Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Iran’s Sincerity in Nuclear Talks

Farideh Farhi

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.


Unknown said...

The insistence on linking Iran's restart of enrichment to Ahmadinejad's election is a ploy by the Right. Here are the facts: Iran suspended enrichment as a voluntary, good faith gesture under the terms of the Tehran Declaration and Paris Agreement. In return the EU-3 was supposed to present Iran with an offer of negotiations process that would recognize Iran's rights, including the right to enrich. This temporary suspension was supposed to last only 6 months by the EU-3 dragged it out to 2 years and started implying that Iran was obligated to end enrichment permanently. When Iran pressed the EU to make their offer, they refused. So IRan -- UNDER KHATAMI -- announced the decision to restart enrichment. They delayed the actual restart of enrichment for a period of months to allow time for the IAEA to reinstall monitoring cameras at the facilities, and so the actual restart of enrichment happened to coincide with Ahmadinejad's election. However, Iran's restart of enrichment was NOT attributable to Ahmadinejad nor his election. The bottom line is that Iran showed flexibility by suspending enrichment -- and was cheated blind.

BF said...

One of the major problems with these so-called "Think Tanks" (hereafter TT) — such as American Enterprise Institute (AEI) — that have mushroomed all over the place, is that they are not bound by the principles that govern the workings of the scholarly and academic institutions. Almost all, if not all, of the "publications" of the Fellows of these TTs seem to consist of newspaper and magazine articles, which are not peer-reviewed and are (almost?) never retracted when they are shown to be nothing more than compilations of half-truths at best, and blatant lies at worst. Such articles, as the present one by Dr Michael Rubin, would amount to a professional suicide for persons working in Academia or those aspiring academic careers. If Dr Rubin worked at an academic institution, he would have dissipated any chance of obtaining a future Research Grant after having been shown not to be capable of translating accurately and reliably some utterly simple sentences from a language that he purports to know,* a fact amply demonstrated by Professor Farhi in her present article; the possibility that he knew better but mistranslated the sentences at issue for ulterior reasons, would certainly cost him his academic position (if he had one) on account of academic misconduct.

It is an unmitigated disgrace that our politicians in particular should be guided by the likes of Dr Michael Rubin. If I were Dr Michael Rubin, I would do the only honourable thing at my disposal: retract the article at issue from The Wall Street Journal with an unqualified apology to the readers for having misled them.


* Of course, as Professor Farhi has also indicated, it is not necessary that Dr Rubin should know Persian, or any other language for that matter. However, as the article at issue is published under Dr Rubin's sole name, he has implicitly accepted the full responsibility for, amongst others, the accuracy of the translations that he has employed. The matter is extremely serious in the case at hand where the entire (shaky) structure raised by Dr Rubin is placed on the foundation of the "translations" at issue; without these "translations", Dr Rubin had nothing to write about.

Anonymous said...

The wanton destructiveness of the likes of Michael Rubin knows no bounds. These are the continual advocates of war and war crimes.

Unknown said...

In some writing by such "Iran experts" it is also added (in an orientalist and essentialist manner) that Iranians are not sincere b/c they believe, as Shia, in "taqiyeh." And, there is always the difference between Iranian's inner intentions and their outer appearances ("baaten" vs. "zaaher"). m.

BF said...

Dear Farideh,

I have been thinking about your present Comment over the course of the past day and hereby wish warmly to recommend you to submit this Comment to e.g. The Guardian — the latter has a lively and very widely-read "Comment is free" section, in particular concerning Iran, as one can see here. I sincerely believe that the cause of justice is served far better through exposing the contents of your excellent Comment to a wider readership than that of Informed Comment: Global Affairs.

Kind regards,


wow gold said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
wmmbb said...

Good faith applies for both sides, and let us suppose that the principle sides, as distinct from the parties to the negotiations, are Iran and the US. I would like to believe that the Americans are acting with good faith. So what has the American Government been able to demonstrate to Iran in terms of positive deeds of good faith? Similarly for the EU, and importantly so too for Israel. Will they agree, for example, to dismantle their nuclear arsenal?

Anonymous said...

I think the best way to objct to the injustice of Islamic republic is using GANDHI"S ' STRATEGY . Peace and non violence or " Non-REACTION".

If all the people who voted for Moosavo wear "WHITE CLOTHING "
( reminder of peace to themselves and to the worlds" and walk in the streets around the world while holding the feeling of PEACE and freedom in their HEARTS. THIS WAY WE ARE USING THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE IN THE UNIVERSE. Then watch the effect of this divine energy all over the world !!!!! By feeling the peace inside of us, we will bring it out to the physical.... " BE THe CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN TH E WORLD, Gandhi "

Islamic republic might be able to hide te number of votes but this way they CAN NOT hide the number of people in the streets . Gandhi's strategy is a higher conscousness way to deal with any injustic.

If you agree please forward this to all Iranian BLOGS , Twitters, etc....

Thank you...Elham