Posturing goes into high gear on eve of Iran nuclear talks

An Iranian video urging reason, the unveiling of new military equipment, and accusations of secret nuclear sites all bear implicit messages as negotiators arrive in Geneva.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles as he attends a media conference with Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino in Rome November 19, 2013.

Iran’s appeal for "dignity” and “respect” took new form today in a slickly produced video message from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the eve of another round of nuclear talks in Geneva.

The campaign-style video – which begins with scenes of Mr. Zarif walking through the ornate halls of the foreign ministry in Tehran and ends in a flourish of piano music while he pretends to do paperwork – sought to strike notes of both determination and calm reason from Iran as negotiators launch a third round of talks in Geneva. 

Speaking in English in measured and reassuring tones beside a bookcase and an Iranian flag, the American-educated Zarif said Iran's nuclear program was peaceful and a natural extension of a century of challenging tyranny. 

“For us Iranians, nuclear energy is not about joining a club or threatening others,” said Zarif. “Nuclear energy is about a leap, a jump toward deciding our own destiny, rather than allowing others to decide for us. For us, nuclear energy is about securing the future of our children, about diversifying our economy…. What would you do, if you were told this was not an option? Would you back down?”

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) made little progress from early 2012 through this summer. But the August inauguration of centrist President Hassan Rouhani transformed Iran’s policy to one of outreach in a bid to resolve the nuclear issue and remove US-orchestrated global sanctions.

But Mr. Rouhani's administration is up against narratives that undermine that effort. 

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political wing for the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled opposition group that's frequently been called a cult, claimed on Monday in Paris that Iran was “establishing or completing parallel secret and undeclared sites for its nuclear project” inside a 1,800-foot tunnel network beneath a military complex, according to Reuters.

Iran today called the claim of a hidden site "baseless." 

The MEK, which was taken off the US terror list in 2012 after 15 years, seeks regime change in Iran.

Although the MEK did reveal Iran’s large centrifuge plant at Natanz and the Arak heavy water reactor in 2002 – based on data provided by Israel for the group to release – most of its past claims on Iran's nuclear program have been proven false, according to United Nations nuclear inspectors. Iran is heavily monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which reported last week that Iran had stopped expanding its nuclear programs since Mr. Rouhani came to office.

The MEK's 2002 revelations set in motion a decade of concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Zarif’s message that Iran is searching earnestly for common ground with the West is also at odds with recent moves from the country's military.

On Monday, Iran unveiled what Fars News Agency described as its largest “homemade strategic drone,” called Fotros, which it claimed can fly 30 hours nonstop with a range of more than 1,200 miles at 25,000 feet. The drone can be armed with missiles, can easily conduct combat operations, and can send "precise images and films throughout the mission," said Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan. 

A 23mm triple-barreled Gatling-style cannon that shoots 900 rounds a minute, billed as an “anti-cruise missile weapon system,” was also unveiled Monday. Iranian media also reported on a new lightweight sniper rifle and a shoulder-fired missile to bring down helicopters that one officer said “has no foreign rival.”

On top of that, Iran plans to start large military exercises on Nov. 22, the final day of the Geneva III talks, that will display armored and airborne power.

Iran sees those efforts as deterrence in the face of threats of military action from the US and Israel, said Armed Forces deputy chief of staff Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri. 

“The Americans’ catch-phrase ‘the military option is on the table’ is a bluff. They are aware of [our] capabilities,” said Mr. Jazayeri the day after the last round of talks ended without a deal, according to Fars. “The slightest military mistake against Iran will make the Americans witness the heaviest damage in the history in their own eyes.”

Such posturing has been a staple since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The video message from Zarif today indicates Iran wants a reason to ease that rhetoric.

“The choice is not submission or confrontation,” said Zarif. “This past summer our people chose constructive engagement through the ballot box. And through this they gave the world a historic opportunity to change course.”

Capitalizing on this opportunity, he said, will require “conviction that we cannot gain at the expense of other, a conviction that we either win together, or lose together. That balance is key to success.”

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