When we left our story last time, Iran hadn’t agreed to anything except further negotiation (if she felt like it), but Western governments were depicting this as a “deal” or “agreement” with Iran, and well-meaning media pundits were proclaiming that “it” would have to be given time to work.
The question remains what “it” is supposed to be, considering that the Iranians persist in emphasizing their intention to continue uranium enrichment: the irreducible point of contention for an actual deal – a “deal” deal, if you will – to render the Iranian nuclear program less easily weaponizable.
But even if we set that question aside, the problem remains that Iran is explicitly, avowedly, egregiously “negotiating” in bad faith, at least from the standpoint of Western governments’ first-order expectations. The case could be made by the Iranians that they are acting in perfectly good faith, having repeatedly stated their intentions. It’s not their fault that Western leaders find it convenient to misinterpret the Iranians’ willingness to participate, from time to time, in a tiresome charade.
But if we take the unfolding drama at face value, as the West defines it, the Iranian leadership is not actually “negotiating” at all, in the sense of seeking an agreement whose terms they plan to honor.
How do we know this? For one thing, it’s what
Hassan Rouhani Mohammed Sadeq al-Hosseini* told an interviewer for Syrian News TV on 11 December: that the non-deal in Geneva was analogous to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. Clare Lopez at AIM explains:
As it is recounted, in the year 628 CE, Muhammad (whose forces already controlled Medina) agreed to a 10-year truce with the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca, primarily because he realized that his forces were not strong enough to take the city at the time. Islamic doctrine in fact forbids Muslims from entering into a jihad or battle without the reasonable certainty of being able to prevail. In such cases, as with Muhammad, Muslims are permitted to enter into a temporary ceasefire or hudna, with the proviso that no such truce may exceed 10 years (because that’s the length of the agreement Muhammad signed). And so, Muhammad agreed to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. But just two years later, in 630 CE, now with some 10,000 fighters under his command, Muhammad broke the treaty and marched into Mecca.
To recap: a “treaty of Hudaybiyyah” is an agreement you break as soon as you’re able to. Its function is to constrain the other party and buy time for you. The treaty is also known among scholars of Islam as the inaugural event in the expansion of Islam in the 7th century. The hiatus between conclusion of the “treaty” and the march on Mecca was the interval in which Mohammed sent his series of letters “calling the kings and rulers of the world” to Allah. Analogies with Hudaybiyyah have more than mere tactical import.
But a separate tactical drama is unfolding in the Iran-nuclear saga, with a duel between the national assemblies in Washington, D.C. and Tehran. So brilliant has been our scheme of maneuver in this diplomatic campaign that the Iranians now propose to use the sole whimper of backbone from us – Congress’s threat to pass a stronger sanctions bill – as justification for advancing right to the precipice of nuclear weaponization.
Reportedly, the Iranian majlis is threatening, if the U.S. Congress votes to tighten sanctions, to pass a law requiring uranium enrichment to 60% purity. This percentage is short of the 93.5% representing weapons-grade purity, but any development of higher-purity stock will reduce the already-brief time required to enrich enough 93.5% uranium for a warhead test. This gambit, of course, is meant to alarm Western governments and ensure that Obama will veto whatever comes out of Congress. But to say that is not to say that the Iranians won’t hold the possibility of such legislation in reserve as a real threat in a game of brinkmanship.
Remember that estimates run from one to four weeks for the “dash” to weapons-grade enrichment, depending on which centrifuges Iran uses for the task. Based solely on Iran’s existing network of centrifuge arrays, the dash time from today would be closer to four weeks; reducing it to 7-10 days will require bringing more of Iran’s newer-generation centrifuges online. There are no technical impediments to doing that, but any such move would probably be interpreted as the beginning of the “dash.” We can expect the Iranians to try to time the move to avoid retaliation (presumably from Israel).
In theory, introducing an even newer generation of centrifuges could reduce the dash time further, allowing Iran to enrich enough material for multiple warheads in a matter of days. Such a capability, established in place but not yet in use on an industrial scale, might make it difficult for even Israel to make the strike decision on a shorter timeline than the length of the dash. Creating this condition requires tacit acceptance of the newest-generation centrifuges from the IAEA and Western governments.
Accordingly, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency has just announced the development of a new generation of centrifuges – a public notification that would be odd if the Iranians actually had any long-term intention of curtailing their enrichment activities. They don’t, of course. Ali Akbar Salehi is merely following the pattern the Iranians have followed for more than a decade now, to desensitize the UN and Western powers to the installation and light-off of new centrifuges as they become available.
To create the impression that Israel has the least excuse for taking action, the time for Salehi to herald the new-generation centrifuges is now. They might or might not be ready for operation in 2014; out of an abundance of caution, the Iranians will install them in numbers only when things look politically propitious. The art lies in edging closer to the fateful day, until it’s clear that the Western powers know they won’t do anything about the next installation, regardless of its implications.
How long that might take is less predictable now than it would have been 4-5 years ago. The extent of our remaining sensitivities might not be certain – reactions might be surprised out of us that would give Israel a pretext for action – but after Geneva, and under our current leadership, it is crystal clear what we are. We’re chumps. If Israel can be held off, Iran is in a position to start her dash at any time.
She’s never been here before. All bets, including how long new programmatic moves typically take, are now off. And so, there’s plenty of taqiyya to go with the Hudaybiyyah. If Geneva was “Hudaybiyyah,” then Iran’s next move, other than calling the rulers of the world to Allah, is “marching on Mecca.”
* A correspondent pointed out that I had attributed this statement to the wrong Iranian official. Al-Hosseini was a one-time political intimate of former president Mohammad Khatami, and is now a TV pundit.