This is the fourth in a series of posts on an accidentally published interview with Iran’s Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. This interview was conducted by regime insiders, and was meant to be provided only to highly placed loyalists. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is an outlet whose head is hand-picked by Iran’s Supreme Leader, and which is made up of political elites of proven loyalty. The publication of this off-the-record interview provides insight into what Iran is telling its own elites about the deal and how it was crafted.
This part will investigate the claim that Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov mocked the P5+1 process for having been completely played by the Iranian negotiators. Here is the full version of his quote:
Critics of the nuclear deal point out that the stated purpose of negotiations with Iran was to dismantle all or significant parts of Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure to ensure it would not possess a nuclear weapons capability at any time. Yet the JCPOA requires no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and in fact commits the international community to helping Iran develop an industrial-scale nuclear power program, including industrial-scale enrichment. Confirming this is Araghchi’s statement that U.S. Secretary of State Kerry agreed not only to give Iran the right to enrich and move its nuclear program forward, but also to grant official recognition of even the commercial and industrial aspects of the program. Araghchi said this means that the Iranian nuclear program has been certified in its entirety.
Araghchi expanded on this point by quoting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov, who headed the Russian negotiating team. Reportedly, Rybakov said:
“I was telling my associates last night that these Iranians are truly geniuses. They came to get a green light for their enrichment program from the Security Council in exchange for what? In exchange for their sanctions to be lifted. Not only do they not give anything in exchange, but they receive something in exchange for what they receive! Their sanctions will be lifted and their enrichment will continue.”
According to this claim, Iran’s major goal in the negotiations was not to get the sanctions lifted — a key US assumption — but to get their enrichment program accepted by the international community. The terms of the final deal would satisfy this goal if they recognized Iran’s enrichment program as legitimate, rather than as a thing to be stopped because it was in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iran has arguably been in violation of the NPT for years, although the IAEA’s censure of Iran stops short of using the word “violation.” Under the treaty, Iran was obligated not to pursue nuclear technologies without consulting with the IAEA. Instead, it built a number of secret facilities and pursued enrichment on a clandestine basis. The existence of this program had been reported to the United States by Israel since the early 1990s, but was discounted by our intelligence agencies. Iran partially “revealed” its program in 2003, after its existence had been leaked to the National Council of Resisitance Iran, which made the program public. Because the IAEA could not be sure that all of Iran’s nuclear fuel was being used in peaceful purposes, and because of this history of clandestine work and deception, the United States’ initial goal for the negotiations included shutting down Iran’s enrichment program.
This is different from the claim that the goal was to shut down Iran’s entire nuclear program, which is a more debatable claim. The NPT would permit a nuclear program devoted to perfectly peaceful purposes, in accord with international oversight. What Obama has been committed to since 2007 was the dismantling of the uranium enrichment program. So the original goal of the Obama administration was to end the nuclear enrichment program in return for lifting sanctions. The Iranians wanted the enrichment program to be approved by the international community, even at the price of continuing with sanctions. The Russian claim is that the Iranians got both things: ‘they received something in exchange for what they received.’ If that is the case, the United States would seem to have failed spectacularly in its nuclear negotiations with Iran, in part because they did not understand their opponents. Our team thought it was negotiating an end to sanctions. In return, it ended up giving away the thing Iran wanted at the beginning of the process, and ended up negotiating an end to the sanctions as well.
This seems to be exactly what happened. The JCPOA signed by the P5+1 endorses an Iranian enrichment program. In fact, it compels the parties to the agreement besides Iran to assist Iran in upgrading and improving it program, as well as assisting Iran in protecting it from sabotage. The Washington Post editorial board describes the deal in this way:
THE “KEY parameters” for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program released Thursday fall well short of the goals originally set by the Obama administration. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities — including the Fordow center buried under a mountain — will be closed. Not one of the country’s 19,000 centrifuges will be dismantled. Tehran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium will be “reduced” but not necessarily shipped out of the country. In effect, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, though some of it will be mothballed for 10 years. When the accord lapses, the Islamic republic will instantly become a threshold nuclear state.
That’s a long way from the standard set by President Obama in 2012 when he declared that “the deal we’ll accept” with Iran “is that they end their nuclear program” and “abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place.” Those resolutions call for Iran to suspend the enrichment of uranium. Instead, under the agreement announced Thursday, enrichment will continue with 5,000 centrifuges for a decade, and all restraints on it will end in 15 years.
Having obtained all of that by the time of the April framework agreement, Iran was able to push harder on dismantling the sanctions regime in the final phases. They were so successful at this that they managed not only to dismantle the economic sanctions, but also the arms embargoes and restrictions on ballistic missiles. Indeed, if Araghchi’s remarks are accurate — and so far, they have stood up to investigation fairly well — it was the US team that offered to eliminate the heavy weapons and missile restrictions if only Iran would agree to the plan endorsing its nuclear enrichment program.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to doubt that the Rybakov quote as presented is completely accurate. While we have no other source to confirm that he said these very words, they are certainly a completely accurate description of the final state of affairs.