Iran Watch: Fordoomed?

Last week, I explained how upcoming nuclear talks could get bogged down in disagreement if Western powers demand that Iran, as a confidence-building measure, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent (which is steps away from weapons-grade material) and ship existing stockpiles of the higher grade uranium out of the country. 

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the United States and its European allies will indeed open negotiations with this demand, along with a call for Iran to shutter a nuclear facility burrowed under a mountain:

The hard-line approach would require the country's military leadership to give up the Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qum, and with it a huge investment in the one facility that is most hardened against airstrikes....

"We have no idea how the Iranians will react," one senior administration official said. "We probably won't know after the first meeting."

Indeed, with negotiations set to begin this Saturday in Istanbul, the Iranians are already reacting. Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, called the demands outlined in the Times article "irrational."

But Abbasi also struck a note of compromise (or, at the very least, flexibility) -- suggesting that Iran might consider returning uranium enrichment to the lower levels required for power generation once it had amassed enough 20 percent material to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and other research.

Iran meter: The Times report hasn't just provoked a strong reaction in Iran. In the United States, former CIA officer Paul Pillar is dismayed by America's reported negotiating position -- particularly the part about dismantling the Fordo nuclear facility.

"The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it," he writes. "Not the sort of formula that inspires trust among Iranian leaders and gives them much incentive to move toward an agreement."

Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt homes in on the same demand, and is equally concerned that the United States is formulating fatally flawed opening bids. "It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for [the Iranians] to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it," he notes.

If Pillar and Walt are right, is there any reason for optimism about the upcoming talks? In fact, there are hints that while the Fordo demand may be a non-starter, uranium enrichment could offer more fertile ground for negotiations -- and that both sides recognize this reality. Take this passage from the Times article: 

While opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar, as a political matter American and European officials say they cannot imagine agreeing to any outcome that leaves Iran with a stockpile of fuel, enriched to 20 percent purity, that could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.

Or this report today from the Associated Press on the buzz in Iran:

What could get traction -- suggested the hardline newspaper Kayhan -- is a so-called "enrichment level stabilization." That means halting the 20 percent enrichment, the highest level acknowledged by Iran, and continuing with lower levels of about 3.5 percent needed for ordinary reactors....

Mehdi Sanaei, a moderate lawmaker, said a possible bargaining position could be an agreement to temporarily stop 20 percent enrichment in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions.

In other words, there's still hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, though it's difficult to stay optimistic when these reports mingle with the news that the United States is dispatching a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. 

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Passport

What’s up with Business Insider’s wacky foreign coverage?

On its Military and Defense page, the popular news site Business Insider is featuring two stories today by one F. Michael Maloof, who is blurbed as a "staff writer for WND's G2Bulletin, and a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense."

Story No. 1: Citing Russian sources, the headline claims that "Russia Is Massing Troops On Iran's Northern Border And Waiting For A Western Attack." The story goes on to say that "The Russian military anticipates that an attack will occur on Iran by the summer and has developed an action plan to move Russian troops through neighboring Georgia to stage in Armenia, which borders on the Islamic republic, according to informed Russian sources."

The news "comes from a series of reports and leaks from official Russian spokesmen and government news agencies who say that an Israeli attack is all but certain by the summer," Maloof continues. "[S]ources say that Russian preparations for such an attack began two years ago."

Story No. 2 alleges that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is basically in league with the Islamic Republic of Iran and is seeking a strategic alignment with the ayatollahs in Tehran. "For years," Maloof writes, "Shi'ite Iran has been a major financial supporter of the Sunni Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and quietly worked for some two years with the group to oust Washington-backed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year." He goes on to claim that "Analysts say that Iran's Shi'ite form of Islam has more appeal among Egyptian Sunnis than among Sunnis in other Arab countries." I've not seen any credible analysts make either claim before -- and it's worth noting that the Egyptian media is rife with anti-Shia invective these days.

This is the kind of questionable reporting you normally see on conspiracy-theory websites, not an ostensibly respectable outlet like Business Insider.

Who is F. Michael Maloof? Careful followers of the Iraq war's aftermath may remember that he, along with fellow analyst David Wurmser, was tasked by Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith after 9/11 with finding links between Iraq and al Qaeda. "Saddam used al-Qaeda as an indirect conduit because he needed plausible deniability," Maloof later said -- a claim that was hotly disputed within the U.S. intelligence community at the time and widely discredited after the invasion, including in a 2004 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report. Maloof's security clearance was revoked, though his allies continued to defend his work. ("The Wurmser-Maloof work was professional: carefully researched, organized, and well presented," Feith wrote in his memoir.)

And what is G2Bulletin? According to its website, "Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin is your independent, online intelligence resource edited and published by the veteran newsman and founder of WorldNetDaily.com. Each week he taps his vast network of international intelligence sources to bring you credible insights into geo-political and geo-strategic developments."

Yes, that WorldNetDaily, one of the main "birther" websites promoting the false idea that President Obama was not born in the United States.

My question is: Why Is Business Insider publishing this stuff?