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June 2, 2022
News Analysis: Debate Over Iran Shifts Away From Attack
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Michael Adler

Debate over how to rein in Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons shifted away from talk of war after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard out U.S. President Barack Obama in a crucial summit in Washington on March 5.

Obama came into the meeting saying “loose talk of war” should stop and that “an opportunity remains for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed.” Netanyahu appeared to agree that the campaign of sanctions rather than military action would be the offensive for now. He did not repeat Obama’s line, but neither did he dispute it. During their joint public appearance at the White House, Obama said, “I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically.”

The two leaders kept up the threat, however, which was apparently part of an understanding to get the more attack-minded Israel to go along with the U.S. drive for diplomacy. Ahead of the summit, Obama had told a meeting of more than 10,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbying group on March 4 that “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.… I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Obama and Netanyahu made clear that Israel was sovereign to decide when to defend itself. Netanyahu told AIPAC after his meeting with Obama that Israel “deeply appreciate[s] the great alliance between our two countries. But when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.” Netanyahu said there was no doubt that Iran was working to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and that Israel could not “afford to wait much longer” to stop this.

The emphasis, however, was on talking to rather than bombing Iran. “We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” Obama told the press, sitting alongside Netanyahu at their joint appearance just before they went behind closed doors for their meeting.

Israel seemed to have accepted the U.S. estimate that the time available to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon was longer than appeared from all the talk about Iranian capabilities. Iran claims its nuclear program is a strictly peaceful effort to generate electricity, but the United States and other nations fear Iran is hiding a weapons program.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) laid out this timeline in a report released March 5, the day of the summit. “No evidence has emerged that the [Iranian] regime has decided to take the final step and build nuclear weapons,” said the report. It clarified recent statements by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that Iran could build a crude nuclear bomb in perhaps as short a time frame as a year. The ISIS report said that although Iran could “build a nuclear device suitable for underground detonation or crude delivery in about one year,” this is far short of putting a nuclear warhead on top of a missile or building an arsenal of several such weapons.

Diplomacy and Sanctions

This leaves time for diplomacy as well as for squeezing Iran. Iran is facing sanctions by the United States and the European Union that target its oil sales and increasingly hinder its access to international banking and financing. On March 15, the EU issued new sanctions prohibiting European firms from using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the world’s primary means for international financial transactions, for business with some 30 Iranian banks. The goal is to make Iran increasingly isolated, forcing it finally to strike a deal on its nuclear program in order to save its economy.

The hope is that all this pressure will lead to negotiations. The Obama-Netanyahu summit was followed a day later by a letter in which Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who speaks for the six world powers negotiating with Tehran, accepted an Iranian proposal for restarting talks. Ashton’s letter capped a tortuous back-and-forth between her and the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to resume talks that had broken down in January 2011 at a failed meeting in Istanbul. Ashton had told Iran in October on behalf of the so-called P5+1 countries that “concerns about the nature of your nuclear program, as reflected in IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] reports” should be the key topic of discussion. The six-country group is known as the P5+1 because it includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany.

Jalili answered in February, agreeing on the need for “step by step…sustainable cooperation” while emphasizing Iran’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (See ACT, March 2012.) Ashton said in her March 6 letter that dialogue should be aimed at producing “concrete results.” She said negotiations should avoid “the experience of Istanbul,” where talks had broken off due to a lack of give-and-take.

Thus in March, two of the key factors driving the Iranian nuclear crisis had become more defined: the dual-track policy overseen by the United States to apply pressure on Iran in order to convince Tehran to talk and the actual negotiating process shepherded by Ashton and Jalili.

There were also significant developments in March in a third key factor—the IAEA investigation of Iran’s nuclear program. At an IAEA meeting in Vienna, Director-General Yukiya Amano said his agency “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.” Amano complained that Iran was not giving the agency access to the Parchin testing grounds, where nuclear-related military work is suspected.

Standoff Over Parchin

The IAEA was drawing a line in the sand over a Parchin visit. Amano said in an interview on March 9 with The Daily Beast/Newsweek that the IAEA would not back off from its demand to inspect in Parchin, even if this escalated the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. “We’ll pursue this objective until there’s a concrete result,” Amano said. The veteran Japanese diplomat has proven to be increasingly tough on Iran since taking over the IAEA in December 2009.

“We don’t see the reason why they cannot grant us access to Parchin. It is a military site, but we can work out or manage access,” he said. Amano said the standoff over getting to this test site “has become like a symbol” of Iran’s alleged weapons work and its refusal to be transparent with the international community. He said the agency would “continue to focus on Parchin.”

IAEA inspectors had visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing suspicious, but as Amano said, “that time we didn’t have enough information.” Now the information, some reportedly coming as intelligence from IAEA member-state governments, is better; “so to start with [a new round of inspections], we thought that Parchin was a good selection,” Amano said.

The IAEA wants to visit a specific site at this sprawling military testing area where it thinks there is a metal cylinder that is 19 meters long, 4.6 meters in diameter, reinforced in the center with concrete, and where explosive experiments may have taken place on how to trigger nuclear explosions. The IAEA’s sense of urgency is heightened by satellite images of activity at Parchin that could be related to cleaning up traces of any tests. These tests may have used natural uranium to try out a nuclear trigger that would compact the core of a bomb with an explosion, or perhaps a neutron initiator, which explodes from inside the core to enhance a chain reaction. Any of these would have been a “dry run” without setting off a chain reaction. Yet, proving they utilized even natural uranium would be a “smoking gun” destroying Iran’s claim that it has used nuclear material only for peaceful ends.

Iran rejected charges that what the satellites were showing was an effort to clean up the Parchin site. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters in Tehran on March 13 that uranium traces cannot be cleaned up, as tiny particles would remain after any effort to sanitize an area. He insisted that only “conventional military” activities were carried out at Parchin.

Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh told reporters in Vienna on March 8 that his country was willing to discuss allegations that it has done nuclear weapons research, as outlined extensively in an IAEA report last November, and was open to granting access to Parchin. He warned about politicizing the issue, however, and said the IAEA must first agree with Iran on a plan for proceeding on all the issues, something the two sides have so far failed to do.

Other developments showed that diplomacy just might have a chance. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei departed from his normally virulent and dismissive tone when speaking of the United States to greet Obama’s comments that diplomacy and not war was on the agenda by saying, “These words are good words and an exit from delusion.” Israeli officials reportedly now agree with Washington that Tehran has not yet made a decision to build a nuclear bomb.

This leaves the upcoming meeting of the P5+1 with Iran, expected in mid-April but not officially announced at the time Arms Control Today went to press, as a crucial test of whether the “window of opportunity” for striking a deal with Iran will open wider or slam shut.