Yesterday, Iran handed its official response to the Oct. 21 nuclear agreement drafted in Vienna by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The nuclear regulatory body has not publicly disclosed Iran's response, but news of Tehran's counteroffer has started to leak out.
According to the New York Times, Iran has rejected the deal to send its stockpile of uranium out of the country altogether. Meanwhile, The Guardian has indicated that Iran is only willing to send its Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) in batches, rather than sending its promised quantity of 75 percent in one batch, as initially agreed.
Both scenarios are deal breakers, as they would leave President Obama and the West walking away empty handed.
The whole point of the Vienna deal, after all, was that everyone walks away with something. It would have allowed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to continue enrichment on Iranian soil, while the LEU shipped over would be converted to fuel for a research reactor in his country. This was not an easy gesture for the West, as it meant ignoring three UN resolutions calling for Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment on its soil. And to make the deal more attractive to the Iranians, the West did not ask for stricter IAEA inspections during the talks, despite the recent exposure of a secret nuclear facility near the city of Qom.
In return, the transfer of Iran's LEU abroad for fuel conversion would have allowed Obama to negotiate with Tehran with the foreknowledge that it lacked the sufficient Uranium on hand to make a bomb. This would have been a heavy blow to neoconservatives in America, whose position was that talking to Iran would only give Khamenei extra time to build a bomb.
The deal would also have eventually allowed the U.S to use the new atmosphere between the two countries to discuss other important issues, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where both sides have common interests. Last but not least, both countries could have used the new atmosphere of confidence to address other concerns and negotiate their differences.
But as things stand today, President Obama would be well advised to reject Iran's response.
What Tehran is offering is worth even less than what the EU managed to negotiate back in 2003, which was a temporary suspension of Iran's enrichment program. What is being offered by Iran now does not even come close to that. It only gives Khamenei points for negotiating with the U.S, while maintaining sufficient amounts of LEU at home to convert a bomb.
The Iranian Supreme Leader cannot have both options. It's either one or the other.
Iran's recent behavior strengthens the voices that have all along argued that Iran's ultimate goal for its nuclear program is military in nature. The Vienna offer would have strengthened the civilian part of Iran's nuclear program and supplied nuclear fuel from one of the only two countries in the world who have the sole capability to make the fuel for the Tehran research reactor: France. The Argentineans - who also possess such knowhow - have no interest in supplying the fuel due to the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, an attack Argentina pins on Tehran to this day. Had Iran accepted the Vienna deal, it would have been guaranteed supply of this fuel from Paris. The supply would have been guaranteed not only by the West, but by the IAEA as well - allaying any concerns in Iran that this deal could be a trick to deprive Iran of its Uranium.
In 2003, immediately following the U.S invasion of Iraq, Iran's Supreme Leader became worried that his country could be America's next target. As a result, he offered what later became known as the Grand Bargain, under which he offered to talk about Iran's nuclear program and Iran's support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. George Bush refused the offer. Many accused the Bush administration of missing an important opportunity.
Iran's rejection of the Vienna agreement is an equally big mistake, if not bigger. Khamenei is turning away a U.S President who has recognized the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and has shown genuine interest in reaching a mutually beneficial deal.
The biggest victims of these developments are likely to be the Iranian people, as their leaders are acting in the regime's interest and not the country's. It also tells us that while America rejected neoconservatism in 2008, a more extreme brand of foreign policy remains alive and well in Tehran.