After a 15-month lull in nuclear negotiations, and three months of crippling Western sanctions, Iran and the so-called P5+1, have arrived at some measure of understanding.
By any objective reckoning, the Istanbul talks rejuvenated the diplomatic track, paving the way for a new chapter in Iranian nuclear negotiations. Yet if recently-concluded talks were a test of intentions, the upcoming negotiations in Baghdad are going to be a real test of wills.
Both sides will have to overcome huge obstacles if they want to establish what has been described as a “sustained process of serious dialogue” to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse. Clearly, both sides had plenty of reason to come to the negotiating table. For the Iranians, the Western sanctions have not only frozen Tehran out of mainstream international finance – battering the Iranian Rial, compounding inflation, and raising transaction costs – but have squeezed Iran’s international trade, especially its oil exports.
The sanctions have been particularly painful because the Iranians have already been struggling with the impact of unprecedented subsidy cuts, which began in late 2010. On top of this, the U.S. legislature is working on a new set of sanctions, which will virtually prohibit any significant trade with Iranian ports – an economic version of a “naval blockade.”
Diplomatically, the Turks, Chinese, and Russians have also used all their levers of influence to cajole Iran back to the negotiating table. Sensing the urgency of the issue, Iran has displayed considerable flexibility on the nuclear issue lest it risk further economic and diplomatic isolation.
But for the West, sanctions have proven counter-productive: global energy markets are unstable, with the price of crude oil increasing by about $25 to $30 per barrel in recent months. With the economy at the center of upcoming U.S. presidential elections, U.S. President Barack Obama is already strugglingwith growing popular discontent over his (mis)handling of rising fuel costs.
Politically, Obama sees substantive negotiations as a perfect justification to dampen calls for war, principally emanating from Republican quarters and Tel Aviv. On the other hand, troubled European economies, from Greece to Spain to Italy, have been scrambling for alternative sources of oil as Iran preemptively suspended its oil exportsto European nations in retaliation for the EU oil embargo, effective June 2012.
Against this gloomy backdrop, both sides expressed optimism and flexibility ahead of the Istanbul talks. The Iranians hinted at an enrichment cap and greater transparency, while the West reaffirmed Iran’s right to peaceful enrichmenton its own soil.
Also, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi reiterated his country’s commitment to an exclusively peaceful nuclear program and a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue. Crucially, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated his “fatwa” against nuclear weapons.This is important, because he made a similar statement back in 2004, when Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment to enhance confidence-building measures and resolve the nuclear issue.
Encouragingly, there were further green shoots of progress in the Istanbul meeting. Both sides described the nuclear negotiation as “constructive and useful.” According to the EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, “We [the West] have agreed that the nonproliferation treaty forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement to ensure all the obligations under the treaty are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Her Iranian counterpart, Saeed Jalili,reciprocated the sense of optimism by commending the West’s “positive approach” that furthered the “process of cooperation.” They both said that they look forward to “concrete steps toward a comprehensive negotiated solution.” Thus, both Jalili and Ashton tasked their deputies with drafting the framework for upcoming negotiations in Baghdad. However, this is precisely where the challenges arise.
There are a number of issues that need to be resolved. Sure, the Iranians have indicated their willingness to subject themselves to greater inspections, perhaps even an Additional Protocol-plus sort of arrangement. This was expressed by Mohammad Javad Larijani, an adviser to the supreme leader and a member of one of Iran’s most influential political families, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Moreover, the Iranian have also indicated their willingness to revert their enrichment levels to around 3.4 percentand subject their stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to real-time inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, the Iranians, in exchange, have two conditions: first, a guarantee from the West that they will be provided a corresponding amount of medical isotopes for domestic civilian consumption; and second, perhaps most crucially, an immediate reversal of sanctions, especially those on Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports.
The problem is that even though the West has expressed its commitmentto the so-called “step-by-step approach” – rewarding Iran for transparency in exchange for lifting sanctions – the Americans seem to be reluctant to make a significant move on this front unless Iran becomes more forthcoming. In response to Iran’s call for lifting sanctions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissively said, “The burden of action falls on the Iranians to demonstrate their seriousness and we’re going to keep the sanctions in place and the pressure on Iran.” This is a potential deal breaker. Also, the West is yet to revive a nuclear “swap deal” – initially proposed in 2009 and reflected in the 2010 Tehran Declaration – to assuage Iran’s demand for medical isotopes. With the West equivocating on these two demands, it’s not clear how Iran will be willing to compromise.
The West’s insistence on Iran closing the heavily-bunkered Fordo enrichment plant – an obvious concession to Israeli threats of attacks if Iran passes the so-called ‘zone of immunity – is another potential deal breaker for two reasons: first, the West is sending the wrong message by telling Iran that it will reward Tehran if, and only if, it renders its nuclear program completely vulnerable to a military strike; and second, instead of focusing on extensive and regular inspection, this demand could strengthen the hand of hardliners, who oppose any compromise on the grounds that this demand is another sign of the West’s ideological opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and scientific sovereignty.
Meanwhile the clock is ticking. The Baghdad talks in late May are the last chance to reverse the torrent of sanctions – pending and under consideration – to kick-in around June, potentially driving energy markets into a tailspin and also discouraging Iran from any kind of substantive compromise.
What is clear is that unless key obstacles are overcome in the coming weeks, and properly addressed in the framework of negotiations, we are heading for a rough set of talks in Baghdad.
Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].