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Analysis: The Artful Inaccuracies of Iran’s Foreign Minister

As we march towards the July 20 deadline for reaching agreement on stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program, it is worth gauging Iran’s intentions by looking at the words of its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. On June 13, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Zarif entitled Iran is Committed to a Peaceful Nuclear Program. The op-ed is a skillful piece of propaganda aimed at dismissing skeptics of Iran’s peaceful nuclear intentions. However, Zarif’s arguments are marked by inaccurate assertions, significant omissions, and a threatening tone.

The central paragraph of Zarif’s op-ed characterizes the concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program as a “phobia.”

While reaching a realistic deal is the best available option for the West to prevent such a remote possibility, it may be instructive to take that phobia at face value. Let’s put it to a logical test. If Iran ever wanted to break out, all IAEA inspectors would have to be expelled from the country. Iran’s program would then have to be reconfigured to make weapons-grade fissile material, which would have to be converted to metal, be molded into the shape required for a bomb and undergo countless other complex weaponization processes. None of these capabilities exist in Iran and would have to be developed from scratch. This would take several years — not a few months.

In its assessment of breakout times (.pdf) published last October, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) argued that a breakout time of less than six months would allow Iran to develop a nuclear device undetected:

As in the October 2012 iteration, the estimates in this report do not include the additional time that Iran would need to convert WGU [weapons grade uranium] into weapons components and manufacture a nuclear weapon. This extra time could be substantial, particularly if Iran wanted to build a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile. However, these preparations would most likely be conducted at secret sites and would be difficult to detect. If Iran successfully produced enough WGU for a nuclear weapon, the ensuing weaponization process might not be detectable until Iran tested its nuclear device underground or otherwise revealed its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the most practical strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is to prevent it from accumulating sufficient nuclear explosive material, particularly in secret or without adequate warning. This strategy depends on knowing how quickly Iran could make WGU.

Zarif’s “breakout time” estimate differs from that of ISIS as the former includes activities such as weaponization and the creation of delivery systems, both of which could evade detection. ISIS’s breakout time estimate addresses the production of sufficient fissile material to make a bomb. In an analysis (.pdf) of a dubious study that is apparently the basis for Zarif’s claim of a breakout time of “several years,” ISIS researchers observed that the methodology of the study is so systematically skewed, “that it requires all the breakout estimates to be dismissed as woefully too short” and concluded, “[t]his Iranian study is a political tool for Iranian officials to point to as negotiations unfold.”

Later on, Zarif writes, “For years, small but powerful constituencies have irrationally advanced the idea that Iran can produce enough fissile material for a bomb in months.” Thus Zarif shifts the argument from “Iran cannot produce a nuclear device in a matter of months,” which is true, to “Iran cannot produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb in a matter of months,” which is false.

Furthermore, a “logical test” could be applied the other way too. If Iran’s nuclear program has no military aspect, why is it developing ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear payload? If Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, why is it planning to build a heavy water reactor when a light water reactor would suffice for any civilian needs? If Iran’s nuclear program only has peaceful aims, why did Iran refuse guarantees for a steady supply of enriched uranium and instead insist on mastering fuel cycle technologies (i.e. uranium enrichment)?  And why has Iran not allowed an on site inspection of the Parchin facility, which is believed to have housed experiments for nuclear detonators? In addition, Iran has asphalted the site hiding evidence of its experiments.

While Zarif attempts to strike an optimistic tone of the possibility of a nuclear deal between the West and Iran, he offers no convincing evidence that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. The op-ed is a skillful mixture of evasions and blame-shifting but ultimately leaves too much unexplained.

The most glaring omission of the op-ed is that there is no mention of the six Security Council resolutions adopted between 2006 and 2010 (Resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835 and 1929),  written in reaction to Iran’s violations of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments. At least twelve members of the Security Council voted for each of the resolutions, and three of the resolutions were adopted unanimously. The first resolution was passed under the authority of Article 40 of the UN Charter. Subsequent resolutions were passed when Iran was found to be in violation of 1696  under Article 41 which calls for sanctions and other means of enforcement to bring the nation in violation into compliance.

When Zarif writes of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and Europe a decade ago, “Prodded by the Bush administration, however, our counterparts demanded that we abstain from enrichment until at least 2015, effectively killing the chances of a deal,” he evades the truth that fears of Iran’s nuclear program were nearly universal, as expressed in the numerous Security Council votes.

The terms dictated to Iran were not arbitrary demands intended to deprive Iran of its ” rights, dignity and respect.” Rather, they were prompted by discoveries that Iran was cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it signed. These discoveries in turn suggested that Iran may have other secret nuclear programs that have not yet been detected.

While Zarif claims that “[i]llusions have in the past led to missed opportunities and should not be allowed to ruin the real prospect of the historic deal before us,” his tone is more confrontational than conciliatory.

Towards the end of the op-ed, Zarif writes:

Today, we have a unique opportunity in our negotiations with the P5+1 to put in place long-term confidence-building measures, as well as extensive monitoring and verification arrangements, to provide the greatest assurance that Iran’s nuclear program will forever remain exclusively peaceful.

The hopeful tone of this sentence is outweighed by the confrontational tone of much of the rest of the op-ed. Zarif dismissed concern over Iran’s nuclear program as “maximilism,” “illusions,” “myth” and “phobia.” This is not the language of compromise. In his description of the aftermath of the nuclear negotiations a decade ago, Zarif writes:

As we approach 2015, the outcome of past maximalism and obsession with sanctions is clearly evident. In the past 10 years, Iran has gone from 200 to 20,000 centrifuges, our enrichment capacity has risen from 3.5 to 20 percent and the Arak heavy-water research reactor is less than a year from being commissioned.

Here Zarif is saying that Iran ratcheted up its nuclear program to get back at the West for not coming to an agreement. This isn’t compromise but defiance. Zarif echoes a sentiment he expressed in 2007 when he told The Washington Post, ” [I]f you follow this path, you will have a few more resolutions and we will have a few more centrifuges spinning in Natanz.”

Zarif’s contention that Iran advanced its nuclear program as a response to adversarial positions taken by the West is also questionable. During his presidential campaign last year, Hassan Rouhani boasted that Iran used the pretext of negotiations as an opportunity to “complete” the nuclear program and increase the number of centrifuges to 3,000.

The problem with the op-ed isn’t just the message but the messenger. While many in the West portray Zarif as a moderate, his words and actions show otherwise.

In January, the United States rebuked Zarif for honoring Imad Mughniyeh, a terrorist guilty “of terrorism that killed hundreds of innocent people, including Americans.” In February, Zarif boasted “that ‘America has wishes’ involving Iran giving up substantial parts of its nuclear program, but that ‘those wishes are unlikely to come true.’” Last month, Zarif hailed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s victory in a dubious election. These actions and  are not exceptions, but rather confirmation of what Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht observed: “[t]he affable foreign minister turns out to be every bit as religiously ideological as the radicalized student activist he was in the late 1970s.”

In his op-ed, Zarif, instead of offering compromise and understanding, showed his true extreme and defiant colors.

For more specifics on the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear program, read 10 Things You Need to Know About Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program.

[Photo: Mueller MSC / WikiCommons ]