The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Irani & Israeli representatives discuss Nuclear Weapons

with 4 comments

”]”]Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pictured in the Natanz plant [Photo credit: AP]According to several eyewitness accounts and confirmed on the Israeli side, Iran & Israel had a rare face-to-face meeting at diplomatic level, at an Australia-brokered (K-Rudd Win!) conference in Cairo last month. News broke as an Egyptian official who witnessed it said said that Israel had been represented by former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami and Iran by its envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh.

“During the first session Ben Ami and Soltanieh spoke,” he said, asking not to be named.
“We had round-table discussions … then there were cross-table discussions. It was rather polemical, with accusations.

“Soltanieh said the Iranians do not have a (nuclear) bomb and do not want the bomb but the Israelis said that was not true,” the official said, adding that he did not know if the Israelis and Iranians had also met bilaterally on the sidelines.

“This is not the first time (Israelis and Iranians have had contact) but I believe this is the first time they are present at this level of representation,” he said.

In one exchange, Mr Soltanieh asked Mr Zafary-Odiz: “Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons,” Haaretz said, citing unidentified participants in the meeting. The Israeli smiled but did not respond, the newspaper said.

Mr Soltanieh insisted Tehran did not hate Jews, although it opposed Zionism, the newspaper said. [The Australian]

So, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first time since the Revolution that Iran & Israel have had talks at this level, how very interesting. Seems Iran is under pressure indeed. There has also been a lot of reporting about the recent talks between Iran, the international community and the IAEA. There are rumours flying around that an agreement with the Obama Administration over a resumption of diplomatic ties and an easing of sanctions will be reached, along with a presumable curtailing of the nuclear programme. While details are still fuzzy as they are being ironed out, I will ask you to consider the following things:

1. Pressure on the Iranian Government:

Since the disputed election in June, there has been mounting domestic pressure, along with mounting international pressure, on the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad government. An agreement that saves face for Iran and eases sanctions would presumably be a major coup and help to add legitimacy for the pair. I believe commentators are underestimating just how complicated the ‘saving face’ element is going to be, considering how steadfast the rhetoric from Ahmadinejad has been about not giving an inch to the international community over Iran’s right to nuclear power and uranium enrichment. Moreover, if the Iranian public considers the development of nuclear weapons forthcoming, as much of the international community does, then an agreement not to do so would mean allowing Israel to remain the Middle East’s only nuclear power. Nevertheless, if this is ironed out, it could mean a shoring up of the Government and a severe blow to hopes of internal regime change still presumably carried by Washington. Though, just how realistic these hopes were to start with is, of course, also questionable.

2. How much trust can be put into this government

One would expect that, in the absence of rigorous and regular inspections, Iran could still continue to make progress on uranium enrichment, albeit at a slower pace. Considering that the current climate of relations between Iran and the international community is not exactly one of goodwill, and considering the regime’s burgeoning influence internationally (in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan for example), it wouldn’t take much to surmise a level of deceit in any agreement Iran makes to actually halt uranium enrichment.

3. What about an Israeli first strike?

While Iranian deceit can be expected, Israel would have its hands tied. Again, I suggest that chances of an Israeli strike on Iran have been exaggerated. A strike would require agreement from the Obama Administration, and considering how much pressure Obama is under over Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, such an agreement would be very unlikely. Equally, I have a feeling Obama is looking for an excuse for real leverage over Israel on the Palestinian question and the question of settlements. Frustrated already by stonewalling from Netanyahu, Israel would not want to anger its superpower backer any further by striking unilaterally. Also, considering the current unresolved controversy over the Goldstone Report, Israel is not exactly in unquestionable good graces with the international community. A unilateral strike on Iran, even without an agreement over nuclear capabilities, would always be a very risky venture for Israel given the shakiness of its current reputation.

Having said this, Israel is, at least publicly, not happy about this detail. Ehud Barak slammed the deal, and a high-level representative of the EU has stated in pretty strong words (snarky, even) that Israel has no part in these negotiations:

A senior European Union official told Israeli officials this week that Israel is not privy to the details of the exchanges between Iran and the Western countries regarding its nuclear program. “You do not understand the extent to which you are not in the picture. You do not know how much you do not know and what is happening in Iran,” he said.

Accordingly, a number of senior Israeli officials backed the European official’s statements by saying that the release of the draft of an agreement with Iran caught Israel by surprise. [Haaretz]

Ouch!

So all those things considered, I think an agreement is forthcoming and it will probably involve the shipping of nuclear fuel to France via Russia for enrichment, and then its return to Iran in the form of fuel rods. Let’s wait for the details and see what happens, a final deal is expected some time Friday.

Written by alexlobov

October 23, 2009 at 5:30 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The notion that Iran’s leaders might look for an international deal that includes an agreement on nuclear weapons would seem to add strength to arguments that Tehran is open to negotiations. I agree that an Israeli attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would be very risky, not just for Israel’s international standing but for the stability of the whole region.

    There seem to be two major stumbling blocks with no easy solutions. First, Israel’s nuclear deterrent, which skews the balance of power in the region, is not on the table. It is logical for Tehran to look for some long term protection, given that its arch enemy is nuclear armed, while ‘The Great Satan’ has invaded Iran’s neighbours to the east and the west. Second, while one hopes that Iran’s leaders are amenable to diplomatic carrots and sticks, there are few signs so far that negotiations have hit on incentives that will influence them. Nobody knows whether the Mullahs will keep their promises.

    Perhaps the logical conclusion to the above discussion is that the United States, Israel, the EU and the big Arab countries will have to start preparing for diplomacy in a region in which Iran is a newly-minted nuclear power, and sooner rather than later. Not a pleasant outcome, but perhaps the most likely one.

    Mark Furness

    October 23, 2009 at 10:42 pm

  2. Mark,

    I agree with most of what you said except for a couple of points. I saw Mohammed Khatami speak in Melbourne a few months ago and he pointed something interesting out. Yes, both their neighbours have been invaded on east & west, as you mention, and Pakistan virtually appears like a client state at times, but the virulently anti-Shi’a Taliban & Saddam’s Ba’ath have been removed. This has paved the way for new regimes that have been very chummy with Iran and will get even more chummy when the US withdraws from Iraq and, presumably eventually, Afghanistan. I’d say the two invasions have actually been beneficial for Iran, because not only have they installed Iran-friendly regimes but they’ve also taken the stomach away from the US for a strike against Iran itself.

    Secondly, as you point out, Iran wanting to develop a nuclear deterrent to counter Israel’s is logical, but the economy is in dire shape, and so is Ahmadinejad/Khamenei’s credibility. Perhaps they will broker an agreement and then continue enrichment secretly, even if it is slower. That will also all but rule out a strike from Israel, as unlikely as that seems now.

    alexlobov

    October 24, 2009 at 1:20 am

  3. Alex – here’s hoping that you are right and I am wrong, because if Iran develops nuclear weapons Egypt and the Saudis may not be far behind. Moreover, an Iranian bomb would increase the risk that nuclear technology might find its way into the hands of non-state actors who aren’t influenced by traditional deterrence. It would be a bad day for international security.

    The USA wll maintain a powerful military presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future – they didn’t make the investment in blood and treasure in Iraq for nothing. Similarly in Afghanistan – unless NATO gets beaten and the Taliban return, there will be American military assets surrounding Iran for a long time to come. Tehran may well be more comfortable with the current governments in Baghdad and Kabul than their predecessors, but that doesn’t mean that they are any more secure.

    The Iranian economy may well be in bad shape, but nuclear weapons are a 60-year old technology. They can afford them, and if they are determined enough to get them there is nothing that the West and Israel can do to stop them.

    In my view you are dead right from a policy perspective. The military option is unfeasible and unlikely for the reasons you mention. The only option is to try to convince the Mullahs that they don’t need the bomb. Trouble is, given the bad blood and lack of credibility on both sides, the diplomatic price may be too high. Let’s hope not.

    Mark F

    October 24, 2009 at 2:01 am

  4. Mark – Indeed, an Iranian bomb is bad news. I’m still of the opinion that the Israeli bomb is bad news and that’s been around for decades. In fact, the bomb in general is bad news, but I digress.

    You’re probably right about the military presence but time is on Iran’s side (provided the regime holds up domestically). The trend is for Iraqi & Afghan political self-determination (how very post-colonial) so despite the military presence, any moves by the US to severely curtail contact between Iran & its neighbours will not work. If sanctions are lifted then it will make trade possible as well, so I’d say the advantage is still with Iran.

    My point about the economy was more that the sanctions are crippling and, though I don’t know the economic specifics, it’s hard to see the Iranian regime holding out under these sanctions for an indefinite period of time. There is already a good deal of shakiness since the disputed election, more unemployment and poverty would rock the boat a great deal further.

    In any case, we shall see what transpires. AP just reported that Iran rejected the draft but it hasn’t been picked up yet by most of the media. Let’s wait and see.

    alexlobov

    October 24, 2009 at 2:20 am


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