Embrace the Fatwa

If the United States is serious about negotiating with Iran, it's going to have to start listening to the supreme leader. 

As the Western media reported it, the future of U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations suffered a major setback on Feb. 7 when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed to reject Vice President Joseph Biden's offer of direct talks. "Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problem," the supreme leader said in a statement posted on his website. "You are pointing a gun at Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."

But Ayatollah Khamenei's statement can also be read as an invitation for genuine negotiations -- negotiations that are not conducted in the shadow of increasingly draconian sanctions and that take seriously Iran's legitimate interests and rights. Despite a number of recent encouraging signs -- such as President Barack Obama's nomination of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel for key administration posts -- the nuclear standoff remains deadlocked over the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A major breakthrough is needed. The supreme leader's recent statement notwithstanding, that breakthrough is within reach, though it will require looking beyond the NPT to a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei in 2003 that bans nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The present diplomatic quagmire is primarily the result of irreconcilable demands. Iran has made clear that resolving the nuclear imbroglio will require international recognition of the country's legitimate right to enrichment under the NPT and the lifting of sanctions. The P5+1 (The five permanent members of U.N Security Council and Germany), meanwhile, have articulated five major demands based on the NPT: 1) implement the so-called Additional Protocol, which enables further intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, including visits to military sites such as Parchin, 2) make the nuclear program more transparent, 3) give access to the IAEA beyond the NPT and its Additional Protocol to address concerns about possible military dimensions to the country's nuclear activities, 4) limit uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and 5) convert to fuel rods or export all enriched uranium stockpiles that are not immediately used for domestic consumption.

These demands go far beyond the NPT, which permits member states to enrich to any level and places no limits on stockpiling enriched uranium. The Additional Protocol, meanwhile, is a voluntary measure that has yet to be accepted by 70 countries. In other words, the inspections demanded of Iran are so invasive that there is currently no international non-proliferation treaty or mechanism that covers them.

Nonetheless, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reiterated Tehran's readiness to "immediately" stop production of low-enriched uranium at 20 percent as long as the international community agrees to supply the necessary nuclear material for the country -- something it has refused to do in the past. Likewise Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has even referenced the Additional Protocol directly as part of an offer to "recognize the concerns of the West and to try to mitigate them using all the possible instruments that are available." Still, two concerns remain. 

First, the P5+1 may not have the political will to finalize a deal with Iran. According to sources with intimate knowledge of the negotiations, the West's proposal contains neither formal recognition of Iran's right to enrichment under the NPT, nor substantial sanctions relief. Even U.S. officials have privately acknowledged that it's not substantively different than previous proposals that failed.

Second, it is far from clear that such an agreement can be sustained by the Iranians. While I served as the spokesman for Iranian nuclear negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami, our delegation agreed to implement the Additional Protocol from 2003-5. The agreement caused an uproar and prompted some sectors of the government to accuse our team of treason. Thus, commitments advanced by Ahmadinejad's administration that go beyond the NPT and Additional Protocol would be vulnerable to reversal in the future.

Luckily, there is a way out of this quandary. An important and novel proposal was announced publicly by Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi based on Ayatollah Khamenei's fatwa banning nuclear weapons. Last year, Salehi declared that Iran is ready to "translate the fatwa into a secular, binding document that would bind the government to this fatwa" and "to transform it into a legally binding, official document at the U.N." Salehi's proposal presents a legitimate framework to guarantee Iran's commitments beyond the NPT and should be seriously explored as a means to resolve the stalemate. Unlike the NPT, the fatwa has definitive boundaries and offers both parties a politically palatable way to back away from unrealistic demands.

The validity of the fatwa should not be underestimated. Because of the strong bond between religion and politics in Iran, the supreme leader's religious fatwas carry both legislative and religious importance. According to the Iranian constitution, the supreme leader has the ultimate authority over all three branches of government. As such, the fatwa has the status of law and cannot be subject to review of any kind.

One immediate area where the fatwa offers a way around the current deadlock is on the issue of Parchin. Talks between Iran and the IAEA have hit a roadblock over demands to visit the military complex located outside Tehran, with both sides unwilling to back down. Under the fatwa, however, Iran could invite a non-IAEA international team of experts to visit Parchin and present their technical findings. Such an initiative would be voluntary, allowing Iran to break the current artificial deadlock. But it would also increase transparency and allay Western fears about what's going on at the base.

Current negotiations based on the NPT have all but stalled out. But with the fatwa as a potential framework for future talks, a deal may still be within reach -- although it would require the United States to offer more serious incentives. Both Kerry and Hagel are pragmatists, but it remains to be seen if they can reorient U.S. policy from pressure politics that "keeps all options on the table" to an approach that genuinely seeks a resolution to this crisis.



Westward Ho!

As America pivots east, China marches in the other direction.

In November, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, and the first to visit Cambodia. As part of his administration's pivot to Asia, Obama has ratcheted up his diplomacy with the region. Besides Southeast Asia, which is moving closer to the United States at the cost of its relationship with China, Obama has also re-emphasized his security relationship with China's rival Japan. But as the United States pivots out of the Middle East and Afghanistan and into East Asia, Beijing is debating a pivot of its own: a grand strategic proposal to shift its attention from East Asia and rebalance its geographical priority westward to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

The strategy, called "Marching West," was recently articulated by Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and one of China's most important strategic thinkers, in an October article in the Global Times newspaper. The proposal has passed the stage of academic research, and the front-runners of Beijing's foreign-policy apparatus have been mobilized to study feasibility, implementation, and potential reactions. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China's most prominent think tank, will be holding an internal conference to study Marching West, according to a Beijing-based scholar. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is quietly investigating Marching West, according to several people who spoke with U.S. officials about the strategy.

It's a bold idea. As Washington rebalances to Asia, Wang sees the relationship between the United States and China growing increasingly contentious and zero-sum. He argues that because both powers are seeking to expand their influence in East Asia, a head-on military confrontation with the United States might become inevitable. Beijing thinks Washington is trying to block China's rise in the East through strengthened military alliances, sabotaging China's ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and undercutting China's effort to lead the region's economic integration by pushing the U.S.-centered (and China-free) Trans-Pacific Partnership. In response, Wang advocates enhancing China's presence, resources, diplomatic efforts, and engagement in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

While Wang see threats in the waters to the east, the region to China's west bears no such risks. The area lacks a U.S.-dominated regional order or a pre-existing economic integration mechanism. Unlike Western Europe or East Asia, it has not and will not form an American-led military alliance, says Wang. The only true U.S. allies in that region are Israel and Saudi Arabia; compare that with East Asia, home to several powerful countries that have deep trade and security ties with the United States, from Australia to Japan.

The logic of Marching West reflects China's complex regional quagmire -- but also untapped opportunity. Unlike in East Asia, where China and the United States are often at loggerheads, to the west they share common interests. Both want stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, an end to hostilities in Syria, a curbing of terrorism and regional nonproliferation, and a constant flow of oil. Marching West would offer Beijing additional strategic leverage against Washington, which "is desperate for China's assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan," Wang writes.

Just as the U.S. pivot to Asia does not mean Washington intends to abandon the Middle East or the rest of the world, China's proposed western shift doesn't mean it's giving up East Asia. Chinese leaders are well aware of the rapid deterioration of China's external environment in that region. But Wang's policy does call for yielding in certain areas. Indeed, China now appears to be more willing to cooperate with the United States on North Korea; it supported a U.N. resolution in January tightening sanctions against the country and has used harsher-than-normal tones against Pyongyang.

There are already signs that China is beginning its pivot. In September, Zhou Yongkang, then a member of China's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, went to Kabul -- the highest-ranking official to visit in almost 50 years. While there, he made the unprecedented pledge to assist in "training, funding, and equipping Afghan police." In previous years, China's western adventures were focused on fighting Uighurs (a restive minority who live mostly in the region of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan) and natural resource investment, like the $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mine, set to be operational in 2014 -- not on Afghanistan's internal security. But this January, China held its first consultation with Pakistan about the situation in Afghanistan, and in 2012 China organized two "trilateral consultations" among the three countries. The move signals a significant policy shift, from a hands-off approach to active engagement to stabilize its turbulent neighbor.

In fact, China has been looking west since at least 2000, when it launched the "Grand Western Development" program, a national strategy designed to right the imbalance between the western and eastern halves of the country. China's west accounts for 71 percent of the country's territory, but only 27 percent of its population and 18.7 percent of its GDP, according to 2010 figures. There's clearly opportunity to be found there. In his essay, Wang says that from 2001 to 2011, China's trade with South Asia and Western Asia grew more than 30 times, while its trade with the rest of the world over the same period grew seven times. The wealthier and more stable that Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and the other countries to China's west are, Wang notes, the easier it is to promote economic development in the west. In pursuit of this end, Beijing must speed up the construction of its trade and communication links with Central Asia and beyond -- what it calls a "New Silk Road"-- to ensure the smooth flow of energy supplies and commodities into western China and to enhance economic cooperation with the region. Going back even further, China saw itself as a significant Central Asian power, with territory stretching to Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, as recently as the 1860s, when Beijing lost 170,000 square miles of territory to Russia. And Wang isn't the first prominent Chinese strategic thinker to argue for a strategic shift west: People's Liberation Army Gen. Liu Yazhou proposed that China "seize for the center of the world [the Middle East]" as early as 2004.

The policy is not yet strategic doctrine -- it's unknown what incoming president Xi Jinping and the current Politburo Standing Committee think about it. Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, strengthened the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional body composed of China, Russia, and most Central Asian countries, but has not elaborated on his view for China in the region. Wang, at the end of his essay, stressed -- modestly -- that he isn't advocating that his strategy become "clear-cut foreign policy." Yet it seems influential enough that Wang's proposal has met with opposition from strategists such as Rear Adm. Yang Yi, who has argued that China's expansion into the Pacific and Indian oceans is a prerequisite for the country to call itself a global great power.

Washington would be wise, however, to start thinking hard about Marching West. The strategy could provide China with an alternate realm of influence, one free from U.S. dominance. By returning to its roots as a continental power, China might avoid further confrontation with the United States in East Asia, foster stability, and build a better relationship with Washington through cooperation in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Chairman Mao Zedong's famous military strategy: "Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue."