A Flicker of Optimism on Iran

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A Flicker of Optimism on Iran

Hardliners in the U.S. and Israel seem to be shifting on Iran’s nuclear program. Is a breakthrough possible in the Baghdad talks?

There’s a flicker of optimism about the May 23 talks in Baghdad between Iran, the P5+1 world powers, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over Iran’s nuclear program. A tentative accord between Iran and the IAEA, reached in Tehran on Tuesday between Yukiya Amano of the IAEA and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, bolstered optimism on the eve of the Baghdad meeting.

However, even if doesn’t stall, the process of solving the standoff over Iran’s program has a long way to go. At best, say analysts in Washington, the most that can be achieved this week is a confidence-building, interim accord that keeps the talks rolling and, perhaps, sets up task forces involving technical experts to work out details of a broader accord. Amano, in his meeting with Jalili, suggested that the two men may have agreed on a step-by-step process in what the IAEA chief called a “structured” framework. “The decision was made by me and Mr. Jalili to reach agreement on the structured approach,” he said. Whether that agreement can be finalized, and what effect it might have on much thornier issues involving whether or not Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich uranium and what will happen in regard to economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, is yet to be determined.

The Baghdad talks are a follow-up to talks held April 13-14 in Istanbul, which were the first substantial talks between the two sides in more than two years. And at least one retired, senior American diplomat reacted positively. “For the first time in 32 years, since the Iranian revolution, there is the possibility of serious, substantive and sustained talks with Iran,” said Nicholas Burns, who served as deputy secretary of state during the administration of George W. Bush.

But, analysts point out, “sustained” talks mean that the negotiations are likely to go on for quite some time, likely well into 2013.

In order for the talks to succeed, both Iran and the United States will have to make substantial concessions.

Dennis Ross, who until earlier this year served as President Obama’s chief adviser on Iran, told reporters in a conference call on May 22 that he could envision an agreement that allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium but limits it in a way that would preclude Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, by proscribing the number of centrifuges Iran can operate, the amount of low-enriched uranium it can amass, the purity of that enriched uranium. However, he said, so far the Obama administration hasn’t accepted that principle. Even so, said Ross, if an accord can be reached that allows Iran to maintain a civilian nuclear program, including enrichment, and can construct a firewall against militarization of that program, even in an election year, “You would go for it.” He added, “I’m not persuaded that just because it’s an election year, it’s impossible to reach an agreement.”

For weeks, even before the Istanbul talks, Iranian officials have been expressing a willingness to strike a deal, and some of them have suggested that Iran might be willing to abandon its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity – ostensibly produced for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which is designed for medical uses – and to halt enrichment beyond fuel-grade, 3.5 percent purity for its power plant at Bushehr. Among those who’ve declared a degree of optimism about the talks in Baghdad are Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, along with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. One unnamed senior Iranian official was quoted comparing Iran’s readiness to make concessions on the nuclear front to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s decision to accept a truce in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.“When Ayatollah Khomeini decided to end the [Iran-Iraq] war, he drank the ‘poison,’” said the official. “For the sake of the system, the regime will maybe decide again to drink the ‘poison.’”

But Iran has virtually ruled out broader concessions, flatly refusing to halt all enrichment, and declaring that it won’t even consider dismantling the underground enrichment facility in Fordo, outside Qom. And Iran expects that, in exchange for limited concessions, it will be rewarded with an end to at least some of the harsh economic sanctions that have accumulated since 2008.

While the United States is holding its negotiating cards close to its chest, it’s considered highly unlikely that it’s prepared for any significant rollback of existing sanctions. Not only that, but the next round of sanctions, scheduled to take effect this summer, includes U.S.-imposed measures against Iran’s Central Bank, a complete cutoff of oil imports by the European Union, and measures against shipping insurance for Iranian oil exports that could severely affect oil exports to China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

Given that Obama is facing reelection against a hawkish Republican opposition that has already signaled that it intends to make Iran an election issue, and given that sanctions policy in the United States is heavily dependent on measures controlled by Congress, not the White House, any real effort to ease sanctions is probably a long way off. “I don’t think there’s really any give on the sanctions issue…in part because in a political year, an election year, with a Congress that is very solidly behind these sanctions, it would be very difficult for the president to appear to be waffling on them at all,” says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

That isn’t lost on the Iranians, as two former Iranian officials with experience in negotiating on the nuclear issue wrote recently in the New York Times. “Assuming that Tehran agrees at the Baghdad talks to the demands on nuclear transparency, it’s unclear whether the U.S. Congress, which has the sole authority to roll back U.S. sanctions and which is led by hawkish voices opposed to Iran, would go along with any deal. This represents a major stumbling block, since Iranian negotiators need to produce a tangible trade-off between any concessions and recognition of Iran’s right to legitimate enrichment plus a gradual lifting of sanctions.”

Among the leaks over the U.S. position at Baghdad are suggestions that the United States will offer to revive the 2009 to help fuel the TRR and to forgo imposing new, yet-to-be-designed economic sanctions. Another report says that the United States is developing a set of incentives for Iran that could include supplying Iran with oil technology and aircraft parts for its deteriorating civilian fleet.

But such limited concessions, while they might succeed in helping to sustain momentum for future rounds of talks, aren’t anywhere close to what is widely believed to be the heart of a U.S.-Iran deal, namely, U.S. acceptance of Iran’s right to continue enriching uranium to 3.5 percent purity in exchange for Iran’s acceptance of much more intrusive international oversight of its program designed to guarantee that Iran doesn’t work toward a nuclear weapon or the means to deliver one.

An important straw in the wind, however, is signs that Israel and its neoconservative American allies are softening their previously unambiguous stand. To be sure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still insists that Iran give up all of its nuclear program, halt enrichment completely, ship all of its uranium – even that enriched to 3.5 percent – out of the country, and close its facilities. “This is the only way it will be possible to ensure that Iran does not get an atomic bomb,” he said. “This is Israel’s position. It has not changed, and it will not change.”

But beneath that rhetoric are recent comments from Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister and the key ally of Netanyahu. According to Haaretz, “Though Israel has been expressing zero flexibility regarding a possible deal with Iran, Defense Minister Ehud Barak a few weeks ago issued a written statement that Israel would consent to Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, as well as to allowing a few hundred kilograms of 3.5-percent enriched uranium to remain in that country.” Barak’s view might reflect the fact that the Obama administration has gradually come around to the same notion, even if it isn’t willing to say so, explicitly, yet.

Interestingly, perhaps a sign of the same shift was an opinion piece in the Washington Post by two hard-line Iran analysts, Jamie Fly of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative and Matthew Kroenig of the Council on Foreign Relations. Both, in the past, have argued strongly in favor of the military option to halt Iran’s program. But in the recent piece, among the red lines they cite as triggers for an attack, continuing enrichment to 3.5 percent was nowhere to be found. Instead, they suggested that the “red line” for a U.S. attack on Iran ought to be limited to “building additional covert facilities, installing advanced centrifuges at Natanz or Qom, maintaining larger stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, enriching beyond 20 percent, kicking out international inspectors, or conducting certain weaponization-related research.” In their universe, that’s downright dovish.

In any case, the Obama administration isn’t getting ready to attack Iran. In the weeks before the May 23 talks, there has been plenty of behind-the-scenes diplomacy involving Iran, the IAEA and world powers to explore what an interim deal might look like. Catherine Ashton, representing the European powers, flew to Israel to meet Netanyahu, too.Ali Bagheri, Iran’s deputy negotiator, and Helga Schmid, a senior European Union official in charge of preparations, have held quiet talks. And, of course, with the IAEA seeking a “structured framework” to continue the negotiations going forward, it’s seems likely that the talks in Baghdad might result at the very least in an agreement to keep talking. If that’s the best that comes out of the talks in Baghdad, it may be just good enough.