Published On: Tue, Aug 4th, 2015

Secrets and codes from the Iran nuclear talks

Someone at the Iranian state broadcaster, IRIB, is in trouble. When the deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, briefed its news executives last week on the Vienna nuclear deal, the conversation was supposed to have been off the record, but it didn’t stay that way. A transcript went online on the IRIB website on Saturday morning.

It was taken down a few hours later, but by then it was too late of course. Extracts can be found in English on IranWire here, and in Farsi on BBC Persian here. Araqchi accused IRIB of harming national security interests with the gaffe.

His account is full of great detail, particularly the bit about President Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, calling him from Vienna and speaking in a dialect from their home province of Semnan, which is unintelligible to other Iranians. Araqchi said Fereydoun used Semnani as a code to consult on urgent questions. It was also used as an improvised form of encryption in the Iran-Iraq war, in the same way as Navajo was used by US “Code Talkers” in World War II.

Araqchi also says that the Supreme Leader was in frequent contact with the Iranian negotiating team, setting red lines and even getting involved in some of the details, despatching messengers to Vienna “a couple of times” to ensure his views were conveyed. According to Araqchi, one of the red lines that Ali Khamenei set was the insistence that a thousand centrifuges should remain at the underground enrichment plant at Fordow.

The Supreme Leader expressly ordered that 1,000 centrifuges remain at Fordow… We were worried sick that this wasn’t possible, because they [the Americans] wouldn’t consent to even one centrifuge in that location…What happened at the negotiations and how they came to consent to it is another story. It was a blessing from God.

In the JCPOA, a total of six 174-centrifuge cascades will remain in Fordow, a total of 1044 machines, in line with the Supreme Leader’s decree. However, only two cascades will spin, producing stable isotopes, rather than enriching uranium. The other four cascades will remain idle. This anecdote chimes with the accounts of Western negotiators who have said that while the Supreme Leader’s edicts frequently complicated proceedings in Vienna, both sides were able and ready to find creative ways around them.

In his comments, Araqchi confirms a detail about Fordow that Western governments have long claimed but that Tehran had never acknowledged, that the Iranian government only informed the UN atomic watchdog, the IAEA, of Fordow’s existence in 2009 after Tehran realised it had been discovered by Western intelligence agencies.

Araqchi refers to a febrile period in 2006-07 when the Iranian military establishment expected an imminent US attack, to the point that Iranian officials went to bed in the fear that military operations could be underway by the morning. Confusingly he said it was only “Mr Obama” who stopped such an attack, but Obama only took office in 2009. It could be a slip of the tongue and he meant to say President Bush, or that the threat of a US attack only diminished when Obama took office.

One final note of interest. Araqchi gives a timetable for Iranian cooperation with the IAEA in the investigation into “possible military dimensions” of the country’s past nuclear work. He said Iran would provide its account of what happened on August 15, and the IAEA would review that account in the ensuing two months, delivering its final report on December 15.

Two experts, Bruno Tertrais and R Scott Kemp, have tweeted that there is nothing in this account to contradict the Iranian official version of events. Indeed, you would not expect someone like Araqchi to be entirely unguarded in a conversation with state broadcasting execs, rightly so as it turned out. But the Fordow disclosure detail does seem to be off-message. In any case, the account definitely adds some beguiling new details to our knowledge of what went onbehind the gilded locked doors of the Palais Coburg.