Features | Politics | Central Asia

How to Avoid Disaster With Iran

If the West wants to turn the screws on Iran’s regime it must do more to ensure that it isn’t hurting the Iranian people.

When it comes to Iran, things are actually going well for the West and Israel. Really well, in fact.

The recent deterioration in relations between the Iranian government and Turkey is yet another piece of good news for those who want to see Tehran’s negotiation position and leverage weakened. Relations between the two countries hit a new low after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Tehran. Soon after the visit, Iran announced that Istanbul was no longer its preferred venue for negotiations with the P5+1, scheduled to take place on April 13. Iranian authorities scrambled to look for a new venue, and Baghdad has now been suggested by both Iran and China. The P5+1 (consisting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) have yet to announce whether they will accept the suggestion.

The deterioration in relations between Tehran and Ankara is believed to be mainly due to differences over Syria. The Iranian government seems particularly incensed at Turkey’s decision to hold the “Friends of Syria” conference on its soil on April 1, a conference that will consist of members of the Syrian opposition and countries that support them.

At a special parliamentary session held Tuesday, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani condemned the conference, stating, “The name of the recent conference in Istanbul, which was called ‘Friends of Syria,’ was not ‘Friends of Syria,’ but rather its name was ‘bribers of Israel.’” The Turks were so incensed that the next day, the country’s foreign ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to “demand an explanation” over Larijani’s remarks.

Turkey isn’t only a source of trade for Iran – at least one of its banks has acted as a go between Iran and India for oil payment. (India is one of the last countries to hold out over the recent oil sanctions, and Iranian officials will undoubtedly be concerned that Turkey might put a halt to such activities.)

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All this is a far cry from May 2010, when Turkey was so close to the Iranian government that along with Brazil it managed to broker a deal to transfer 50 percent of Iran’s Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) to its soil for later conversion to nuclear fuel rods. However, that deal was deemed unacceptable by the West for a number of reasons. For a start, the amount of LEU it left in Iran (50 percent of Iran’s total stock) would have given Iran the option of having enough LEU on its soil to reach breakout capacity during talks.

Second, because that deal included a “declaration of Iran’s right to enrichment,” the International Atomic Energy Agency and the West would have been agreeing to Iran be able to enrich on its soil while relieving it of its commitment to answer outstanding IAEA queries or respond to demands by the United Nations outlined in various resolutions. Indeed, so unacceptable were the terms of this deal that even China and Russia, which over the years have been the most reluctant in the Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran, agreed to a new round of sanctions after Iran inked the deal with Turkey and Brazil.

And yet despite the unprecedented weakening of Iran’s position, the P5+1 mustn’t take its current advantage for granted; things could still go very wrong. This is especially true of the current sanctions, which are seen by the West as a necessary tool for pressuring the Iranian government. They could still backfire badly, especially if they reduce the supply of food and medicine to Iran to any significant degree.

Indeed, this area deserves immediate attention, and there are a number of ways this challenge could be addressed. The most efficient thing would be to form a super committee to which all suppliers of food and medicine to Iran could refer when seeking an exemption for their trade. This should be eminently possible – the same mechanisms used to ensure that sanctions against Iran are applied could be used to oversee the sale of food and medicine to Iranians.

In fact, the West could go one step further. While it imposes tough sanctions against the regime, it should supply Iranian cancer patients with the medical isotopes they need. This would undermine the regime’s justification for enriching uranium to 20 percent at Fordo, where it says it needs to produce nuclear fuel for the production of medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). This would deprive the regime of important cover, and it’s refusal of such an offer would only confirm suspicions that its nuclear program is being eyed for military purposes. This would make isolating the regime easier, especially if it continues to stonewall the IAEA and enrich at Fordo.

The current economic sanctions could ultimately turn into an existential threat to the Iranian regime, and they should undoubtedly be continued until it shows adequate flexibility for reaching a mutually beneficial deal with the West.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei always has and always will try to lay the fault for all of Iran’s ills at the West’s doorstep. He should be relieved of this opportunity by ensuring that sanctions don’t deprive the Iranian people of food and medicine. Supplying medical isotopes to Iranian patients would therefore be another blow against the regime and its efforts to demonize the West.

The West could score a major victory over Iran’s nuclear program – and the regime itself – by improving relations with the Iranian people. Yet unless it thinks creatively about how to keep Iranians on side, it could ultimately end up helping Khamenei and undermine the enormous effort that has gone into isolating his regime.