Sunday, October 4, 2009

Like back-winding in a sailing race, Iran has gotten ahead of the United States and its allies that met for the nuclear talks in Geneva Thursday. Iran pulled a rabbit out of the diplomatic hat in the form of a self-disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency about a second uranium-enrichment plant in Qom.

On the surface, President Obama and other leaders of the G-20 group of major economic countries meeting recently in Pittsburgh seized on this revelation to mount timely new pressure on Iran. Mr. Obama went so far as claiming that the Qom site’s “configuration” indicates it is for military purposes. Iran’s initiative seemed to have all but backfired on it, as manna from heaven for the “P5 + 1” nations - permanent U.N. Security Council members Britain, France, Russia, China and the U.S. plus Germany - that are pondering fresh sanctions on Iran in case the Geneva talk fails.

Yet Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s air of certainty - that the disclosure about the “hidden site” will add to the pressure on Iranians at the talk to “come out clean” on their nuclear program - may prove premature. More than anything, this is leverage for Iran to the detriment of Western strategy, for several reasons.

(1) First, the Iranian move, well-timed with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to the United Nations in New York, has been nuanced by Tehran to highlight the site’s significance as well as location in a military base of the Revolutionary Guards. In terms of Iran’s reaction to military threats, the message is threefold:

(a) It is now harder for the military option to achieve its objectives.

(b) Iran can just as easily construct multiple similar sites rather easily and, hence, the military option is futile.

(c) And simultaneously sending the message that if the threats continue, the world should expect a growing merger of Iran’s civil nuclear program with its military infrastructure - ominous, indeed, for those worried about Iran’s latent proliferation.

(2) Anticipating a Western reaction led by Mr. Obama that called for immediate IAEA access to the Qom site, Iran’s move was cleverly calculated to reach two important objectives - on the one hand, channeling the “Iran six” focus to the transparency issue instead of the tougher subject of outright suspension and, on the other, indirectly highlighting the somewhat neglected protean value of Iran’s transparency in light of robust IAEA surveillance of Iran’s main enrichment facility in Natanz. The argument is that there is no need to worry about military diversion as long as Iran continues to abide by its obligations toward the IAEA.

It is noteworthy that after extensive inspections, the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed the non-diversion of declared nuclear activities and what is more, at the last IAEA general meeting in September, the IAEA’s outgoing chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, stated categorically that the agency has no evidence about a “military component” to Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

(3) Tehran’s deliberate disclosure about the facility under construction in Qom on the eve of Geneva talk was a “game changer” that enhanced Iran’s bargaining position while at the same time impacting the “Iran six” calculations, just as Mr. Obama’s recent decision to abandon the missile-defense shield in Europe - following the argument that Iran was not much of a long-range ballistic threat - had adversely impacted Iran’s negotiation posture by diminishing the perception of Iran’s deterrent capability. Thus, Iran was prompted to test-fire short-, medium- and long-range missiles to prove otherwise and neutralize Mr. Obama’s maneuver.

(4) Finally, by sending reassuring signals through Ali Akbar Salehi - the new head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization - regarding the IAEA access to the Qom facility in the near future, Iran actually enlarged the potential zone of agreement with the Obama administration. That can be theoretically telescoped to other pertinent nuclear and non-nuclear issues, as Iran has offered a package of ideas about cooperation that shows Tehran’s readiness to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, but only in the larger context of nonproliferation and disarmament.

Of course, none of Iran’s maneuvers cited above may save it from the wrath of tougher sanctions in case the talks fail. But for now, Tehran relishes the fact that it has upstaged its rival diplomatically through a brilliant move that has advanced its chess pieces in a pretalk game of genius whereby both sides have reached deep in their stockpiles of chips for going into the talks with maximum advantage over the other side.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies and is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team (2004-05).

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