Iranian Crisis: The Run-Up To Negotiation

On the eve of the first formal negotiations between America and Iran in 30 years, there's been a flurry of activity on all sides. Especially so since the sides include the other parties to negotiation -- Britain, France, China, Germany, and Russia -- as well as Israel.

All this comes on the heels of last Friday's dramatic announcement by President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy of the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear facility. The facility was only disclosed, in vague terms, in an Iranian communication with the UN's nuclear agency as the Obama Administration was briefing foreign governments about its existence.

The Obama Administration is planning sanctions against Iran's energy, telecommunications, and finance sectors if it's not satisfied with negotiations.

What we see in the flurry of activity since then is Iran putting out decidedly mixed messages, and perhaps playing for time. And, apparently, and I do mean apparently, the American intelligence services lagging behind the European intelligence services and, naturally, Mossad, in seeing war-like intent in the Iranian nuclear program.

Let's start there. According to the New York Times, and other sources, it's not the CIA and other American intelligence services pushing the idea that Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program. It is, instead, MI-6, DGSE, BND, and Mossad. The intelligence services, respectively, of Britain, France, Germany, and Israel. The French, according to the Times, even say that the International Atomic Energy Agency has information about the Iranian program it's not sharing.

What about the Russians? They supposedly were shocked to learn of the new Iranian nuclear facility. Which is a bit hard to believe. But they're not happy about it, either. Just how unhappy we are going to learn.

This intelligence debate, with Americans the skeptics, generally flips the pre-Iraq War debate on its head.

On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, following the revelation of its previously undisclosed nuclear facility, Iran fired off a variety of missiles, some of which it says can reach Israel and US bases in the Middle East.

Of course, it may be misdirection. Since it's the Americans who are driving big power global concern about the Iranian program.

Still, there is the existing National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program from 2007. The one which pulled the rug out from under Rudy Giuliani's then front-running, neoconservative-backed presidential campaign. The one that said that Iran is not embarked on a nuclear weapons program.

Here's where semantics come into play. Is Iran on a path to nuclear weapons-capable technology? Yes. Is it producing nuclear weapons? No. Does it intend to produce nuclear weapons? Mixed signals from Iran. How far off might an Iranian nuclear weapon be? That's the question.

The British intelligence service says that Iran has been secretly designing a nuclear warhead since late 2004 or early 2005, according to today's report in the Financial Times. The FT reports on documents on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, ordering the resumption of Iran's nuclear weapons program in "late 2004 or early 2005." The lack of specificity about the date is worrisome, perhaps to protect a source, perhaps because they don't really know.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev says that Iran is violating UN Security Council resolutions.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration insists that the formerly secret Iranian nuclear facility will be discussed on Thursday. And Iran says no, and there will be no negotiation over its "nuclear rights."

Of course, if Iran has nothing hide, why wouldn't it discuss the facility?

Incidentally, Iran withdrew from its earlier agreement to reveal the beginning of construction of nuclear facilities, which is why the world learned of this only last week, rather than a few years ago. And it is, as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pointed out over the weekend, in consistent violation of UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program.

In other words, Iran follows all agreements, as it says. Except when it doesn't.

While Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi says that the newly revealed nuclear facility is off limits for discussion, he did say yesterday that Iran will discuss the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which can be a backdoor way into discussing Iran's nuclear program.

President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy charged Iran with building a secret facility to further a nuclear weapons program.

And Iran did yesterday allow Swiss diplomats, who represent American interests in Iran, to visit with three UC Berkeley graduates who wandered across the border while out hiking.

Incidentally, what is it with my fellow Californians wandering over the borders of hostile nations? First it was the two California-based journalists for Al Gore's Current TV wandering over the North Korean border and being seized by border guards. Obama had to send Bill Clinton to get them back. Now it's these three. Next time, boys and girls, pay more attention to your surroundings.

Another Iranian official reminded that Iran can be helpful to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is true. It can also be unhelpful.

These conciliatory gestures were accompanied by more saber rattling, naturally, in the wake of Iran's weekend firings of short-range, medium-range, and long-range missiles, the latter of which can apparently reach US bases in the Middle East and Israel.

On Monday, Iran's defense minister warned that if Israel strikes against its nuclear program, Iran will cause "the Zionist regime's last breath."

We've also learned, incidentally, that the just revealed nuclear facility is heavily guarded by Iran's Revolutionary Guard troops.

Why is that? Well, the nuclear facility was built next to a big Revolutionary Guard ammunition dump. And, according to what Iranian nuclear chief Salehi said yesterday, that was done to make it simpler to protect both facilities.

Casting further doubt on the peaceful intent of this facility, a top aide to Ayatollah Khamenei, Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, said: "This new facility, God willing, will become operational soon and will blind the eyes of the enemies."

Iran says that it will open the facility to inspection. But hasn't said when. In any event, since it's not yet operational, inspecting it now may not be a very relevant exercise.

The Obama Administration is preparing sanctions on Iran targeted at its energy, finance, and telecommunications sectors if negotiations fail.

The Israelis, however, are growing impatient. Obama's original timeline on this was for Iran to demonstrate progress in negotation by the end of September. But negotiations are only beginning this week.

Iran, of course, has been delayed by its own internal disarray. There was the June presidential election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, backed up by Khamenei, claimed a landslide win. That triggered many demonstrations against the regime, followed by a brutal, and highly effective crackdown by regime forces.

In many ways, this was a detour and distraction from the central issues of the moment. The protest movement was too demographically isolated to effect the revolution that its supporters here and elsewhere fervently hoped for. We shouldn't indulge ourselves into thinking that folks with iPods and Internet accounts represent majority opinion in Iran. It's very possible that Ahmadinejad really did win the election. A shrewd character, he did win the presidential debates.

Incidentally, it's been a longstanding neoconservative conceit that the people of Iran want to get rid of their leaders. Just another way to try to delegitimize the regime in service of their regime change goal.

Then there was the more serious matter of sharp internal disarray among Iranian ruling elites. The internal power struggle took up a lot of time. But the end result, at least for now, is that the same people are in charge as were in charge before.

Evidently displeased by these delays leading to a negotiating process that is only now getting underway, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has called a number of ranking American politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

So Los Angeles Congressman Howard Berman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the time may be now for Congressional legislation to cut off Iran's gasoline supply. Iran, having the achilles heel of having to import much of its gasoline due to lack of refinery capacity.

And Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd says he will introduce such legislation in the Senate.

We'll know a lot more when these negotiations get underway. We'll also get an idea about whether Iran intends to use them to stall. Ahmadinejad said yesterday that Iran wants to use the negotiations to "build up friendship and understanding" and is "prepared for long negotiations."