A glimmer of optimism has surrounded the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers since the current round resumed in April. While it’s unlikely that there will be a breakthrough soon, and probably not until after Iran’s 2013 presidential elections, that’s no reason not to continue talking.
Following expert-level talks in Istanbul on July 3-4, an agreement was reached to have deputy-level negotiators meet again soon, and according to a document circulated by Iran’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations, Tehran has proposed regular meetings, at three-month intervals, between its negotiators and the P5+1, represented by Catherine Ashton of the European Union.
Despite an outcry from neoconservatives and hawks in the United States that Iran is merely playing for time, that—time—is not a bad idea. In the meantime, has anything been accomplished since April?
Well, yes and no.
What’s emerging from the talks, so far, is a hazy outline of a path to success, a kind of step-by-step process that might start with Iran agreeing to suspend production of 20-percent enriched uranium, shipping most or all of it out of the country, in return for a slight or symbolic easing of economic sanctions against Iran. Further steps might follow, with additional easing of sanctions tied to more confidence-building measures by Iran, such as greater transparency about its nuclear research program, perhaps along with peripheral accords on regional issues, drug-trafficking, piracy at sea and Afghanistan. Those steps conceivably could lead to a more comprehensive accord, in which the P5+1 formally accepts Iran’s right to enrich uranium, on its own soil, to 5 percent purity, in exchange for Iran accepting limits on its enrichment, complete transparency, and unfettered inspections of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, hopefully including interviews with its top nuclear scientists.
Let’s review the story so far.
In the first round, held April 13-14 in Istanbul, there was indeed an air of optimism. To be sure, the United States led the P5+1 in what appeared to be a relatively hard-line opening stance, demanding the immediate shutdown of a fortified, underground refining facility at Fordow, outside Qom, a complete halt to Iran’s 20 percent enrichment and the transfer of its stockpile of that material to a third country. But what was missing, it seemed, was an explicit demand from the United States for Iran to halt all enrichment, even to 5 percent, even though a set of United Nations Security Council resolutions demand exactly that. And behind the scenes, there were reports that President Obama has quietly signaled Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s leader, through Turkey that the United States “would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation ‘will never pursue nuclear weapons.’” Following the talks, Ashton explicitly noted the gradual nature of how she expected the talks to unfold. “We will be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity,” she said.
Despite intensified economic sanctions against Iran, widespread reports of cyber sabotage of Iran’s program by the United States and Israel, and apparent confirmation that Israel has been conducting an aggressive campaign of assassinations directed at Iranian scientists, not only did the talks continue but U.S. officials also emphasized that chances of an open military conflict involving Iran and the United States and/or Israel were fast receding.
Before and during the second round of talks, held May 23-24 in Baghdad, optimism continued to build, even among American negotiators, although at least some of that optimism may have been the result of the misguided belief that economic sanctions would force Iran into unilateral concessions. On the eve of the talks, the IAEA announced that it had reached a tentative accord with Iran on inspecting at least some of Iran’s secret military facilities, although that accord later stalled. From Iran, there was a host of positive signals about Tehran’s willingness to compromise in the talks, and although Western diplomats complained of difficulties in the talks in Baghdad, the talks there were at least detailed and delved into specific matters involving Iran’s program. And once again, Ashton said that enough “common ground” was established for another meeting in June. For its part, Iran reportedly insisted on open and official recognition of its right to enrich, at least to 5 percent. While acceptance of that right will undoubtedly be part of a final agreement, Iran’s negotiators, including Saeed Jalili, must have fully understood that it will come at the end, not at the beginning, of the talks.
On the other hand, perhaps under U.S. pressure, the P5+1 offered Iran little to nothing in return for Iran’s agreement on its more controversial enrichment to 20 percent, reportedly offering a hodge-podge of spare parts for Iran’s fleet of civilian aircraft and help with nuclear safety. If a further step by the P5+1 to accept enrichment to 5 percent was implicit, it wasn’t made explicit. And in any case, to Iran’s chagrin, it wasn’t linked to any easing of economic sanctions. Yet, according to The New York Times, Iran’s demand for the P5+1 to accept enrichment to 5 percent was “never put into writing.” As we shall see, that would change. But after the Baghdad talks, Iran’s leaders unanimously chorused that under no circumstances, sanctions or not, would it sacrifice its 5 percent enrichment program, and Iran’s nuclear chief said that neither would Iran halt enrichment to 20 percent.
The third round, held June 18-19 in Moscow, resulted only in an agreement for a meeting between experts on the technical side. Although there were some reports that the United States and its allies might have tabled a proposal to suspend at least one of the manifold sanctions, namely, the ban on insuring tankers carrying Iranian oil, no deal was reached. Casual observers, and those demanding a quick breakthrough, may have been disappointed by the Moscow round, even though Ali Baqeri, one of Iran’s negotiators, called the talks “very serious and constructive.” By the conclusion of the talks, there was a chorus of pessimism, with various reports suggesting that the talks were a useless exercise, that Iran was stalling and playing for time, and that the Obama Administration needed to rethink its entire strategy. None of that was true, of course, since virtually everyone familiar with the talks understood that solving a problem as complicated as Iran’s nuclear program would take many, many rounds of talks over a long time. In fact, the decision to send the talks to a phase involving experts was probably a good one, since it moved the process out of the glare of the media spotlight. According to the Washington Post, the technical talks, held in Istanbul on July 3-4, got down to the “nitty-gritty.”
Some of that nitty-gritty was included in a memorandum, dated July 3 and released by Iran’s UN Mission to a group of Iran experts (and later published in the Tehran Times), that laid out concrete and specific positions – including the suggestion to conduct periodic talks every three months and a program of “confidence-building, reciprocal steps.”
As it has done throughout the current round, Iran, in the document, insisted that the P5+1 accept Iran’s right-to-enrich and “openly announce it.” Among its other demands, according to the document, Iran demands that “the 5+1 will terminate all unilateral [and] multilateral sanctions (out of the UN Security Council framework)” – i.e., the U.S. and EU sanctions not specifically approved by the UNSC. It then goes further, saying: “In order to build confidence on their intentions, the 5+1 will terminate sanctions and will remove Iran’s nuclear file from the UNSC agenda.” Needless to say, these are events that will come at the very end of the process. Of course, the United States ought to declare, forthrightly, that it will support Iran’s right-to-enrich (to 5 percent) under the right conditions, but the political reality in the United States in an election year probably precludes that.
On what many analysts consider to be the first step in a step-by-step process, the issue of Iran’s enrichment to 20 percent, the July 3 document takes what appears to be a hard line, presenting a series of reasons why Iran will continue to enrich to 20 percent, including the supposed need to supply four additional reactors besides the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and something new, namely, the “right of the Islamic Republic of Iran to sell fuel complexes to other countries.” But here and there, including in its discussion of the Fordow facility, there are hints that Iran might be willing to resuscitate some version of the October, 2009, accord on 20 percent-enriched uranium. And at one point, under the heading “Confidence building steps,” the document says: “The Islamic Republic of Iran will cooperate with 5+1 to provide enriched fuel [at 20 percent] needed for TRR.” A report in the Christian Science Monitor quotes an Iranian official, after the technical round in Istanbul, saying:
“My first impression is that there is room to be optimistic, as long as both sides need to calm the situation, because it is getting out of control. … We said the issue of 20-percent could be a matter of discussion, when the [final] result was known, if they said what they are going to give us in return – a full lifting of sanctions. We said all of them, though it could be done part by part.”
Part by part, or step by step – whatever the phrase, it’s going to take a lot of time, and patience.