Iran Tries to Reframe the Nuclear Issue

Rouhani is changing tone, not changing course.

When assessing the prospects for the next round of nuclear talks between the international community (P5+1) and Iran, now set for October 15-16, the initial focus of attention is of course on the parties’ substantive positions. And because Iran is the one held in noncompliance with its NPT commitments and obligations, a change in its positions is crucial for resolving the ongoing nuclear crisis.

In this regard, unfortunately, there are still little grounds for optimism—for all the talk of getting to a deal in a matter of months, Iran has shown no indication that it intends to change course in the nuclear realm. Rouhani has rejected out of hand any suspension of uranium enrichment, and the late August IAEA report on Iran has shown that it is moving forward toward its goal of a military nuclear capability—most significantly, it has installed and readied for testing some one thousand new-generation centrifuges capable of enriching uranium much faster than the older type, and less prone to malfunction. The Arak facility that could support a plutonium route to a nuclear bomb is due to become operational in 2014.

Finally, in a very recent (September 12, 2013) 20-page letter to the IAEA, Iran reiterated in detail its long-held grievances regarding the IAEA investigation into its nuclear activities, noting that the evidence of suspected military activity in the nuclear realm contained in the IAEA Director-General’s periodic reports is fabricated and false. The Iran-IAEA meeting in Vienna on September 27, although deemed “constructive”, not surprisingly produced no tangible indication of progress. (For anyone expecting progress, it is worth noting a few sentences from the “General Observations” section of Iran’s September 12 letter to the IAEA: “Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities have unlawfully been put on the agenda of the UNSC and the Council has taken a wrong approach by adopting its politically-motivated, illegal and unacceptable resolutions against Iran. Therefore, any request by the Agency stemming from those resolutions is not legitimate and not acceptable…the claims and baseless allegations against Islamic Republic of Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities as contained in the [IAEA Director-General’s] report are unprofessional, unfair, illegal and politicized.”)

But the situation is exacerbated by the fact that negotiations are determined as much by their structure and framing as by the parties’ substantive positions. Important questions regarding structure include: who succeeds in negotiating from a position of strength, gaining the upper hand in the diplomatic dynamic? Who is able to impose their framing of the situation, rendering it the dominant interpretation of events that transpire? And who is able to point to whom as the spoiler if things don’t work out?

The Obama administration actually devoted considerable effort in its first four years to proving that it was Iran who was being obstinate and unreasonable in the talks, not the United States. The administration created situations where Iran’s intentions could be “tested” in a manner that would provide unequivocal evidence that it was indeed Iran that was rejecting any reasonable offer to resolve the nuclear crisis. The best example of this strategy was the nuclear fuel deal offered to Iran in October 2009. Because Iran claimed that it was working on its nuclear program solely to create fuel for civilian purposes, the offer on the table was that Iran ship out a significant amount (75 to 80 percent) of its low enriched uranium at the time in order to have it enriched to 20 percent in Russia, and then shipped to France to create fuel rods for the small research reactor in Tehran. Iran rejected the deal, and thus failed the test. The U.S. was able to capitalize on this for awhile—enabling it to make a strong case for moving to additional UN-based and unilateral sanctions—although the episode did not gain recognition as the ultimate proof of Iran’s military intentions and intransigence, as the U.S. had hoped.

Now Iran is taking steps to significantly alter the overall structure of the talks in its favor. Rouhani—focused solely on sanctions relief—is changing tactics in order to reframe the situation; the charm offensive vis-à-vis the U.S., with hints of a possibly changed bilateral relationship, is instrumental in this regard. Tying the nuclear issue to the hope for change in bilateral relations instantly raises the stakes. It means that if the U.S. is perceived as being “too harsh” on the nuclear front, it now risks squandering not only a nuclear deal, but the very prospect for a broader change in the overall relationship. This translates into greater U.S. vulnerability to Iran’s tactical games.