Why Talks with Iran Haven’t Worked

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Why Talks with Iran Haven’t Worked

Iran’s leaders see little domestic political benefit to giving into the demands of the U.S. and its partners over Tehran’s nuclear program. The calculation shows no signs of changing.

The United States and E.U., through the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have been seeking appropriate verifiability of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program and cessation of its uranium enrichment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s terms. U.S. administrations have pointed out that they and their allies “judge Iran by its actions, not by its promises.” Iran has responded by insisting its “nuclear rights” be respected and claiming its Supreme Leader’s and other Shiite clerics’ fatwas or religious statements that nuclear weapons are haram or forbidden serve as proof of compliance.

Sadly, demands and edicts carry very limited weight when nations are separated by over three decades of mutual distrust. Consequently, round after round of talks over the past ten years keep failing to produce tangible results.

Not surprisingly, it happened again in Baghdad on May 23 and 24, despite intensive groundwork for a positive outcome. Two weeks of technical discussions took place in Vienna and other European venues between the E.U., IAEA, and Iran. Next came meetings in Tehran, undertaken by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano himself, with claims of a deal “quite soon” to resolve concerns about military dimensions of the nuclear program. Confidence-building measures and incentives such as isotopes for medical uses and safety upgrades for older reactors were offered by Western negotiators in exchange for agreement by Tehran to permit enhanced IAEA oversight and to halt enrichment. Iranian delegates once again dangled hope “that in a day or two we can bring good news.”

But Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani warned that “Iran is distrustful and extremely suspicious of certain bullying countries with regard to the nuclear issue.” In a display of defiance, on the eve of the Baghdad talks, scientists proceeded to install domestically-enriched 20 percent uranium plates into the Tehran research reactor. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning to another session of discussions already under the cloud of Western sanctions and the threat to incapacitate Iranian nuclear facilities.

Indeed the much-hyped negotiations between representatives from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, the E.U. and Iran at Baghdad, like previous ones in Tehran (October 2003), Paris (November 2004 accord eventually abrogated by Tehran), Vienna (January 2006, October 2009) Geneva (October 2009, December 2010), Istanbul (January 2011), and elsewhere, proved to be a bust. The Baghdad post-conference statement could only describe negotiating itself and agreeing to meet again in Moscow as signs of progress. Even the limited scope agreement reached days before by Amano is likely to have details contested by Tehran’s officials until enforcement becomes perfunctory.

The true gap of understanding between the West and Iran is actually far greater than official communiques acknowledge. The latest IAEA report reveals that inspectors detected the presence of uranium particles with enrichment levels of up to 27 percent at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility three months earlier. Technical explanations for the supposedly unintentional presence of that even higher enrichment level are unlikely to convince nations who view Iran’s nuclear program as intrinsically hostile. The gap will widen even further now that the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency has repudiated Amano’s claim of an agreement to inspect the Parchin military complex for nuclear-related clandestine activities and unveiled plans to construct new atomic energy plants.

Harnessing the atom’s power has been both a simorgh (the local version of a phoenix) and an earthquake for Iran’s people. Nuclear energy could eventually free up most or all of the country’s crude oil and natural gas reserves for export, generating much-needed foreign revenue. Yet, for now, the pursuit of a nuclear program has brought the Islamic Republic to the brink of socioeconomic collapse and positioned the U.S., EU. and Israel to strike preemptively.

Crude oil export, which generates 80 percent of Iran’s foreign revenue, has fallen to a twenty year low due to U.S. and U.N. sanctions. Other embargoes have stalled the country’s technological advancement in non-nuclear sectors – its aviation industry regularly experiences life-claiming accidents, small electronics are notoriously unreliable, and food production can’t keep up with a burgeoning population. As industry has slumped, unemployment has risen to over 25 percent. Approximately 60 percent of the population receives monthly cash handouts from the state, but even those fail to cover the 25 to 150 percent jump in prices of sustenance, clothing, housing, utilities, and transportation. So Iran does need a deal, specifically one that removes international sanctions.

Economic and other societal pressures generated by those sanctions have provoked infighting for resources among Iran’s theocratic, executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Yet, intra-regime tensions notwithstanding, Iran’s nuclear activities haven’t slowed down because that nation’s leaders see little benefit to their system of government from acceding to the ultimatums of the U.S. and of American partners.

Iran’s politicians and diplomats routinely claim their nation is being targeted unfairly and punitively for not bending to American and Israeli wills – words that play well both at home and across the Third World. Simultaneously, those same leaders have become masters at dragging out negotiations while their scientists enhance the nuclear program and augment its military capability. The fates of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya loom large for Iran’s hardliners, reminders that negotiating away the nuclear issue won’t ensure their own political endurance. “Special weapons,” as some ayatollahs call nuclear bombs, are viewed as a safeguard and even a right. They also are acutely aware of Iran’s great past, knowing they can write themselves favorably into that nationalistic history by joining the ranks of nuclear powered countries.

Moreover, despite the sufferings of their citizens, Tehran’s officials still believe that “sanctions aren’t a zero-sum game” and they can endure those restrictions until the West needs their country’s crude oil and natural gas just as the People’s Republic of China and India do now. In the long-run sanctions are inadvertently helping them conserve energy resources – the fourth largest proven oil reserves and second largest proven gas reserves – that the world may require once other sources have been depleted.

The bottom line is that the Islamic Republic regards the nuclear issue as far more complex than it is seen by the West, which doesn’t wish a regime so overtly adversarial to have atom bombs. Even in diplomatic terms, Iranian leaders view negotiations over their nuclear program as just one aspect of multifaceted tensions with the U.S. and E.U., seeking to resolve those as a whole and not in a piece meal manner. Unable to obtain a “comprehensive package” at the Baghdad meeting, as happened on previous occasions, Iranian negotiators yielded little to the West and U.N.

So the atomic stalemate and geopolitical status quo continue because, as Chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Boroujerdi noted, “Iran acts in such a way that its rights are realized and its interests are served.” In the absence of a broader settlement, Iran’s leadership, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, persists in testing other nations’ willingness to force it to scale back the nuclear program – strategically calculating that its resolve and resources will prevail over sanctions and even war by “standing against them like a lion.”

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Islamic, and International studies and a senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University where he served as director of the Middle Eastern studies program. He also is a member of the US National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. This analysis reflects his own evaluation.