Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme had been at an impasse since January,until Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month announced that he had instructed his nuclear negotiator to send a letter accepting an European Union offer to return to talks with the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany (P5+1). EU and US officials immediately balked at this proposal, however, saying that Iran’s offer doesn’t ‘contain anything new’ and therefore doesn’t ‘justify’ another meeting. These officials are right to doubt Iran’s sincerity in concluding a deal, as Ahmadinejad’s offer is rooted in Iran’s domestic politics. Still, returning to talks may be the West’s least bad option.
The timing of Ahmadinejad’s announcement leaves little doubt that it’s geared towards improving his domestic standing, which has been greatly weakened during his recent dispute with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian presidents have consistently reached out to the West as a tactic for improving their domestic standing. Ahmadinejad’s two most immediate predecessors, Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, used a similar approach (as did Ahmadinejad himself after his legitimacy was called into question during the popular uprisings that followed his fraudulent reelection in 2009).
The problem from the West’s point of view is that it’s the Supreme Leader and not Ahmadinejad who holds the real power in the Islamic Republic. With Ahmadinejad’s power at an all time low, the Supreme Leader would almost certainly reject any new deal Ahmadinejad reached with the P5+1, just as he rejected Ahmadinejad’s previous deal in October 2009.
Yet the EU and United States still have little to lose by returning to talks. Those critical of negotiating with Iran have long contended that participating in talks reduces China and Russia’s willingness to take coercive measures against Iran. But this argument was called into question when China and Russia agreed to the strongest set of sanctions against Iran only after attempts to engage Iran had come to naught. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, ‘The fact that we have reached out (to Iran)… has given us much more credibility in our dealings internationally, and therefore, the ability to build an international consensus on the need to apply pressure to Iran.’