29 October, 2009

Iran deal wobbling

After postponing a decision that was supposed to come last Friday, today Iran seems to have further dampened expectations for a nuclear deal. The original deal - which Iran informally agreed to several weeks ago - was that the majority of Iran's nuclear materials would be shipped out of the country and returned in the form of non-weaponizable fuel rods. This would allow Iran to maintain its nuclear program and avoid further sanctions, while giving the coup government one less issue on its plate as it tries to tamp down ongoing internal opposition to the regime. And in the eyes of the international community, it would represent a temporary moratorium on Iran's nuclear weapons development, a window that would allow for further negotiations to develop.

Now, however, Iran has counter-proposed that their nuclear fuels only be shipped off in batches, and not beginning until they have actually received the incoming fuel rods, due to arrive in a years time. If this report is true, it would be unacceptable for the international community, since the primary benefit of the deal for the west would be the immediate removal of the nuclear materials from Iran's possession. This could be Iran's way of saying that the deal is off, or it could be a desperate, last minute negotiating ploy.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if the deal went either way. On balance, the deal is probably a bit better for the Iranians than it is for the western powers, whom I think are eager enough to engage Iran that they are willing to offer a generous opening bid. As it is currently structured, Iran makes no long term commitment and achieves several big benefits in exchange for one medium-sized cost - it gets fuel rods, the avoidance of further sanctions, and the high ground in exchange for a temporary delay in its nuclear capabilities. To my mind, it would make sense for the beleaguered Iranian ruling regime to cut this deal and kick the can down the road for a bit while they focus on internal affairs.

That said, governments do not always make the most rational decisions - especially governments as unstable and under as much pressure as this one appears to be. There could be various reasons why Khamenei backs away from a deal such as this. He may have calculated or he may have been assured that the Russians and the Chinese won't back harsher sanctions. He may think that harsher sanctions would actually rally support for the regime internally. He may be eager to test President Obama's reactions to Iranian gamesmanship. He may be especially wary of upsetting his hardline allies with anything that looks like he is selling out Iran's nuclear program to the west.

It could go either way at this point, but either way the result should be an interesting data point. Iran might back down and go along with deal, which could either signal a shrewd tactical retreat or a newfound willingness to deal with the outside world - or some measure of both. And if it happens that Iran has strung out western negotiators only to blow up the deal at the last moment, that might indicate that Zakaria is right that Iran is too committed to a confrontational stance and too devoted to its nuclear program to ever give it up. And whether or not these negotiations lead anywhere, the United States and its allies will both know more and be in a stronger position to act after having pursued them in good faith.

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