Western diplomats described last month’s talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul as “constructive” and “useful.” But the adjectives, although only guardedly positive, are certainly an improvement on the terms officials have used to describe previous Iranian diplomacy.
Since May 2010, when the P5+1 rightly rejected a proposed fuel swap deal agreed between Turkey, Brazil and Iran (also in Istanbul), diplomacy has stalled. Throughout the latter part of 2010 and into 2011, Iran continued to enrich and stockpile uranium, and the only real developments in the nuclear standoff seemed to be a heightening of rhetoric – and violence. Assassinations of Iranian scientists (many claim by Israel’s security service Mossad) were met with attacks on Israeli targets in India, while EU moves to sanction Iran’s oil brought corresponding Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
This year began with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. Speaking at a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said that Iran’s nuclear program was unquestionably for military purposes: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, he vividly declared. Meanwhile, as the U.S. presidential elections near,presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney described Obama as “feckless,” comparing him with U.S. President Jimmy Carter during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis.
Likening Obama to Carter, of all U.S. presidents, was a calculated but irresponsible move; rarely has professed concern for the national interest so clearly revealed itself as self-interest. Trying to appeal to a worried U.S. electorate, Romney then promised that under any administration of his Washington would “deal” with the nuclear program permanently, thereby giving those in Tehran urging the Supreme Leader to quit the Non-proliferation Treaty and make a dash for a bomb one more reason to push their case.
All this meant the backdrop to the April talks was far from positive. Only days before they were due to begin, Iran’s conservative press rallied to declare that the West had been cowed and that Iran should continue onwards with enrichment regardless of international opposition. P5+1 diplomats were unsurprisingly sceptical that the talks would yield anything of note and feared more Iranian stalling tactics. Quiet surprise was the feeling afterwards. So far little has happened since, but there’s a discernible change of Iranian tone and with yet more talks scheduled to take place in Baghdad in May. There are, for the first time in years, signs of hope. Why?
Fear. Iran is now under huge pressure. The Iranian economy is in serious trouble; sanctions have intensified the effects of decades of internal financial mismanagement. The targeting of Iranian banks is stifling Iran’s means of doing business internationally, and, critically, its access to foreign exchange earnings. Sanctions on Iranian oil will only make these problems worse. Targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – now the prime economic player in Iran – is especially astute, as it singles out for punishment the one organization in Iran that has political clout enough to influence Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Direct pressure on Khamenei is the only thing that will work: Iran compromises only on his say so, and he only says so when he feels threatened. Almost ten years ago, in May 2003, shortly after the United States had obliterated the Iraqi Army, Iran offered the U.S. a historic deal via the Swiss ambassador under which it would compromise on its program and normalize relations between the two countries. The deal was reportedly rejected out of hand by then vice-President Dick Cheney (we don’t negotiate with evil was his terse and short-sighted response). Nonetheless, European diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency sensed palpable fear in their Iranian counterparts during those early months of 2003; a few months later, in the October 2003 Tehran agreement, Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment while talks to resolve the overall crisis continued. Iran subsequently suspended enrichment for two years while vague European promises of more discussions never materialized – largely because without U.S. involvement in negotiations, there was simply nothing of substance they could offer Iran.
Khamenei’s de facto anti-western instincts were (in his eyes) confirmed by this seeming lack of response; and once he gave the order to re-start enrichment there was no going back. Iran has continued with enrichment and the stockpiling of uranium ever since – in fact it has accelerated the process, enriching to 20 percent and announcing (just before Western powers were about to reveal it) the existence of another uranium enrichment plant at Fordow, near the city of Qom. Nothing has since been sufficient to make Tehran change course; certainly, threats of military action have been ineffective.
The reality is that hardliners in Iran believe the West is in decline, and that the United States, so recently bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, won’t risk a third war in a time of financial crisis. Israeli threats are a concern, but Tehran calculates (probably correctly) that Israel doesn’t have the means to effectively strike its nuclear facilities. In fact, many hardliners welcome an attack. Damage would likely be limited and it would give them the excuse to go for a bomb. Perhaps more importantly, in a time of increasing domestic oppression following the 2009 fraudulent elections, not to mention the severe financial hardship many Iranians are facing, it would give them an excuse to rally an understandably hostile populace to their cause in the face of a common enemy.
Military action is not the solution, but nor will merely increasing financial pressure on the Islamic Republic stop the nuclear program. Khamenei and those around him have staked too much political legitimacy on it to climb down now without risking a dangerous loss of credibility. An increased inspector presence and supervised, limited enrichment (to civil levels – 5 percent) on Iranian soil have all been suggested and are workable and sensible solutions. But they don’t deal with the real issue, which is not a technical but a wider political problem between Iran and the West.
Iran isn’t North Korea; it resents international isolation, which it views as an affront to its great history and self-perceived role as a major international player. “We are a great nation with 5,000 years of history” Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, pointed out to me in 2010. This statement goes to the heart of what drives Iran and its foreign policy.
And this offers hope because in the end, what Iran wants is greater involvement. Sanctions are effective, but they are only half the battle and they are only ever a short-term measure. In the long-term, only real and sustained engagement will work because re-integrating Iran back into the international fold is the only real solution. Involving Iran in regional discussions on wider issues affecting the Middle East, and assisting it with securing membership of international organizations (like recent U.S. and Israeli support for its World Trade Organization membership) have also been suggested and must be pursued.
A world with a nuclear-armed Iran would be a far worse place than it is now. The question is what can be done to prevent this coming to pass. The upcoming Baghdad talks offer an opportunity for meaningful engagement with an Iran that may be more willing to compromise than it has been in a long time. Almost a decade ago, the EU3 had a similar opportunity; this time it must not be wasted.
David Patrikarakos is a U.K.-based writer and author of the upcoming book ‘Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.’ His work has appeared in the New Statesman and Financial Times, among other publications.