Western diplomats and Iranian leaders are reportedly close to sealing a deal to end Tehran's nuclear weapons program, but critics outside the negotiations are already pooh-poohing the plan.
According to details of a rumored agreement that surfaced recently, Iran might accept inspections for 10 years, its scientists might operate 6,500 centrifuges from their current array of 10,000, and they could stockpile perhaps 700 pounds of enriched uranium for peaceful purposes.
The naysayers include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iranian exiles, Iranian hardliners who want nukes in their arsenal, and senators pushing for new economic sanctions, which could ruin the talks before they bear fruit.
The criticism reflects understandable misgivings about trusting Iran but often distorts why the US and five other major powers are pursuing an agreement, said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iranian-American analyst at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and a visiting professor at Georgetown University.
"There are years 36 years of mistrust that need to be overcome," Tabatabai told VICE News, referring to the 1979 embassy hostage crisis that resulted in the US and Iran severing relations. "A lot of people are saying look how much we're giving to Iran. It's not like that at all. The Iranians are giving up more than they are gaining. They would never say it. But there is an acknowledgment of it in the Iranian establishment itself."
An event held Wednesday by the National Council of Resistance of Iran at the National Press Club in Washington typifies the public relations machine that has sprung up to sink a deal, Tabatabai said. The Council claimed Iran has been secretly making weapons in a hideout under a building where bureaucrats claim to process passports and identity cards, according to the Washington Post.
"Satellite images the group culled from Google showed a large, walled complex of buildings at the foothills of the mountains outside Tehran. They also exhibited photographs purportedly taken inside the tunnel showing a steel door that they said was lined with lead to prevent radiation leaks," the Post reported.
Problem is, nobody has proof the Council's claims are true. The group has sounded alarm bells before about secret weapons facilities that turned out to be bogus. Once, in 2002, they were correct. Now, they admit obtaining information for their latest assertion from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a terrorist group.
Tabatabai dismissed the Council as a cult-like group that shouldn't be taken seriously. "They are completely crazy for the most part," she said.
It's less clear how other developments could affect negotiations in Vienna.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress on March 3 and will presumably ask the legislature to reject any deal President Barack Obama reaches. But in the process, Netanyahu is burning his already smoldering bridges with Obama, who has never been close to the Israeli prime minister and still has almost two years left in office — an eternity in politics. On Wednesday, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Netanyahu's visit could be "destructive" to the US-Israeli relationship.
Similarly, efforts in Congress to impose harsher economic sanctions on Iran could put more pressure on Tehran to reach a deal. But those efforts are also eroding the trust Iranian negotiators have in their Western counterparts, said Tabatabai. So far, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, has agreed to delay a sanctions bill until the end of March, the current deadline for the talks in Vienna to reach an agreement.
Tabatabai said she understood how Menendez and others are suspicious of Iran, whose regime she opposes. At this stage, however, if the talks fail, anti-American elements in Iran will gain strength while moderates like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will lose face. That could hurt the US at a time when the 1979 crisis seems small compared to the troubles in the Middle East today.
"I wouldn't say its time to trust them," Tabatabai said. "I'd say its time to be clear of the US's interests and be aware that they align with Iranian interests."
Tabatabai singled out the situation in Iraq, where Iran is helping to fight the Islamic State, and Afghanistan, where Tehran opposes the Taliban.
"There are number of things where the US and Iran are never going to see eye-to-eye — human rights is among them," she said. "But right now you have to pursue more rational policies when you can, rather than just dismissing any kind of engagement."
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