Iran's pushback against statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House that Tehran must "dismantle" some of its nuclear program, and the resulting political uproar over it, indicates that tough U.S. rhetoric may be adding new obstacles to the search for a comprehensive nuclear agreement.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview with CNN's Jim Sciutto Wednesday, "We are not dismantling any centrifuges, we're not dismantling any equipment, we're simply not producing, not enriching over five percent."
When CNN's Fareed Zakaria asked President Hassan Rouhani, "So there would be no destruction of centrifuges?" Rouhani responded, "Not under any circumstances. Not under any circumstances."
Those statements have been interpreted by U.S. news media, unaware of the basic technical issues in the negotiations, as indicating that Iran is refusing to negotiate seriously. In fact, Zarif has put on the table proposals for resolving the remaining enrichment issues that the Barack Obama administration has recognized as serious and realistic.
The Obama administration evidently views the rhetorical demand for "dismantling" as a minimum necessary response to Israel's position that the Iranian nuclear program should be shut down. But such rhetoric represents a serious provocation to a Tehran government facing accusations of surrender by its own domestic critics.
Zarif complained that the White House had been portraying the agreement "as basically a dismantling of Iran's nuclear program. That is the word they use time and again." Zarif observed that the actual agreement said nothing about "dismantling" any equipment.
The White House issued a "Fact Sheet" Nov. 23 with the title, "First Step Understandings Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran's Nuclear Program," that asserted that Iran had agreed to "dismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%."
That wording was not merely a slight overstatement of the text of the "Joint Plan of Action." At the Fordow facility, which had been used exclusively for enrichment above five percent, Iran had operated four centrifuge cascades to enrich at above five percent alongside 12 cascades that had never been operational because they had never been connected after being installed, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had reported.
The text of the agreement was quite precise about what Iran would do: "At Fordow, no further enrichment over 5% at 4 cascades now enriching uranium, and not increase enrichment capacity. Not feed UF6 into the other 12 cascades, which would remain in a non-operative state. No interconnections between cascades."
So Iran was not required by the interim agreement to "dismantle" anything. What Zarif and Rouhani were even more upset about, however, is the fact that Kerry and Obama administration spokespersons have repeated that Iran will be required to "dismantle" parts of its nuclear program in the comprehensive agreement to be negotiated beginning next month.
The use of the word "dismantle" in those statements appears to be largely rhetorical and aimed at fending off attacks by pro-Israel political figures characterising the administration's negotiating posture as soft. But the consequence is almost certain to be a narrowing of diplomatic flexibility in the coming negotiations.
Kerry appears to have concluded that the administration had to use the "dismantle" language after a Nov. 24 encounter with George Stephanopoulos of NBC News.
Stephanopoulos pushed Kerry hard on the Congressional Israeli loyalist criticisms of the interim agreement. "Lindsey Graham says unless the deal requires dismantling centrifuges, we haven't gained anything," he said.
When Kerry boasted, "centrifuges will not be able to be installed in places that could otherwise be installed," Stephanopoulos interjected, "But not dismantled." Kerry responded, "That's the next step."
A moment later, Kerry declared, "And while we go through these next six months, we will be negotiating the dismantling, we will be negotiating the limitations."
After that, Kerry made "dismantle" the objective in his prepared statement. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Dec. 11, Kerry said the U.S. had been imposing sanctions on Iran "because we knew that [the sanctions] would hopefully help Iran dismantle its nuclear program."