAEA Board meeting on 24 November 2005, there were no diplomatic initiatives in play.  Furthermore, just before the meeting the US/UK were circulating “evidence” that Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons.  This seemed to be designed to create an atmosphere for Iran’s referral to the Security Council.


It took two forms.  First, there were press stories that the US had intelligence that Iran was trying to develop nuclear warheads for its Shahab-3 missiles, which has a range of around 1,250km and is capable of striking Israel.  For example, on the day of the IAEA meeting the Daily Telegraph carried a story entitled US reveals details of Iran's nuclear ambition, which said:


“US officials have in recent months shared with experts from the IAEA and other countries classified details of tens of thousands of pages of technical information recovered from a stolen Iranian laptop.


“The documents, written in Farsi and obtained last year, are said to reveal experiments with warhead designs characteristic of nuclear devices. …


“According to leaks in US papers, the documents include telltale details such as a sphere of detonators of conventional explosives, used to compress fissile material to trigger a nuclear reaction.”


Second, the IAEA Director General’s report on Iran for the Board meeting was leaked to the press in advance and attention was drawn to one sentence in it that said that Iran had given the IAEA a document containing information “on the casting and machining of enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms” (paragraph 6).   This generated press stories with headlines such as Iran given 'nuclear weapon' data, which was over a BBC story of 18 November 2005.  This began:


“Iran has passed on to United Nations inspectors documents on how to build a crucial part of a nuclear bomb, the UN's atomic agency says.”


In fact, the IAEA didn’t say this (at least not in any published document that I can find).  The one sentence on the document in the Director General’s report went on to say that:


Iran stated that it had been provided on the initiative of the [AQ Khan] procurement network, and not at the request of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI)”.


Since the Director General made no other reference to the document in his report (or in his statement to the Board) it must be assumed that he accepted Iran’s explanation – and that he didn’t believe that it constituted evidence that Iran was trying to make nuclear weapons.


Dogs called off

It was against the background of this “evidence” that Iran was trying to make nuclear weapons, and with no diplomatic initiative in progress to sort the matter out (and with President Ahmadinejad issuing threats against Israel) that the US called off the dogs and did not press for Iran’s referral to the Security Council.


True, the “evidence” wasn’t very compelling, but it was more compelling that anything produced before by the US/UK, and sufficiently compelling for the US to take military action against Iran, if it had a mind to.  It had less compelling “evidence” of an Iraqi nuclear weapons programme in March 2003.  This only makes sense in the context of a significant policy shift by the US towards Iran.


In the days leading up to the IAEA Board meeting, the question of Iran’s referral to the Security Council came up continually at the State Department’s daily briefings given by Sean McCormack.  He kept saying that the US had the votes in the IAEA Board for a referral.  This seems very unlikely since it didn’t have the votes to get a referral in September 2005, and since then 10 of the 35-member Board have been replaced, and 3 of the replacements are Cuba, Syria and Belarus.


Be that as it may, the obvious questions from journalists was why are you holding back, given the new “evidence” that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and is refusing to talk to the EU3 about the Russian proposal.  McCormack had no answer but to witter on about giving diplomacy a chance – which is an unfamiliar theme from Washington on relations with Iran in recent times.



David Morrison

18 December 2005

Labour & Trade Union Review