What’s Really at Stake in the Impasse Over Centrifuges—Hillary Mann Leverett on the Iran Nuclear Talks
Earlier this week, Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat to discuss the Iran nuclear talks; click on video above or see here. In her segment, she focused on what really drives the divide between Tehran and the Western members of the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, and France) over Iranian enrichment—namely, the clash between the Islamic Republic’s commitment to strategic independence and Western powers’ determination that Tehran must accept their directives regarding implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the dynamics of Middle Eastern power politics. As Hillary notes,
“There has been progress on some significant issues—but this fundamental issue about enrichment is critically important. It gets to not just the number of centrifuges…The issue is really a question of independence.
Iran is fiercely devoted to its independence. That’s what the Islamic Revolution was all about—for Iran to be independent of foreign powers—and it wants this civilian nuclear program as part of its program for independence. So it needs to not dismantle any of its current infrastructure—which includes about 10,000 operating centrifuges—and to increase it, to a have full-fledged civilian nuclear power program.
The United States wants just the opposite. The United States has finally come around, after more than ten years of pounding its fist on the table, to admitting that maybe Iran could have a symbolic program—but that Iran needs to remain dependent on other countries…Not only does this go against the very principles of the revolution in Iran, for independence, but, in fact, Iran tried that. They bought fuel from Argentina, until the United States got angry and forced Argentina to cut it off. And they were part of a project called Eurodif, where Iran bought ten percent of that project, and then they were cut off.
So that’s the fundamental divide—whether to keep Iran dependent on the international community, or to allow them to be independent. That is going to be a very difficult bridge to cross…It’s not a matter of time; it’s a matter of mentality.”
Of course, official Washington’s hegemonic mentality—and its accompanying pretensions—are increasingly at odds with the actual distribution of power in an evolving international order. In part, this reflects the declining utility of America’s military might; to paraphrase a line from that timeless study in the exercise of power (and classic Hollywood blockbuster film), The Godfather, “the United States doesn’t even have that kind of muscle anymore—and can’t really use that much of what it still has.” As Hillary elaborates, that’s an important reason the United States is negotiating, however reluctantly, with Iran:
“It’s interesting that President Obama has refrained…since January of this year, from saying that all options are on the table, for two reasons. One, I think, in terms of allowing the negotiations to go forward, is to take the military option off the table as an offensive rhetorical device against the Iranians.
But part of this is real. This is something that, from all my trips to Iran, I understood. The Supreme Leader there, security and political analysts there, realized a few years ago that after America’s failed interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, we don’t have the military option on the table, and that gives room for negotiations.
So, even though I’m not optimistic there’s going to be a deal, a comprehensive deal either today or in four months (the new deadline), I do think that there’s enough incentive on both sides to continue negotiations for a very long time. And you may see in September, when the United Nations convenes in New York, you may see not only continued intensive negotiations of high-level officials, but potentially even a President Obama-President Rohani meeting—not to actually seal the deal, but to inject enough momentum to keep things going past the November congressional elections and continue to kick this can down the road.”
Hillary is similarly skeptical about the prospects for a unilateral Israeli attack against Iran:
“Even though a tragically high number of Palestinians have been killed in this current conflict [in Gaza], there is a bit of exposure of the emperor wearing no clothes, that the Israelis are not able to defeat HAMAS in Gaza. And the Iranians certainly see the Israelis having no clothes, that they don’t have the technical capability to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. With that, there is, again, more time for negotiations.”
Beyond the purely military dimension of America’s relative decline, the rising influence of non-Western powers—China, Russia, and, in the Middle East itself, Iran—has also helped push the United States into multilateral nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic. As Hillary explains, that’s an important reason the P5+1 is negotiating with Iran:
“The world has changed in the past ten years. Ten years ago, when the United States would say that the U.S., Israel, France, and Britain were ‘the international community,’ nobody really made that much noise. Today, they do. So today, the United States has to take the views of, particularly, Russia and China very squarely into account. They have to be at the table, and they have to buy into what the political and security order is going to look like in the Middle East—not just how many centrifuges Iran is going to have. That’s why we have the negotiations.”
Yet, even though it has been pushed into multilateral nuclear negotiations with Iran, the United States continues to take hegemonically assertive positions in the talks. Take Washington’s positions on the duration of a prospective final agreement, the number of centrifuges Iran should be “allowed” to operate under a final agreement, and limiting Iran’s alleged “breakout” capability. As Hillary describes,
“The United States wants at least a ten-year, and they’re gunning really for a twenty-year deal. That has nothing to do with proliferation. That has to do with their wanting to outwait the Supreme Leader, the Supreme Leader’s life…so that the Islamic Republic has, in their view, a prospect of collapsing into a more pro-American political order.
The Iranians are not buying into that…they’re focused more on what their practical needs are, based on when they have contracts or prospective contracts for nuclear plants, when they need the fuel, and how much fuel they need.
That gets into the number of centrifuges—and, again, this is where the Supreme Leader has spoken about numbers that are much greater than the Americans are willing to consider at this point. But he’s focused on what are the practical needs—the practical needs as told to him by the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, who (guess what) has his Ph.D. from MIT here in the United States, and who knows what he’s doing.
So [the Iranians] are really talking about a practical needs-based approach, based on a sovereign country pursuing a technical, practical program. The United States is focused on power and influence, and on maintaining a pro-American political and security order in the Middle East…
The so-called ‘breakout issue’ is also a lot of smoke and mirrors. Again, it’s aimed at limiting Iran’s domestic, indigenous, sovereign capacity to pursue this program.
If the United States and its so-called partners were really interested in proliferation, they would accept the Iranian deal, which is to convert all—not some, but all—their enriched uranium into oxide, into powder to make into fuel. All of it. You’d solve the proliferation issue overnight, but the United States isn’t interested in that…We’re interested in constraining capacity, to constrain Iran’s power—its rising power, particularly in the Middle East—at a very volatile time for the United States.”
Hillary goes on to discuss the strategic imperative for the United States to pursue “Nixon-to-China”-style rapprochement with the Islamic Republic—and, in the process, “to change America’s strategy from one of dominance and hegemony in the Middle East to one that is a balance of power, that recognizes and deals with all the critical powers as they are, not as we would like to transform the Middle East.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett