Features | Security | Central Asia

Iran and the P5+1: Dual Track Clash

With suspicion high on all sides, the latest round of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme look doomed before they start. So why is anyone bothering?

‘The Iranians?’

This was one of the questions posed on chatbacks as conspiracy theorists in Israeli Internet chat rooms tried to guess who was responsible for the massive mobile phone blackout that hit millions of Israelis on December 1.

The blackout lasted 12 hours and left 3.3 million Cellcom subscribers—more than 40 percent of Israel’s population— with no cell phone access. A day after the ‘glitch,’ Cellcom's management had still failed to explain the cause, leaving plenty of time for all manner of theories about the reason to proliferate. Iran wasn't the only suspect—some wondered whether it was caused by an out of control experiment by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, while another group of netizens thought that it might have been sabotage by Turkish hackers.

It’s interesting how quickly Iran’s name came up. One reason it did is that Iran has always been associated in many Israeli minds with military and financial support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran hasn’t previously been known (or feared) as a cyber power, but with many fingers having been pointed at Israel after the Stuxnet worm was found to have infected computer systems at the Iranian enrichment facility in Natanz, some could have assumed that the Cellcom outage could be blowback.

Of course, the network outage was likely nothing more sinister than a malfunction, and Nokia engineers are reportedly on their way to assist in the investigation. But the episode, combined with the recent WikiLeaks revelations, has underscored how suspicion of Iran is reaching new heights in Israel.

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Such suspicion has also been fuelled by recent mysterious—and deadly—events inside Iran. On Monday, assassination attempts were made on two Iranian nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran, in broad daylight. One scientist was killed, the other was injured. None of the assassins has so far been apprehended, including the driver of the mysterious Peugeot 206 that was spotted at the scene of the assassination attempt and which was fired on by the police. Subsequent media reports suggested that the car had exploded in the Shahid Mahalati neighbourhood of Tehran, an area built by the Revolutionary Guards and where some members of the IRC’s upper echelons, as well as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's brother Davoud, live.

Strangely, the same semi-official media quickly denied there’d been an explosion, prompting a new round of conspiracy theories over the assassination attempts, this time amongst Iranians. The Iranian government, however, seemed to have no doubt: Mossad, Britain’s MI6, and the CIA were said to be behind the attacks.

But the tense atmosphere inside and outside of Iran isn’t confined to Internet gossip. Early next week, Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are scheduled to meet to discuss Iran's nuclear programme.

Suspicion between both sides has never been higher and it’s hard not to wonder why the P5+1 is even bothering to turn up to the talks when Iran has already said that it won’t be offering any compromises for the West.

Indeed, the same question is probably being asked by many Iranians of their leadership: why attend these talks when they’ve been snubbed not once, but twice by the West, even before the talks have actually kicked off? The first ‘snub’ was when the P5+1 turned down Istanbul, Iran's preferred choice, as the venue (Geneva was chosen instead). The second snub in Iranian eyes came when EU foreign policy chief Lady Ashton refused to answer the three questions posed by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, prior to the talks. The questions queried the West's approach to the issue, as well as its views on Israel's reported nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, the families of murdered nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari and his colleague Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, and indeed those of scores of other nuclear scientists, could also be tempted to ask Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei why Iran is even willing to sit down and talk to countries who have just been accused of assassination attempts on Iranian soil.

But the fact is that both the P5+1 and Iran are attending these talks because they are an essential part of their dual track policies toward each other. Without such an approach, their respective strategies would collapse.

Iran's dual track approach involves a diplomatic channel that allows it access to direct negotiations with the P5+1, while also supporting foes of the West—especially those of the United States—in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Iran hopes this twin approach will gradually coerce the West into accepting its terms.

But the West also pursues a dual strategy. Despite the talks being widely seen as dead before they’ve even started, it still needs to keep the talks going as it provides Iran a channel through which come to the negotiating table. The second track consists of the sanctions that it hopes will coerce Iran into complying with demands over its nuclear programme.

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With both sides pursuing dual but competing approaches, it’s going to be all about who has the most stamina.

Iran's goal in the short term is to get its hands on the bomb. If it can just maintain the status quo, therefore, it looks like it has a good chance of doing so.

Yet this short term goal may not be compatible with its long term one, namely ensuring the survival of the regime in the decades to come. History has shown us that nations and even empires develop the stamina to survive through nurturing a robust economy. Nuclear weapons are no guarantee nor a solution for longevity. Just ask the Soviets.

With this in mind, one thing is increasingly clear—the status quo that the Iranian regime now craves may well mean that in the long run, it is significantly reducing its own prospects for survival.