WASHINGTON – Iranâ€™s pushback against statements by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House that Tehran must â€œdismantleâ€ some of its nuclear program, and the resulting political uproar over it, indicates that tough US rhetoric may be adding new obstacles to the search for a comprehensive nuclear agreement.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with CNNâ€™s Jim Sciutto on Wednesday, â€œWe are not dismantling any centrifuges, weâ€™re not dismantling any equipment, weâ€™re simply not producing, not enriching over 5%.â€
When CNNâ€™s Fareed Zakaria asked President Hassan Rouhani, â€œSo there would be no destruction of centrifuges?â€ Rouhani responded, â€œNot under any circumstances. Not under any circumstances.â€
Those statements have been interpreted by US news media, unaware of the basic technical issues in the negotiations, as indicating that Iran is refusing to negotiate seriously. In fact, Zarif has put on the table proposals for resolving the remaining enrichment issues that the Barack Obama administration has recognized as serious and realistic.
The Obama administration evidently views the rhetorical demand for â€œdismantlingâ€ as a minimum necessary response to Israelâ€™s position that the Iranian nuclear program should be shut down. But such rhetoric represents a serious provocation to a Tehran government facing accusations of surrender by its own domestic critics.
Zarif complained that the White House had been portraying the agreement â€œas basically a dismantling of Iranâ€™s nuclear program. That is the word they use time and again.â€ Zarif observed that the actual agreement said nothing about â€œdismantlingâ€ any equipment.
The White House issued a â€œFact Sheetâ€ November 23 with the title, â€œFirst Step Understandings Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iranâ€™s Nuclear Programâ€ that asserted that Iran had agreed to â€œdismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%.â€
That wording was not merely a slight overstatement of the text of the â€œJoint Plan of Actionâ€. At the Fordow facility, which had been used exclusively for enrichment above 5%, Iran had operated four centrifuge cascades to enrich at above 5% alongside 12 cascades that had never been operational because they had never been connected after being installed, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had reported.
The text of the agreement was quite precise about what Iran would do: â€œAt Fordow, no further enrichment over 5% at four cascades now enriching uranium, and not increase enrichment capacity. Not feed UF6 into the other 12 cascades, which would remain in a non-operative state. No interconnections between cascades.â€
So Iran was not required by the interim agreement to â€œdismantleâ€ anything. What Zarif and Rouhani were even more upset about, however, is the fact that Kerry and Obama administration spokespersons have repeated that Iran will be required to â€œdismantleâ€ parts of its nuclear program in the comprehensive agreement to be negotiated beginning next month.
The use of the word â€œdismantleâ€ in those statements appears to be largely rhetorical and aimed at fending off attacks by pro-Israel political figures characterizing the administrationâ€™s negotiating posture as soft. But the consequence is almost certain to be a narrowing of diplomatic flexibility in the coming negotiations.
Kerry appears to have concluded that the administration had to use the â€œdismantleâ€ language after a November 24 encounter with George Stephanopoulos of NBC News.
Stephanopoulos pushed Kerry hard on the Congressional Israeli loyalist criticisms of the interim agreement. â€œLindsey Graham says unless the deal requires dismantling centrifuges, we havenâ€™t gained anything,â€ he said.
When Kerry boasted, â€œcentrifuges will not be able to be installed in places that could otherwise be installed,â€ Stephanopoulos interjected, â€œBut not dismantled.â€ Kerry responded, â€œThatâ€™s the next step.â€
A moment later, Kerry declared, â€œAnd while we go through these next six months, we will be negotiating the dismantling, we will be negotiating the limitations.â€
After that, Kerry made â€œdismantleâ€ the objective in his prepared statement. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee December 11, Kerry said the US had been imposing sanctions on Iran â€œbecause we knew that [the sanctions] would hopefully help Iran dismantle its nuclear program.â€
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed Zarifâ€™s comment as â€œspinâ€ on Iranâ€™s commitments under the Joint Plan of Action â€œfor their domestic political purposesâ€.
He refused to say whether that agreement involved any â€œdismantlingâ€ by Iran, but confirmed that, â€œas part of that comprehensive agreement, should it be reached, Iran will be required to agree to strict limits and constraints on all aspects of its nuclear program to include the dismantlement of significant portions of its nuclear infrastructure in order to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the future.â€
But the State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, was much less categorical in a press briefing January 13: â€œWeâ€™ve said that in a comprehensive agreement, there will likely have to be some dismantling of some things.â€
That remark suggests that the Kerry and Carney rhetoric of â€œdismantlementâ€ serves to neutralize the Israel loyalists and secondarily to maximize US leverage in the approaching negotiations.
Kerry and other US officials involved in the negotiations know that Iran does not need to destroy any centrifuges in order to resolve the problem of â€œbreakoutâ€ to weapons grade enrichment once the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium disappears under the terms of the interim agreement.
Zarif had proposed in his initial power point presentation in October a scheme under which Iran would convert its entire stockpile of 20% enriched uranium into an oxide form that could only be used for fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor.
US officials who had previously been insistent that Iran would have to ship the stockpile out of the country were apparently convinced that there was another way to render it â€œunusableâ€ for the higher-level enrichment necessary for nuclear weapons. That Iranian proposal became the central element in the interim agreement.
But there was another part of Zarifâ€™s power point that is relevant to the remaining problem of Iranâ€™s stockpile of low-enriched uranium: Iranâ€™s planned conversion of that stockpile into the same oxide form for fuel rods for nuclear power plants as was used to solve the 20% stockpile problem.
And that plan was accepted by the United States as a way of dealing with additional low-enriched uranium that would be produced during the six-month period.
An element included in the Joint Plan of Action which has been ignored thus far states: â€œBeginning when the line for conversion of UF6 enriched up to 5% to UO2 is ready, Iran has decided to convert to oxide UF6 newly enriched up to 5% during the six-month period, as provided in the operational schedule of the conversion plant declared to the IAEA.â€
The same mechanism – the conversion of all enriched uranium to oxide on an agreed time frame – could also be used to ensure that the entire stockpile of low-enriched uranium could no longer be used for â€œbreakoutâ€ to weapons-grade enrichment without the need to destroy a single centrifuge. In fact, it would allow Iran to enrich uranium at a low level for a nuclear power programme.
The Obama administrationâ€™s rhetoric of â€œdismantlementâ€, however, has created a new political reality: the US news media has accepted the idea that Iran must â€œdismantleâ€ at least some of its nuclear programme to prove that it is not seeking nuclear weapons.
CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo was shocked by the effrontery of Zarif and Rouhani. â€œThatâ€™s supposed to be the whole underpinning of moving forward from the United States perspective,â€ Cuomo declared, â€œis that they scale back, they dismantle, all this stuff weâ€™ve been hearing.â€
Yet another CNN anchor, Wolf Blitzer, who was an official of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee before becoming a network journalist, called Zarifâ€™s statements â€œstunning and truly provocativeâ€, adding that they would â€œgive ammunitionâ€ to those in Congress pushing for a new sanctions bill that is clearly aimed at sabotaging the negotiations.
The Obama administration may be planning to exercise more diplomatic flexibility to agree to solutions other than demanding that Iran â€œdismantleâ€ large parts of its â€œnuclear infrastructureâ€.
But using such rhetoric, rather than acknowledging the technical and diplomatic realities surrounding the talks, threatens to create a political dynamic that discourages reaching a reasonable agreement and leaves them unresolved.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the US war in Afghanistan. His new book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, will be published in February 2014.