The current round of talks between Iran and the major world powers, represented by the so-called P5+1, resumes January 24 in Istanbul following an initial two-day session held last month in Geneva. And, while it’s exceedingly unlikely that the talks will achieve a breakthrough, for the first time in quite a while there’s actually some reason for optimism.
First of all, the scuttlebutt in Washington is that the Obama administration is now prepared to put a much-improved offer on the table. According to several sources in think tanks, on Capitol Hill and among Iran experts, the United States will offer to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, on its own soil and with its existing array of centrifuges. That offer, however, will be contingent on Iran exporting the bulk of its enriched uranium for processing outside the country, most likely in Russia, where part of it will be transformed into fuel rods for use in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which is used for medical purposes, and part of it will be reprocessed into fuel for the Russian-built nuclear plant at Bushehr, which recently started up. That latter use could be crucial, since it allows Iran to claim that it’s refining and enriching fuel for civilian use in a power plant, not for military purposes.
In exchange, Iran would be required to accept stringent new oversight by the international community, through the International Atomic Energy Agency. In addition, it wouldn’t be allowed to expand either the number or the capacity of its existing centrifuges. In any case, according to Iran watchers, the sanctions regime has already severely undercut Iran’s ability to manufacture and operate additional centrifuges. And Iran’s nuclear programme has also been undermined by what appears to be a devastating covert operations effort—led, it’s hard not to presume, by the United States and Israel—that has included the Stuxnet computer virus, a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers and a campaign of sabotage aimed at equipment and technology used in Iran’s nuclear industry.
Were a deal struck roughly along these lines, it would achieve the much-desired win-win outcome for both sides. The United States could claim that it has achieved its primary goal of tougher inspections and verification measures aimed at ensuring that Iran doesn’t opt for a military nuclear programme, while creating an ongoing conveyor belt that would take Iran’s low-enriched uranium outside the country, where it could be transformed into civilian-use fuel rods. Iran, on the other hand, could claim that it has stood firm, winning the world’s recognition of its right to a uranium enrichment programme on its own soil, under Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty terms. Once in place, the deal would allow Iran to insist that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council be lifted.
Needless to say, though, there are still enormous obstacles that make achieving an agreement unlikely.
First, the Obama administration itself is divided, and the White House is under pressure from hawks and hardliners not to make any concessions to Iran. In December, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a neoconservative, sent a letter to the White House explicitly opposing any deal that would allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium: ‘We believe that it is critical that the United States and our partners make clear that, given the government of Iran’s pattern of deception and non-cooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future,’ wrote the senators. ‘We would strongly oppose any proposal for a diplomatic endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form.’
Not only that, but a rising chorus of hardliners, led by Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another neoconservative, is calling on Obama to threaten Iran with military force. Graham announced that Republicans would support Obama if and only if ‘he decides to be tough on Iran, beyond sanctions.’ That message is being underlined by the new Republican leaders of the House of Representatives, where the extremely hawkish Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida has taken over the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Obama will have little or no manoeuvring room to make a deal with Iran, and he’ll find it extremely difficult to sell a deal to the hawks in Congress.
Second, to a great extent, Obama has poisoned the well over the past year by pushing for a punishing regime of sanctions against Iran as part of the so-called ‘dual track’ policy of both diplomacy and pressure. In so doing, he has undermined the goodwill he sought to garner by his vaunted opening to Iran starting in January 2009.
When the first round of talks with Iran in October 2009 ran aground over Iran’s back-and-forth dithering over accepting a preliminary deal involving the TRR, the Obama administration lost its nerve and returned to a policy of pressure, threats and sanctions. Then, in the spring of 2010, when Brazil and Turkey revived the TRR deal and won Iran’s acceptance in an accord known as the Tehran Declaration, the White House unaccountably condemned it. (Still, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, the top aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said as late as November, ‘The Tehran Declaration is still valid.’)
Though sanctions, including a set of unilateral measures imposed by the United States and other nations outside the UN Security Council framework, have had a strong impact on Iran’s economy over the past six months, it’s very unlikely that the economic pressure will cause Iran to abandon its fierce determination to retain its nuclear enrichment programme. Late last year, Mehdi Mohammedi, a writer for Tehran’s Kayhan newspaper, which reflects the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, penned a lengthy essay arguing that ‘pressure, instead of augmenting the path to negotiations, damages it,’ adding: ‘Iran will not, under any cost, relinquish its nuclear enrichment.’
Third, the tumultuous state of Iranian politics will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran’s negotiators to strike a deal with the United States. Ahmadinejad is engaged in a tug-of-war with conservatives in Iran’s parliament, led by Ali Larijani, and in other key power centres, including with the powerful Mayor of Tehran Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf (they’re said to be trying to construct a coalition that could, with Khamenei’s acquiescence, impeach Ahmadinejad).
The struggle is made all the more intense because Ahmadinejad is in the process of ending a vast system of government subsidies for basic commodities such as fuel and food, and the security establishment in Iran—including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—is bracing for unrest. The leadership is also worried that the Green Movement, led by former candidates for president Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, could revive itself by leading a protest over both Iran’s economic troubles and what Mousavi has called Ahmadinejad’s ‘adventurous foreign policy.’ Although Iran’s internal battles have little to do with its nuclear programme, instead revolving around political and economic power sharing and control, the nuclear programme has become a political football that competing factions can use against each other.
Still, the fact that Iran and the United States are talking again is a good sign, as is fact that the next round will be held in Istanbul (Iran had originally proposed to hold the talks there, viewing the conservative, Islamist government of Turkey as a potential ally). And here and there are also reports that both the United States and the Europeans are trying to sweeten the deal to induce Iran to go along. For example, Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, reported in mid-December that ‘the European Union is proposing that Iran be allowed to continue its uranium enrichment processes if it agrees to tight United Nations supervision of its nuclear programme,’ paralleling the reports of a US offer along similar lines.
Indeed, there are even cracks appearing among Washington-based hardliners. After the Haaretz story appeared, I asked the chief of staff to Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and the prime mover of anti-Iran sanctions legislation in the House of Representatives, about a possible deal with Iran. Surprisingly, he said that one key question that ought to be raised is: ‘Could we live with some sort of arrangement where enrichment does happen on Iranian soil?’
That, indeed, is the question. Though it may not be answered when the two sides meet again this month, it’s the only possible positive outcome. The ongoing troubles afflicting Iran’s enrichment programme have eased the urgency, at least a little, with at least one senior Israeli official, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon, who said Israel now believes that Iran can’t build a nuclear weapon before 2014.
But even so, the clock is ticking.