Few issues in recent years have seen as intensive high-level, international negotiations as Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the account by Mousavian, an Iranian policymaker and scholar, will probably become the definitive book about that effort.
A more important work, but one unlikely to get as much attention, is from a team led by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which examines in detail how Iran’s nuclear program fits within the broader challenge to U.S. interests from the Islamic Republic.
Mousavian’s account gains credibility from his previous position as spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team as well as through the vigorous promotion of his views on U.S. television and at lectures in elite venues. His personal story is intriguing: An important official on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, he was, in effect, jailed for his opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is now a fellow at Princeton, though clearly still deeply supportive of the Islamic Republic. But the reason his book will become the standard reference is not necessarily due to his pedigree: It is the care with which it was prepared, with 1,113 footnotes to all the right sources. On question after question, Mousavian recounts the facts in detail, providing the references to check up and follow further.
But for all that Mousavian gets the details right, he casts the nuclear impasse in a profoundly misleading way. The fundamental problem has always been that Iran has not lived up to its obligations under the international agreements to which it is a party. At its heart, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a trade-off: Countries have the right to dangerous nuclear technology if they accept the responsibility to be fully transparent about what they are doing. The irony is that had Iran, an NPT signatory, followed through on the requirements of the treaty, Washington may have been profoundly unhappy about Iran’s nuclear progress but could have done little to mobilize international pressure. On this, as so many other issues, the Islamic Republic’s leaders have systematically miscalculated where Iran’s national interests lie. Their attitude, shared by Mousavian, is the profound arrogance of asserting rights but refusing responsibilities.
In Mousavian’s account, Iran never did anything worse than miss some tactical opportunities. And in his telling, that only happened after he left the job. Mousavian makes a persuasive case that Iran was better served by his policy, which was to blow smoke in the West’s eyes rather than to spit into them. The prolonged negotiations he describes persuaded Europe that Iran should be offered incentives and not penalized so as to entice it into further negotiations and temporary concessions. His team understood the importance of looking reasonable, whereas Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i’s priority seems to be what the ayatollah called resistance to “global arrogance.”
In contrast to Iran’s excellent track record, Mousavian presents the West—especially the United States—as continuously taking unreasonable positions and missing chances to improve relations. But not surprisingly, there is a telling omission: The George W. Bush administration is often castigated for spurning an alleged May 2003 Iranian “grand bargain” to open talks with Washington about all the issues separating the two sides. Mousavian makes no mention of it whatsoever.
While Mousavian recognizes that many issues besides the nuclear program separate Washington and Tehran, the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) Iran: The Nuclear Challenge edited by Blackwill simply ignores that strategic context. While it could be argued that the CFR report is intentionally only about the nuclear issue, the obvious response is that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities is not isolated from its other activities, nor are vital U.S. interests about Iran confined to its nuclear program: Most U.S. sanctions on Iran can be justified as reactions to its state support of terrorism, not just its nuclear program.
This narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear program is all the more striking given the main theme in Blackwill’s insightful concluding essay: Consider carefully and do not jump to conclusions. He warns against unanticipated consequences, artificial analogies, false certainty, and short-term thinking that ignores longer term repercussions. He suggests eleven pertinent questions to focus thinking about a potential preemptive attack, bringing great depth of knowledge to the subject. Regrettably, he hardly mentions how actions on the nuclear issue could affect broader U.S. interests regarding Iran. In particular, his essay is infused with the implicit view that the Islamic Republic is a given, not an unnatural system whose days may be numbered. If one concludes that the Islamic Republic will, at some point in time, disappear, then U.S. policy thinking ought to be much more about timing: Delaying the nuclear program becomes a potential route to successful resolution of the problems between the two states, depending on what nuclear policy a successor regime might pursue.
The six other authors in the CFR volume offer much insight about sanctions, negotiations, military options, regime change, the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as what is known about the Iranian nuclear program. But their lens is so centered on the nuclear issue that everything else is essentially left out of the picture. For instance, Elliott Abrams’ essay on regime change, while presenting a thoughtful evaluation of current U.S. programs and practical suggestions for alternatives, devotes exactly one sentence to the nonnuclear advantages for U.S. strategic interests were the Islamic Republic to fall. Surely the end of the mullahcracy would have vast repercussions on world Islamist movements and on the Middle East. To take one point that preoccupies U.S. Persian Gulf allies: Were Washington to form a close working relationship with a friendly Tehran, might that make relations with the gulf monarchies less important to U.S. administrations? Under those circumstances, Washington might choose to be more supportive of the forces calling for democratic reform in those countries, a prospect the ruling families find profoundly unsettling.
In comparison to the tight focus of the CFR volume, the great strength of U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition is that Cordesman, et al., capture the full character of U.S.-Iran relations. They demonstrate that the United States and Iran are in a low-level war, or in “strategic competition,” a phrase often used in national security circles. That war has many fronts, which the authors cover in great (sometimes excessive) detail. Separate chapters, generally coauthored by Cordesman and one or more collaborators, cover the nature of the strategic competition in general, as well as sanctions and energy, the gulf military balance, and competition between Washington and Tehran in various parts of the world including Iraq, the Levant, Turkey, the Caucasus, “Af–Pak,” Europe, Russia, China, Latin America, and Africa. The concluding chapter, on policy implications, stresses that the U.S. administrations must compete with the Iranians in a wide array of geographic arenas and with many policy instruments. That is, in effect, something Washington is now doing but not always with a conscious understanding of how all these disparate efforts should fit together.
Cordesman is led to the pessimistic conclusion that the mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons is part of a concerted strategy around which the entire military and national security strategy is built. Restrictions on Tehran’s enrichment activities, he argues, are not likely to impede Iran’s nuclear progress much because it has developed such a varied and robust set of nuclear weapons-related programs (including delivery options) that it could break down the remaining work into compartmentalized programs. Each is readily concealed and could be presented to a credulous international community as peaceful in intent. He concludes that if one studies the full range of strategic competition between Washington and Tehran, the current P5+1-Iran negotiations—even if fully successful—would make only a small difference in the mullahs’ challenge to U.S. policymakers and not much of a difference to its nuclear pursuits.
Cordesman’s message is not likely to have the resonance of Mousavian’s. Too many in the West seem inclined to assume that Iran is being reasonable in the current nuclear impasse and that more understanding of the developing world is needed. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, few international problems can be solved through the greater display of empathy, especially toward rogue regimes.
Patrick Clawson is director for research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir
by Seyed Hossein Mousavian
Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012. 597 pp. $25, paper.
Iran: The Nuclear Challenge
Edited by Robert Blackwill. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012. 77+xii pp. $9.99, paper.
U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition
by Anthony Cordesman, Adam Mausner, and Aram Nerguizian
Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012. 937 pp. Free download.
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2013, pp. 87-89
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya
With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday.
Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December.
They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year.
At the crossroads
“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš. “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.”
He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.
Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation.
Foreign fighter threat
The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline.
“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.
“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.”
Young voters eager
The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results.
He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country.
So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women. Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots.
“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš.
He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.
“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned. “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”
The Remnants of Civil War: Wanning Stability as Deraa Slips into Mayhem
The infamous Syrian civil war is etched into history forever. A decade-long conflict that claimed almost half a million lives, razed towns, and displaced millions. While the Arab spring is touted as the flicker of angst that sparked the catastrophe, the Syrian uprising began in the quaint city of Deraa. A southwestern city bordering Jordan, Deraa is widely attributed as the birthplace of the upheaval that upended Syria back in 2011 and onwards. However, while the devastating chaos has since mostly subsided, the city remains the epicenter of insidious instability as rebels maintain a domesticated stronghold despite government resistance. And while a fragile negotiation holds the last flicker of hope for the entrapped civilians, it is not a steady ground yet to expect a haven in the war-wrecked country.
The rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad seized control of Deraa right after the skirmishes turned into conflict before finally escalating into a full-fledged war. Their grip, however, lasted until 2018. With the fall of ISIS and the diffusion of Kurdish fighters to the northern frontier, the Russian-backed regime besieged multiple cities across Syria. The government campaign lasted months as brutal fighting undertook major cities under the control of the rebels. Weeks of fighting eventually led the government forces to overpower the rebels in Aleppo, Deraa, and Idlib. With no alternative, the rebels resorted to surrender. While Moscow brokered a peace agreement, also known as the ‘Reconciliation Accords,’ all was not well – especially in Deraa.
The Russian-backed forces took control of the city and most of the rebels either joined the government forces or handed over heavy weaponry in exchange for a safe exit to government-controlled regions in Syria. However, a few rebels retained control over a slew of areas within the city. With the help of influence within the forces of the regime, the rebels managed to hook control of the southern half of the city; which eventually became known as the eponymous district of Deraa al-Balad, while the northern half stood as the stronghold of the Assad regime.
Since the government seized the city, the escalation has developed into a routine for the civilians. While the genocidal tendencies no longer run rampant in Syria, artillery still rains like purgatory over the civilians as government forces try to permeate the southern region. The government forces have tried to impregnate the outskirts of Deraa al-Balad yet have continuously failed to topple the hold of the opposition leaders. In response, the roads are barricaded to surround the rebels, strangle their ammunition, and subdue their resistance. Instead, civilians have suffered starvation and casualties. Recently in July, an escalation resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians at the hands of the government forces as violence engulfed the city while the government forces attempted to breach the city.
A question is frequently posited; why do the government forces want to infiltrate the city so badly? Especially when the rebels have already surrendered heavy weaponry to the Syrian army. The foremost reason is the strategic location of Deraa al-Balad. The city is extremely proximate to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: a strategic front touted as a key ground eyed by Iran’s proxies in Syria. The Iranian forces in the echelons of the Syrian army are driven by a motivation to gain access in the city to deploy forces on the southern front of Deraa. Meanwhile, the Russian offensive is at play to completely subdue the rebels to gain a whelming influence over Syria. Thus, the ulterior agendas of Iran and Russia could be labeled as the primary catalyst behind the raging military action around the city.
Another reason could be the desire of President Bashar al-Assad to crush opposition in every which way possible to avoid another scare in the future. The offense is clear in Idlib, Aleppo, and Deraa as the government forces are prudent in maintaining a pivotal position over the rebels to allow leverage if any faction decides to coagulate against the regime. Even during elections, almost a third of the Syrian population was barred from voting, including Deraa al-Balad, where mass demonstrations were staged to denounce Mr. Bashar al-Assad.
With his fourth stint in the office, President Assad has geared a renewed strategy to infiltrate the city of Deraa. The government now aims to deploy more forces in the city, run more rigorous checks and searches while gaining control of the frequented checkpoints of Deraa al-Balad. Moreover, the regime has demanded a surrender of soft weapons as well as a handover of the wanted opposition figures spewing venom against the regime. However, the rebel negotiators have called out for a peaceful transfer of all opposition leaders to Jordon or Turkey: a key point of contention. Furthermore, the leaders of Deraa have voiced their right to hold soft weapons and deny a thorough house search under the conditions of the 2018 Reconciliation accords. The impasse, however, exists as negotiations are teetering on a thin rope to somehow avoid chaos and bag a mutual consensus.
Since 2018, the Assad regime is accused of severing necessities from the city of Deraa al-Balad. Human rights observers have voiced concerns as the government forces continue to weaponize aid to bend the rebels to their will. International humanitarian organizations have cited that the government forces don’t differentiate between the civilians and the rebel fighters as hundreds of innocent civilians have been brutally killed since the government’s siege of northern Deraa. Now as the negotiations falter so does the standard of living of the civilians. Their lives have been forced to get accustomed to a constant fear of bombardment while barely surviving without food, medicines, or electricity.
Approximately 24,000 residents have been displaced while close to 12,000 still remain entrapped as government forces perpetually clash with the rebels. The harrowing reality is if the negotiations fail to settle the dispute, and the government’s assault progresses further, then surely the city of Deraa al-Balad would fall into a humanitarian crisis. A lasting solution is required, not a ceasefire, as both rebels and the government forces are not civil enough to maintain a passage of peace without going ballistic. The government (and the allied forces) should stop using civilians as scapegoats to lure the rebels and achieve geopolitical objectives. Instead, the government should strive for an inclusive society to put an end to the spiral of civil war – once and for all.
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