On Sunday, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspected for the first time a controversial uranium-enrichment facility under construction near Qum, Iran, after the hitherto-secret site’s existence was disclosed last month. Although their findings aren’t expected to be made known for a number of weeks, the officials are unlikely to have discovered much that would prove the case that Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons. For one thing, Iran has had a month since disclosing the site’s existence — according to Washington only after it was discovered by U.S. intelligence — to remove any incriminating evidence. But U.S. intelligence agencies believe the facility is not yet operational and is currently envisaged to produce low-enriched rather than weapons-grade material (despite the fact that it has been constructed in secret and apparently with a conscious view to withstand air attacks).
But the Qum inspection was only one part of the ostensible “breakthrough” agreement during talks between Iran and the Western powers, plus Russia and China, that were held in Geneva on Oct. 1. The fate of the other aspect — a draft agreement to ship much of Iran’s enriched uranium abroad for reprocessing into fuel for a Tehran medical research reactor — remains a mystery. Iran’s leaders are dragging their feet on accepting the proposal, which is intended only as confidence-building measure ahead of further talks. (While the proposal would draw down Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, it would not halt Tehran’s enrichment program or add any extra safeguards against Iran turning its nuclear material into a weapon.)
The proposed deal is widely viewed as a coup for Iran because it appears to reflect a tacit acceptance by the West of Iran’s enrichment of uranium — after all, the material that would be reprocessed in Russia for conversion into fuel rods was enriched by Iran in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. And it has been criticized by Israeli leaders who insist that Iran must be forced to halt enrichment all together. Still, having been told by the IAEA to respond by Oct. 23 to the draft agreement discussed at talks in Vienna last week, Tehran simply let the deadline pass, indicating that it would answer sometime in the coming week.
Why the delay? Iran’s leaders may simply be engaging in brinksmanship in search of further concessions over the amount of uranium transferred or the rate of deliveries. Iran’s signature approach to negotiations has been to drag them out and incrementally roll back Western red lines. Not only has Iran finally won direct negotiations with the U.S. without ever changing its own positions, but the talks are increasingly occurring on its terms. Whereas President George W. Bush had insisted that Iran could not be allowed to “master the technology of uranium enrichment,” today’s talks are focused not on the question of whether Iran can continue enriching uranium but on how its stockpile of enriched uranium is to be used.
The deal to ship uranium to Russia for further enrichment would probably be just what Iran needs. The embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needs a deal with the West more than any of its predecessors did. In the face of challenges to its legitimacy at home by a popular opposition movement that claims the June presidential election was fraudulent, the government’s international standing would be bolstered by a deal, strengthening its hand at home.
Moreover, a breakdown in nuclear negotiations with the West, if it leads to further sanctions, could make governing Iran that much more difficult. The government is about to launch a program to wean the country of its wasteful but popular consumer subsidies, which would hardly be an auspicious moment to court further economic hardship through new sanctions. Also, the Oct. 18 terrorist attack in the Baluch region bordering Pakistan was a reminder that Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency could inflame relations between Iran’s Shi’ite government and its Sunni minorities. Rather than risking military confrontation with Israel — which has threatened military action against Iran’s nuclear program if it isn’t shut by diplomatic means — Iran appears to need greater regional security cooperation, not less. Indeed, the fact that Iran allowed one of its officials to participate in a panel discussion of nuclear experts in Cairo last week (also attended by an Israeli official) could be read as a signal of growing willingness by Tehran to deal.
But decision-making in Iran is notoriously opaque and complex, and increasingly under the shadow by the regime’s political divisions. Ahmadinejad’s conservative backers, who have become ever more powerful during a post-election crackdown they insist is protecting the Islamic Republic from a U.S.-led threat, may be having second thoughts about cutting a deal with the “Great Satan.” Hard-line conservatives have for years railed that Iran’s nuclear program is none of the U.S.’s business. In 2003, when reformist President Mohammed Khatami persuaded Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei to agree to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment, conservatives accused the reformers of treason. The fact that talks with the West achieved nothing for Iran during the two years of suspended enrichment only bolstered the conservative position, and have shaped the Iranian position ever since. Today, Iran negotiates with its centrifuges spinning.
The domestic political situation militates against Iranian politicians being seen to accept U.S. conditions too readily. That may explain why Ali Larijani, the conservative but pragmatic speaker of parliament, has come out against the deal. Larijani has been burned before: he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator until 2007, when he was sandbagged by Ahmadinejad for being too accommodating of Western concerns.
The response to the nuclear deal could be an important test of the regime’s direction, because while its ideology demands rejection, its pragmatic interests may be best served by reaching an agreement. If Tehran can’t come to terms with the West over a simple issue of fuel for a medical reactor, there isn’t much hope for achieving a pragmatic understanding between Iran and the U.S. on the wider nuclear program as well as a host of other tricky issues in Iraq and Lebanon and with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So while the deal is little more than a confidence-building mechanism, its failure could mean that the cold war between the U.S. and Iran that traverses much of the Middle East won’t stay cold for much longer.