Iran Boxed In Domestically on Nuclear Negotiations

There are probably still a few more twists and turns ahead, but for now it seems as if Iran has backed out of the draft agreement to ship its enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment and processing into fuel rods. I mentioned last week that the Iranian political consensus that saw no real satisfactory options in the negotiations mirrored the view from Western capitals, and presented the makings of a mutually sub-optimal deal. But this, from the NY Times, seems to suggest that the Iranian government’s domestic room for maneuver might be even more limited than that of the Western governments it is negotiating with:

[Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] did not address Iran’s efforts to change the deal, but cast it asa victory for Iranian steadfastness against the West. “A few years ago,they said we had to completely stop all our nuclear activities,” Mr.Ahmadinejad said. “Now, look where we are today. Now, they want nuclearcooperation with the Iranian nation.”

In fact, the Iraniansfound something to like in the Vienna deal. It essentially acknowledgedtheir right to use low-enriched uranium that Iran produced in violationof three Security Council agreements. The Obama administration and itsallies were willing to create that precedent because the material wouldbe returned to Iran in the form of fuel rods, usable in a civiliannuclear plant but very difficult to convert to weapons use.

The article references a “political uproar” in Tehran in response to the deal, which is sobering. Because if Ahmadinejad could not generate the political support for a deal that essentially represents an enormous Iranian victory, it’s hard to see how he can realistically “get to yes” on any agreement that’s even remotely acceptable to the West.

The concern expressed by the Iranians opposed to the deal — namely, that the West could not be trusted to return the enriched uranium — might seem at first glance like paranoia. But in all fairness, the West’s record is pretty spotty when it comes to past nuclear agreements with Tehran. And in all honesty, once in the West’s — and especially France’s — possession, the uranium would effectively serve as a sort of hostage limiting the Iranians’ liberty of action. From the West’s perspective, that’s a good thing, since the premium it places on cooperation as opposed to provocation is the guiding logic behind a multilateral solution to the standoff.

But to an Iranian government that routinely uses hostage-taking as a negotiating method, the idea clearly has an unsettling aspect.