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The Argo Sequel Part II: Iran vs. Destiny's Child

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | February 7, 2013 |

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | February 7, 2013 |

(For part one click here).

I still think this could work as a movie, but there’s just no getting around the shitload of exposition. If you find yourself losing hope as you plod through, just imagine all of this whittled down into Sorkinesque zingers delivered by a surprisingly young analyst played by Emma Stone. And if I ever get the idea to take on the Middle East again - shoot me. Seriously.

So. You want to talk to your old buddy Iran again. Back in the 70s, you used to be tight. But then you had a big falling out after he found God, and he’s been something of a raging asshole since. Then again, you’re no saint either, right? You keep stealing his groceries and calling it “sanctions.” And you’re always hanging out with that Jewish kid who you know hates his guts. Come on, talk to him. Everyone’s saying he’s cooking meth in his basement, and you know he’s dumb enough to blow the whole block sky high… Just pick up the phone, talk him down. It’s so easy…

Except it really, really isn’t. First of all, after 30 years of enmity, Tehran simply did not trust Washington’s intentions, so the Americans had to make the Iranians feel safe enough to put down the uranium and start talking. They started by putting an anti-Iranian Kurdish organization on the State Department’s terrorist list, then invited Iranians to a conference on Afghanistan at The Hague in 2009 (which was their first diplomatic contact since 1979), and finally… posted a 3.5 minute long YouTube clip. Shut up, baby steps. It was a New Year’s greeting recorded by the US President and addressed to the Iranian people, that had been carefully crafted in secret over the course of several weeks. The message: Trust me, baby.

Secondly, one does not simply talk (in)to Iran. The Europeans, who have done most of the talking thus far, insist that the best bet is a “dual track” approach. Essentially: you don’t offer to stroke Iran’s carrot unless you can quickly swat it with a stick. For some reason, the whole West has bought into this idea, which means that you can’t sit down for negotiations with Tehran unless you are simultaneously lining up sanctions for the moment talks break down.

And then there’s Israel.

The funny thing about Israel and Iran is that they used to be those people who talk shit about each other in public, but then bang in the utility room. Until early 1990s, they were even tacit allies, bound by outcast status (the only two non-Arab states in the region) and common enemies (the USSR and Saddam Hussein) up to the point where Israel openly broke an American embargo and sold arms to Tehran in 1982. But then the Cold War ended, and things got more murky. And way more belligerent.

For a long time now, the US has tried to isolate Iran and reconstruct the Middle Eastern mosaic around it. Understandably, the Iranians did not want that to happen, so they kept an eye on the stove and stirred shit whenever it tried to coalesce. Unfortunately for Tel Aviv, Tehran realized that the best way to do that is to target the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, so it became a very vocal (and generous) supporter of Palestinians. That in turn put it in direct conflict with the Jewish state, and no one likes it when their enemies go nuclear. Though Israel has second strike capability (i.e. even if you blow it to smithereens, you’ll still get counter-nuked, because submarines are atomic warfare’s God Mode) them Persians be crazy, so Israelis will stop at nothing to prevent them from getting the bomb. And Obama’s attempt to make nice with Iran could mean the US budging on that issue.

And so, Israel became the little brother that keeps popping up to ruin the mood just as you start getting frisky. Every time the Americans tried to calm Iran down, Israeli politicians would start publicly talking about surgical strikes. At the same time, Jewish lobby organizations converged on Washington to pressure Congress to knock diplomacy out of the President’s head. Finally, hours after Obama’s YouTube message went live, Israeli President Shimon Perez delivered his own New Year’s greetings to the Iranian leaders, which ran closer to the “gobble my knob” end of the spectrum - a move obviously meant to undercut the White House’s outreach.

So that’s the picture. You’re riding a unicycle, juggling all those balls and trying to draw the prettiest Season’s Greetings card the world has seen, while Israel runs around setting shit on fire and stealing all your crayons. The whole thing became a three-way race: the White House racing to make diplomatic headway before pressure for a more hardline approach became unbearable; the Israelis racing to torpedo the talks before any serious diplomacy began; and the Iranians racing to get a nuclear weapon before someone finally decided to mess them up.

Because yes, there’s also the bomb. Crash course in nuclear armament: Iran is stockpiling low-enriched uranium (LEU). Once you enrich that from 3.5% to 85%, you get high-enriched uranium (HEU) - the stuff atomic dreams are made of. For one warhead, you need 25-50 kilograms of HEU, i.e. about 1300 kg of LEU. By summer of 2009, Iran had over 1500 kg of LEU, which meant that it had cleared the resource hurdle and now only needed the know-how.

“Oh come on, that all sounds too easy!” you say. And I agree! So in June 2009, we get the Iranian presidential elections, which are by, all accounts, stolen by Ahmadinejad. The resultant outrage and discord surprises absolutely everyone. People take to the streets, and the authorities start killing them. Time is running out, but suddenly the White House isn’t even sure who to talk to, because Tehran has turned into King’s Landing, with various factions and branches of the government basically waging war on each other. What’s more — the more accounts of the government’s atrocious treatment of protesters leaked out of Iran, the more pressure grew to abandon negotiations altogether. The time for diplomacy was running out, but the nuclear clock was still ticking.

This is where Mohammed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency comes in. Egyptian-born ElBaradei’s term was ending, and he saw Obama’s outreach as his last chance to settle the Iranian question amicably (his stance was “no bomb for Iran, no bombing of Iran.”) On June 2, 2009, the Iranians sent the IAEA a request to purchase fuel pads for a medical research reactor that produces isotopes for kidney, heart, and cancer patients. Instead of opening the request to the market, ElBaradei forwarded it only to USA and Russia, figuring that the White House would be able to work with that.

He was right. The US saw an opportunity to simultaneously break the ice with Iran and deplete its LEU stockpile. They came up with a swap scenario - Iran wouldn’t buy the fuel, but instead ship out 1200 kg of its LEU to a third party, where it would be enriched to 19.75% and turned into fuel pads for the medical reactor. Iran would get its fuel, the US would gently nudge it away from a nuke, and if the deal went well, it would build confidence in cooperation. It was time to take it to Iran.

In October of 2009, Iranians met in Geneva with something called P5+1, which is France, Great Britain, Russia, China, USA, and Germany . Explaining why would require yet another infodump, and I’m already bleeding from my ears trying to keep this thing from going over 9000 words, so let’s just accept that they did. Also, from now on I will refer to P5+1 as Destiny’s Child, because what kind of a name is P5+1.

At first, Destiny’s Child presented a unified front, but Iran threw them a curveball. On the eve of the summit, Tehran suddenly revealed a previously undisclosed nuclear facility near Qom. The Americans and Europeans had known about it, and wanted to use it as leverage, but — ha-hah! — the Iranians knew that they knew, and turned it into a “drink in my honesty” type of deal. However, in the end, all it did was piss off Russia, who was the only one with no idea about the whole thing. Nobody tells Russia anything, you guys.

Eventually, a preliminary deal was hammered out: Iran would ship out its LEU to Russia, from where it would go somewhere else for repurposing, and in a year’s time return as fuel pads. Everyone went back home and agreed to reconvene in Vienna to hammer out the specifics.

And it was in Vienna that things took a turn for the spy thriller. Destiny’s Child split, and only USA, Russia, and France came to talk to Iran. This was understandable, since the final version of the deal named France as the provider of the fuel pads. But Iranians were suddenly wary, and it seemed like they had good reason to be. Back in the 70s, Iran put up over 1 billion dollars to co-finance a - surprise, surprise - uranium enrichment facility called Eurodif located in France, in exchange for 10% of its output. But then the French went back on the deal, and refused to sell them the enriched uranium. Nowadays, France is the chief advocate for sanctions (as opposed to diplomacy) within the European Union, which made her involvement a tad questionable. To make things even more interesting, Tehran claimed to have been informed by one of the other Destiny’s Child members that France only wanted to be part of the swap deal in order to sabotage it from the inside — she had no intention of ever giving Iran any fuel.

From then on things unraveled fast. Even after France was degraded to a Russian subcontractor, and eventually pushed out of the deal, the Iranians wouldn’t send their LEU in one shipment, but instead wanted it split in two. Neither would they ship it out up-front, which was the whole point, but insisted on a relaxed schedule. Mistrust blossomed. In an attempt to salvage anything from the wreck, ElBaradei proposed that everyone go back home and meet up for a final sit-down on October 23. Except October 23 came and went, and nothing concrete materialized. But just before the curtain closed on this sad, deflated little omelet - Sailor Moon super fun adventure rescue!

All this time, the uranium swap negotiations were being closely observed by Japan, who really wanted them to work out. The Japanese have few fossil fuel deposits of their own, so they rely heavily on import from oil-rich countries. Such as Iran. Tokyo once held a 75% share in a massive Iranian oil field, but had to relinquish it due to previous sanctions on Tehran. Unlike Russia or China, Japan couldn’t withstand American pressure on that front, and stood to lose even more if it came to another round of Iran-spanking. Which is the reason why the Japanese Prime Minister suddenly came swinging out of leftfield, and by December of 2009 brokered a swap deal with Iran - 1000 kg of LEU would be converted by the Japanese, then resold to Iran as fuel pads. No stinky French, no nothing.

Unfortunately, that swing ended as a ker-splat against a wall of American indifference. It was too little, too late. The Western consensus was that the Iranians were simply stalling, and the White House had to contend with mounting pressures of its own - having grown impatient all that fruitless diplomacy, Congress began work on a sanctions bill that would seriously hamper Obama’s maneuverability. With the carrot wilted, the time had come for the stick.

(to be concluded)

Wojtek is trying to remember life before Iran. He thinks sunlight was involved.