Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution to recent US overtures from Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, suggesting direct talks between the US and Iran over its nuclear enrichment program.
Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying, “The change of tone is necessary but not sufficient . . . Stop pointing weapons at the Iranian nation and I will myself negotiate with you . . .”
His statements come after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published a statement at his website last week, “I am not a diplomat but a revolutionary and I speak frankly . . . You (Americans) are pointing the gun at Iran and say either negotiate or we will shoot.”
What the two Iranian leaders seem to be saying is that they actually have two prerequisites for talks with the US. The first is that the US stop saying “all options are on the table,” i.e. menacing Iran with a military attack. Since the United Nations Charter does indeed forbid countries from threatening to attack their neighbors unilaterally and in circumstances other than direct self-defense, Iran is within its rights to make this demand. The other policy they seem to be insisting be changed before talks is the US financial blockade of Iran’s petroleum sales. The US has had Iran thrown off all the world’s major bank exchanges and is twisting the arms of all its petroleum importers to cease buying Iranian petroleum. At the same time, the US has behind the scenes plotted with Saudi Arabia to flood the world petroleum market with an extra two million barrels a day of oil, so as to hold Japan, South Korea and other buyers of Iranian petroleum harmless and give them an alternative supplier.
Ironically, Japan’s new right wing government is offering to help Saudi Arabia build nuclear power plants so that Saudis won’t use so much of their petroleum for electricity generation, freeing up more Saudi oil for Japanese drivers. Japan also wants guarantees from Riyadh on emergency oil supplies for the next 20 years. This step is all the more important because Japan wants to please the US Treasury and State Departments by getting off Iranian oil altogether.
Iran’s petroleum exports were cut by 40% in 2012 because of the US financial blockade, which is arguably tantamount to an act of war in international law. Iran’s oil exports jumped in December, 2012, because it is gradually finding a way around US sanctions. Thus, it is buying its own oil tankers from China, and insuring them itself, and selling the petroleum to China, which is refusing to cooperate with the US blockade. Its shipments were marked by delays, and finally reached China in December. But it may be that over time, Iran will get good at distributing its own oil. Likewise, it has worked out a deal with India to accept rupees, a soft currency, in payment. This step locks it into reciprocal trade with India, shifting its buying of import goods to that country and away from Europe. (In turn, European firms have suffered major losses from the end of Iranian imports, at a time when they can little afford it).
So I read Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to say that the US has to stop hinting around that it will bomb Iran out of the blue one day, and it has to stop the financial blockade of Iranian oil sales, if it really wants serious negotiations.
These proposals should be taken seriously, though obviously they are opening, maximal bids.
As long-time readers know, I don’t believe the Iranian regime actually wants a nuclear warhead. I conclude that it wants a Japan option or nuclear latency, i.e., the ability to have a nuclear deterrence in case it was mortally threatened.
I therefore believe it is ultimately possible for the US, Israel and Iran to avoid war and to come to a mutually agreeable compromise. Iran doesn’t need to enrich at above 5% (enough to fuel its nuclear reactors) or to keep much in the way of stockpiles enriched at 19.75% (enough for its medical, reactor, producing isotopes to treat cancer) if what it really wants is, say, to be able to throw together a low-megaton bomb at the last minute as invasion forces swarm toward its shores. It should be noted that Pakistan’s 14 low-megaton bombs were likely an important deterrent to an Indian attack in 2002, when the two countries almost went to war. Nuclear latency would be almost as much a deterrent as actually putting together a bomb, which is why Iran wants that capability.
In other words, Israel and the West are wrong in their analysis of Iran as a potential aggressor. The regime hasn’t invaded any neighbors and has no intention of doing so. Its nuclear enrichment program is for two purposes, to provide the deterrent of latency, and for the same reason that Japan suggested nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia– to preserve its petroleum as an export commodity rather than using it itself.
If sufficient inspection regimes can be implemented such that Iran’s pledges of not actually going for a nuclear warhead become credible to the US and Europe, then the crisis can be averted. The US should reply to Khamenei’s objections and move forward with an offer that if Iran will limit enrichment to 5% and avoid building extensive stockpiles of 19.75%-enriched uranium beyond what is needed for the medical reactor, it will take regime change off the table. The US loses nothing in so doing, since it cannot actually change the Tehran regime anyway, and since Obama clearly does not intend to bomb Iran. Since that is the case, why not admit it, if that is what it takes to make a historic diplomatic breakthrough.
Despite the apparent tough talk coming from Iran, what is really going on is a negotiation in which Tehran is raising the stakes. Obama still has the opportunity to open Iran as Nixon opened China. He should see their bid, and raise them a round table.