Why Talks with Iran Haven’t Worked

Why Talks with Iran Haven’t Worked


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.”

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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.

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