Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute had a piece in the Wall Street Journal on April 12 that really got me wondering about the extent to which opponents of U.S. engagement with Iran are willing to twist the truth to make their case against US-Iran talks.
Reflecting on the history of nuclear negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran, Rubin finds the Iranians to have been as “insincere as European diplomats were greedy, gullible or both. Why? Because Iranian negotiators of all colors have proven to be committed to Iran’s nuclear program!! He identifies this as Iranian insincerity.
But, ironically, the only insincerity that I see reflected in the WSJ piece is the author's!
What do I mean? Well, let's start with the public consistency of the Iranian government's position on its nuclear program. One doesn’t have to agree with Iran’s nuclear program to acknowledge that from day one, Tehran has said publicly that it will not agree to the permanent suspension of its enrichment or enrichment-related programs. Even when it suspended its program in 2004-5, it said it would do so only temporarily and for the purpose of building confidence.
Perhaps people have forgotten the trajectory of the EU-Iran negotiations but, as explained here, 2004 negotiations in Paris were only saved when the Europeans agreed to change the language demanding suspension and instead used the language of "objective guarantees" regarding the peacefulness of Iran's program. If others thought that this was a bargaining ploy or something else, it was not because of lack of consistency or sincerity on the part of the Iranian negotiators.
Now let's turn to Michael Rubin. He uses two quotes in his piece to make his point that to me are highly questionable. The first one is from Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, government spokesman during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. The quote is drawn from a reporting of a debate between the reformist Ramezanzadeh and a hard-liner by Fars News, which should never be relied upon in its reportage of what reformists say in public debates because its reports are clearly slanted towards the hard-line right.
Even assuming that Fars News is engaged in accurate reporting, the way Rubin takes the quote out of context manages to change the meaning of it. This is how Rubin translates the quote:
“We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities.”
The clear implication that Rubin wants the reader to draw is that Khatami’s government was "trying to lull the West into a false confidence so that Iran could pursue illicit nuclear activities." In fact, the words I have placed in quotation marks here are Rubin's exact words in an old post in the National Review's Corner blog about Ramezanzadeh's quote.
Rubin makes a couple of subtle changes in the translation but, more importantly, what Rubin does not report are Ramezanzadeh’s prior sentences which make it clear that by other activities he is still talking about a civilian program. This is the full context of Ramezanzadeh’s quote:
“If we want the right to nuclear energy for the bomb, then it is clear that the world doesn’t want this. But if we want it for electricity, they say you don’t have a nuclear power plant, why do you want the fuel? Just take a look at what the Russians have done to us over the Bushehr power plant? With the current speed of enrichment it will take us 25 years to reach enrichment self-sufficiency. Even then, from where are we going to get our fuel? [The extent of] our reserves are not even unclear. The solution is to prove to the world that we want the power plant for electricity and then begin other activities.”
In fact, anyone with little knowledge of Iran’s domestic discourse on nuclear issues should know that the idea of a nuclear program beyond a civilian one simply does not have a place in public conversations. The Iranian government has been successful in selling the idea of enrichment precisely because it has always maintained that it is pursuing a civilian program, a "right" made possible by NPT, and no illicit activities.
So for Michael Rubin to imply that Ramezanzadeh was saying something beyond that Iran should "prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity" - a statement in support of the act of confidence building embarked upon during the Khatami era - is simply disingenuous.
Even more disingenuous is what Rubin does with the interview of Iran's former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani. In response to a question about his failures as a negotiator, Rowhani discusses Iran's strategy for 10 long paragraphs. Rubin takes isolated and out of context sentences – even half-sentences - from different paragraphs, weaves them together as though these were sequential sentences and makes it seem as though Rowhani was making an argument for Iran’s deceptive approach during negotiations.
In fact, Rowhani says that Iran suspended because there was an international consensus against Iran and because the negotiators were led to believe the Europeans were going to negotiate in good faith and that the Americans were interested in a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. He also says that he made abundantly clear to the Europeans that permanent suspension was out of the question and Iran came out of suspension not under Ahmadinejad but under Khatami (which is an often forgotten fact).
Now I fully understand Rubin's position regarding US-Iran talks, even if I disagree with it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, as it is often said but misrepresentation is another story.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Rubin's Persian is not very good (or his translators are not very good). For instance, in his reaction to one of Roger Cohen's pieces in NYT, Rubin writes in the National Review Corner blog:
"One of Cohen’s interlocutors, at least according to his February 5, 2009 column, was former IRGC Chief Mohsen Rezai. Here is Rezai in today’s Iranian press: “Our enmity with the U.S. has no end." Cohen painted him as a bit more reasonable."
Rezaie in fact said exactly the opposite, using a double negative. He said: "Our enmity with the U.S. is not without end"!
So mistakes can be made in translation. But what Rubin does with Rowhani’s and Ramezanzadeh’s quotes suggests that something more than a mistake is going on.
Iran and the United States are about to begin serious rounds of talks about Iran’s nuclear program. At the center of the controversy is Iran’s enrichment program, which is a civilian program. Iran’s interlocutors have so far taken a "zero-option" position demanding Iran to suspend all enrichment and enrichment-related activities for the fear that this civilian program will give Iran the ability to build a weapons program.
Iran, in turn, has consistently and publicly said it will not suspend its program permanently under any circumstances. It said so during Khatami administration and it is saying so today.
There is an exclusivity of positions and a deep conflict here that may or may not be resolved or compromised over in the future talks because, even though the Obama Administration has given up suspension as a precondition for talks, it is not yet clear whether it is prepared to give suspension up as negotiation objective in exchange for more intrusive inspections and some limits on Iranian program.
But the reason the Obama administration is finally coming to the table is not because it is not aware of this deep conflict of positions or it is gullible enough to be misled by Iran's deceptive diplomatic maneuvers, as Rubin seems to suggest. Rather it is changing course because more than half a decade of useless diplomatic wrangling with frequent deadlines and red lines, repeatedly crossed by Iran, have not been effective.
Iran is now spinning more centrifuges, has continued work on its heavy water plant, while the international community’s inspection regime, even though still in line with Iran’s treaty obligations, has become less extensive mainly because Iran has stopped implementing the Additional Protocol that it used to implement voluntarily before its case was referred to the Security Council.
In fact, a case can easily be made that the gullible and insincere folks in this process were the ones who refused to face reality and kept claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that deadlines and red lines, military threats and economic pressures, will work despite repeated straight-forward statements by Iranian officials of all hue that they will not.
Misrepresentations of the Iranian position seem to be the only munitions left in defending a failed policy.