Features | Security | Central Asia

A Glimmer of Hope Over Iran?

The latest round of P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear programme broke up without agreement. But things might not be as bad as they look.

Now that the dust is settling following the talks in Istanbul late last month between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s fair to argue that the initial pessimism that followed the breakdown of the negotiations was unwarranted, or at least premature. Although no accord was announced, all of the players, including both Iran and the United States, have expressed cautious optimism about resuming the negotiations.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped hardliners in Washington from renewing calls for harsher measures, including military action, against Iran in the wake of the stalemate in Turkey. But so far,at least, the administration of US President Barack Obama is ignoring them. And thanks to reports that Iran’s nuclear programme has run into difficulties—among them, a prediction from Meir Dagan, the retiring head of Israel’s Mossad, that Iran won’t be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon before 2015—US officials are starting to take the long view. As one top Obama administration official told reporters: ‘Clearly there are signs that Iran’s nuclear programme has slowed. I think there is time and space for diplomacy.’

Yet it’s also true that economic sanctions, rather than forcing Iran to make concessions, have only served to irritate Iranian leaders. Designed to bring Iran to its knees and force Tehran to suspend its nuclear research, the sanctions may have had the opposite effect, creating an obstacle to a successful accord.

The talks, held January 20-22, accomplished little, at least on the surface. The six world powers entered the discussions hoping that, at a minimum, Iran would respond positively to an ‘upgraded’ offer to reinstate the October 2009 accord reached in Geneva. According to that agreement, Iran would have exported a substantial portion of its low-enriched uranium for processing into fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a medical-use facility that requires more highly enriched uranium.

Though it was supported by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that accord died when it ran afoul of internal Iranian politics, and Iran reneged, not only accelerating its enrichment efforts, but producing limited quantities of more highly enriched uranium that might be used for the TRR. Going into the Istanbul talks, the P5+1—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—developed a new offer. According to this proposal, Iran would send even greater quantities of low-enriched uranium and all of its more highly enriched uranium to Russia, in exchange for a regular supply of fuel rods for the TRR and for its Russian-built power plant at Bushehr.

Iran analysts in Washington suggested the new offer would have included a tit-for-tat deal, whereby the P5+1 would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil, as long as Tehran agreed to additional and more stringent oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition, Iran would have to halt expansion of its enrichment programme, agreeing not to add more centrifuges to its facility at Natanz. That was designed to be a win-win arrangement: Iran could claim that it had won the world’s acceptance of its enrichment programme, and the United States and other world powers could claim to have won Iran’s agreement to provide iron-clad assurances that its programme wouldn’t be militarized.

In Istanbul, however, Iran refused to negotiate seriously. Instead, Saeed Jalili, the Iranian representative, and his deputy, Ali Baqeri, demanded that the P5+1 accept two preconditions—which Jalili called ‘prerequisites’—before the talks proceeded: first, that the world accept Iran’s right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium; and second, that economic sanctions against Iran immediately be lifted. Needless to say, without parallel concessions from Iran, none of the world powers would even consider its demands.To some observers, the demand for an immediate end to sanctions is a sign that the sanctions are biting, but in Istanbul it was clear that the sanctions are just another roadblock that make negotiations more difficult, not easier. 

Still, on the final day of the Istanbul talks, Catherine Ashton, the lead representative of the European Union, did manage to present the P5+1 plan to Iran’s Jalili, without seeking an answer then and there. Although Jalili refused to meet one-on-one with William Burns, the State Department official who led the US delegation, he did hold private sessions with Ashton, and later with the Russian and Chinese representatives. Speaking to reporters later, Ashton said that she told Jalili to take the offer home, consult with Iran’s political leaders and think it over, and added that the P5+1 was ready to resume the talks when Iran made its decision. ‘There are no talks planned at the present time, (but) our door remains open, our telephone lines are open,’ Ashton said.

Both Russia and China expressed the strong desire to resume talks, along with some optimism that they’d be successful. China’s deputy foreign minister, Wu Hailong, urged patience. ‘The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated and sensitive, and obviously can’t be comprehensively resolved through one or two rounds of dialogue,’ he said. More assertively, in the wake of the Istanbul talks the Russian foreign ministry’s spokesman said that the talks had helped to ‘create the atmosphere for a more productive dialogue,’ and added that Iran ‘must see the prospects that open up for it if it takes additional transparency measures on its nuclear programme.’ That latter formulation almost explicitly includes the win-win notion that Iran might continue to enrich as long as it accepts the IAEA’s more stringent ‘additional protocols’. Later, speaking in Washington at an event organized by the Nixon Center, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov rejected reports that the talks in Turkey had failed, adding: ‘A new plan for a fuel swap was proposed during the Istanbul talks.’

Other world powers weighed in, too. Significantly, both Brazil and Turkey—who last year sought to restart the October 2009 fuel swap plan with an initiative of their own—said that they’d keep at it. ‘My country will exert more efforts with an eye to ensure that the negotiations continue and that they yield concrete results, despite attempts to downplay initiatives that come from Turkey,’ said Turkish President Abdullah Gül, obviously still unhappy that the United States failed to endorse the Turkish and Brazilian effort last spring. Brazil’s foreign minister backed Gül, saying, ‘We are keeping channels open.’

But most important, of course, were the reactions of the United States and Iran.

In the United States, various hawks, neoconservatives and Republican hardliners seized on the failure of Istanbul to achieve a breakthrough by calling for a suspension of the talks, for more sanctions and for overt military pressure on Iran. The Washington Post, in a peevish editorial, called on Obama to reconsider his policy of engagement with Iran and urged Obama to push for regime change in Iran. ‘By doing more to support the Iranian opposition, the United States could pressure the regime where it actually feels vulnerable.’

But the Obama administration wasn’t listening. Speaking to reporters after the end of the Istanbul round, a senior US official said: ‘I think it remains to be seen whether the Iranians are serious about engaging in practical steps to get from where we are, and I don't think we are going to figure that out in one or two meetings. I think there is still time to test that.’ Significantly, by noting that there’s time to seek an agreement, the official was backing off from the panicky urgency that has so often motivated discourse in the United States. Indeed, there’s a growing realization in Washington that Iran isn’t on the verge of being able to build a nuclear weapon even if that is its intention. Despite the pressure from the hawks, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to Obama’s engagement policy.

And Iran’s take? Top officials from Ahmadinejad on down also reaffirmed their commitment to dialogue with the P5+1. ‘If the other party is determined and committed to law, justice and respect, there is hope that in the next sessions good results would be achieved,’ Ahmadinejad said, speaking to a crowd in Rasht, following the conclusion of the Istanbul talks. Jalili added: ‘A fuel deal could be one of the most important areas for cooperation.’ And Baqeri, his deputy, sounded similar notes of optimism in an interview with Iran’s government-owned Press TV, which headlined its report: ‘Iran ready to talk fuel swap.’

In the end, of course, the TRR fuel swap is merely a confidence-building measure, on the path to a more comprehensive accord over Iran’s NPT right to enrich. For the past two years, the Obama administration has held back from explicitly declaring its support for continued enrichment by Iran, as long as additional safeguards are put in place. In his June 2009, speech on Cairo, Obama said that Iran has the right to civilian nuclear power—and the United States didn’t object to the Bushehr power plant, the fuel for which is provided by Russia under a ten-year accord.

In that speech, Obama didn’t address Iran’s right to enrich, neither saying that Iran had that right or denying it. About a week after Obama’s speech, however, Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Financial Times that Iran indeed does have that right. More recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the BBC last December, said: ‘They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations.’ Not a ringing endorsement, but an open door at least.

Domestic politics, both in Iran and in the United States, make it difficult for both Ahmadinejad and Obama to ink an agreement. But if the talks are to move forward in the coming rounds, it may be necessary for Obama to state explicitly, as Kerry did, that Iran’s rights under the NPT do include a right to spin centrifuges.