February 28, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 941

Is There Room For Agreement Between The Obama Administration And Tehran In Nuclear Talks?

February 28, 2013 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 941

"Neither East nor West – Islamic Republic!"
- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini


This paper discusses the question of whether there are any areas of agreement between the Obama administration and Tehran on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Presumably, there are. On the one hand, Tehran claims that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and that all it is demanding is recognition of its right to enrich uranium as well as recognition that it is a threshold state according to the German-Japanese model.[1] On the other hand, the Obama administration's objections to a nuclear Iran are limited to the development of a nuclear bomb, but not to nuclear threshold state status provided that Iran meets the requisite conditions – that is, implementation of the Additional Protocol, true oversight, and the like – and that it does not cross the threshold.[2]

However, even if we accept the mistaken assumption that Iran seeks only threshold status – mistaken because of the ever-growing evidence that it is persisting in its development of nuclear weapons and that for this reason it will not accept true oversight – there still, in our assessment, remains no area of agreement between the sides.

The following are the reasons why this is the case.

The Conflict With The West Is Not Just About The Nuclear Issue

As far as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is concerned, the conflict with the West is not only, or even primarily, about the nuclear issue. In Iran's agenda, the conflict with the West is multidimensional.

Supreme Leader Khamenei's main aim is to obtain immunity for his regime from any attack by the West. His secondary aim is to upgrade Iran's status regionally and globally, to that of a power equal to the world's superpowers – all of which are nuclear.

These two intertwined goals form the basis and essence of Iran's ideological-strategic perception. Iran rejects the West's view that it is a secondary player and of lesser importance and power in the global and regional arena.

In this context, the nuclear issue is only one element in the overall conflict, and it serves as a springboard for Iran to achieve the above goals. Attaining threshold-state status is the means by which Iran strives to do this.

Iran Will Not Negotiate Directly One-On-One With The U.S. Unless Its Status Is Equal To That Of The U.S.

Furthermore, Iran will not negotiate directly and one-on-one with the U.S. unless its status is considered equal to that of the U.S., and unless there are no U.S. preconditions, such as sanctions. For this reason, Iran is demanding, as the first condition for negotiating with the U.S., the removal of all sanctions against it.[3]

While Iran does want negotiations with the 5+1, in the framework of these negotiations its first demand is the removal of sanctions; these negotiations must also cover a broad range of topics and global conflicts, as befits a superpower like Iran, in addition to the nuclear issue. Thus, Iran is demanding a response to its counterproposals to the 5+1, which always include a broad range of global issues.

The problem, according to Tehran, is not its own nuclear program, but the nuclear weapons of the Western powers – first and foremost the U.S., which has used them, and Israel. Iran insists that the entire process should be reciprocal and simultaneous, meaning that instead of unilateral demands by the international community for Iran to restrict its uranium enrichment, there are mutual demands that both sides must meet at the same time.

Accordingly, even between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei there is no area of agreement. For Tehran, the nuclear talks, which it seeks to prolong, are aimed at achieving several goals: a) Buying time to advance its nuclear program and to establish its nuclear achievements; b) Establishing its international strategic status as the one state standing against the 5+1 without backing down from any of its positions; and c) Forcing the West to accept it as another world nuclear superpower – to this end, as it presents its negotiation positions, it simultaneously expands the scope of its nuclear activities; recently, it activated the plutonium track in addition to its uranium enrichment track, and stated that in the future Iran may need enrichment to levels of 50% or even 90%.[4]

* A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project at MEMRI; Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] In a February 2005 visit to Berlin, Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi proposed the Japanese/German model as the basis for Iran-EU negotiations. In a meeting with German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Kharrazi elaborated on Iran's perspective on how to resolve the dispute with the EU3: "Peaceful nuclear plants in Germany and Japan can serve as a good model for Iran's nuclear projects, and serve as the basis for any round of talks in that respect." IRNA, Iran, February 17, 2005. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 209, Iran Seeks EU Consent for Modeling Its Nuclear Program on the 'Japanese/German Model' – i.e. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Capabilities Three Months Short of a Bomb, February 23, 2005. Also, at a May 2009 joint press conference with Japanese foreign minister Hirofumi Nakasone, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki called for implementing the Japanese nuclear model in Iran as well, saying, "The view that exists about Japan's nuclear activities should be applied to other countries including Iran." Mottaki reiterated that Iran's nuclear activities were "legal and peaceful," and said, "Japan spent many years to build confidence about its nuclear work. Iran is moving on a similar path… During the confidence-building years, Japan was never obliged to suspend its (nuclear) activities." Iran Daily, Iran, May 4, 2009. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 513, Iran Foreign Minister: The Japanese Nuclear Model Applies To Us Too, May 7, 2009.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 888, Iran Becomes A Nuclear Threshold State, October 5, 2012.

[3] Official Iranian representatives, as well as analysts and figures who present the Iranian regime's position, demand that the U.S. stop its subversive operations against the Iranian regime and its funding of these operation; see statements by Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Mohammad Khazaei on Iran's conditions for talks with the U.S. – that they should be held on an equal basis, that the sanctions should be removed, and that the U.S. should be committed to the survival of the Iranian regime. ISNA, Iran, February 22, 2013; see also The Ayatollah Contemplates Compromise, by Mehdi Khalaji, Washington Institute, May 9, 2012, and MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 837, Khamenei's Aim at the Nuclear Talks – Securing the Survival of His Regime, May 18, 2012.

[4] See two recent statements on this matter: Majlis National Security Committee chairman Boroujerdi said, "Perhaps in the future we will need a higher percentage of enrichment, for example, for ships that will need enrichment to 40%-50%, not 20%." Al-Alaam TV, Iran, February 24, 2013. Also, the Kayhan daily, which is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated: "Iran is entitled to enrich uranium not only to the level of 20% but also to the level of 90%." Kayhan, Iran, February 26, 2013. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 885, Tehran Declares Intent To Enrich Uranium To 90% For Military Purposes – Nuclear Submarines, September 27, 2012.

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