Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Accidentally Tells the Truth, Part One

Recently Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and a part of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, gave what was intended to be a secret interview with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.  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.  For that reason, the interview is an unguarded window into the world behind the carefully-crafted diplomatic fictions.

The first of these claims that we will investigate:  far from giving up the arms embargoes as a last-minute concession to Iran, it was the United States team led by John F. Kerry who suggested it.

As Araghchi explained in his off-the-record briefing…  “In the first days of the negotiations they expressed their readiness to immediately lift all financial and economic sanctions but that it was not possible to remove the arms embargo immediately. Hence, we responded that we will have no agreement at all if you cannot lift the arms embargo. We said we cannot deny arms to Hezbollah and we are not willing to sacrifice them for our nuclear program. Therefore, if you wish to keep the arms embargo as part of the deal, we will continue with our work. We had endless discussions over this issue … But at the end they themselves came and said that we will separate the agreement from the resolution. We will include the arms and missiles sanctions in the resolution so that breaking it would not be considered as breaking the agreement. The senior member of our negotiating team said the key to finalizing the deal was the separation of the agreement.”

This story differs from the official American story substantially.  It is not therefore to be discounted:  when the White House’s official “fact sheet” about the Framework differed from Iran’s, Iran’s fact sheet was far closer to the truth revealed by the final agreement than the official American one.  It is worth looking closely to see if that is likely to be the case here as well.

Officially, the arms embargoes — including both heavy weapons and ballistic missiles — were dropped because of heavy international pressure against the sole hold-out, the United States.  On this telling, every other country involved wanted an instantaneous zeroing of arms embargoes on Iran as a result of the signing of the P5+1 agreement.  The United States held out for all it could get, achieving so much that Politico titled its story on the matter, “How the Pentagon got its way in Iran deal.”

However, that story doesn’t hold up on several accounts.  First, the story itself gives the Pentagon’s actual terms:

Just days before the deal was inked in Vienna, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told a Senate committee that “we should under no circumstances relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.” His boss, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, similarly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we want them to continue to be isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kinds of equipment and material they are able to procure.”

Referring to Iran’s efforts to build long-range missiles, Carter added: “The reason that we want to stop Iran from having an ICBM program is that ‘I’ in ICBM stands for intercontinental, which means having the capability of flying from Iran to the United States.”

There is a significant difference between “under no circumstances relieve pressure” and the deal that was actually signed.  But the State Department went further in its defense of its concessions on the embargoes to Congress.  Before Congress, it claimed that the end of the embargoes represented a victory for American policy, and that the only purpose for the embargoes had been to bring Iran to the table on the nuclear deal.  An end to the embargoes was thus presented to Congress as the appropriate and natural consequence of closing a nuclear deal with Iran.

Furthermore, the language that Secretary Kerry negotiated with the Iranians is significantly looser than his speeches here at home have let on, a point first recognized by Senator Robert Menendez.  Senator Menendez noted that the new language merely “calls upon” Iran not to conduct ballistic missile tests or imports, rather than stating — as had older resolutions — that Iran “shall” not.  The language Kerry negotiated, which the Security Council passed before Congress was able to consider it, has prima facie already set Iran free from restrictions.  Iran has since confirmed Senator Menendez’s impression by declaring new ballistic missile tests designed to be “a thorn in the eye of our enemies” according to Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders.  President Rouhani has likewise said that Iran is not bound by any international restrictions on its ballistic missiles.

So the State Department’s defense of the concession does not fit the narrative that it fought for harsher restrictions against international pressure, and to favor Pentagon interests.  In fact, the State Department’s claim is that it accepts the end of any restrictions as the natural outcome of the process of reaching this deal.  Further, the “five” and “eight” year language appears to be a smokescreen for an international legal structure that has already fully gutted the restrictions on ballistic missiles.  John Kerry was directly involved in negotiating these terms, and either did not understand them or understands full well what he has done.

In the light of that, how plausible is the claim being made by Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi that these concessions were actually an American suggestion?  It is certainly not absurd.  If the State Department viewed these sanctions in the light in which they were presented to Congress, State might well have elected to sacrifice the sanctions to get the deal.  From their perspective, the only purpose the sanctions ever served was to get a deal.  Of course they would be willing to offer them up in exchange for a deal, and might well have proposed doing so.

What about the Secretary of State?  Again, he either did not understand the import of the language he negotiated, or he understands just what he has done.  If he did not understand, then it is quite plausible that he offered what he thought was a stricter deal and was simply played by a more clever Iranian negotiations team.  If he did understand, he simply shared the view that the sanctions were always intended to be sacrificed for a deal.  If that is the case, though, why,  the talk of “five” or “eight” years of non-existent restrictions?  That is a question that the Secretary should be required to answer.  One possibility suggests itself.  If Araghchi’s description is accurate, his team explicitly couched their willingness to walk away from the deal if they did not receive a concession on ballistic missiles in terms of protecting Hezbollah.  The Kerry team may have decided they needed the deal, but could not admit to an American Congress that they took steps to help Iran protect Hezbollah.  The nonbinding language might have been intended to act as a smokescreen to deceive the Congress by making them believe that Iran would be controlled for some period of time.  If that is the case, it is a very serious matter.