Getting to the Endgame With Iran

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Getting to the Endgame With Iran

Iran and the P5+1 powers have scheduled talks. Now the hard part begins.

Why did it take so long to secure a date for talks between Iran and the P5+1?

After all, in the weeks before the presidential election in November, it was reported that the United States and Iran had already tactically agreed to convene private, one-on-one talks. And since then the United States, the European powers, Russia, and China, all sought to arrange another round of negotiations, first in December and then in January. It now appears that Iran, which is about to enter its presidential election season, has finally agreed to what will be the first round of negotiations with the P5+1 since the last round in Moscow seven months ago.  On Tuesday, Tehran announced that it will join talks on February 26 in Kazakhstan.

The negotiations will be a serious test for the Obama administration and for John Kerry, the new secretary of state. Previous rounds have all faltered because neither side was willing to make concessions to the other, and so far there is little sign that the United States and the P5+1 have improved their offer to Iran very much. As the talks were announced, the Washington Post reported: “The P5+1 powers have made only mild revisions to a proposal that Iran flatly rejected last June.” Until now, the United States has been unwilling to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil and to suggest that some economic sanctions might be lifted as part of a deal, and Iran has refused to agree even to a limited deal called “stop, ship, and shut” – involving the suspension of its enrichment to 20 percent purity, shipping its existing stockpiles of 20% uranium to a third country for processing, and shutting down its underground facility at Fordo, near Qom – without an agreement to lift sanctions.

After the reelection of Barack Obama in November, there were great hopes that the president would have greater political freedom of offer concessions to Iran. Yet, publicly at least, the White House isn’t signaling that it is ready to make a more generous offer to Iran, and in fact Obama in January signed into law yet another round of draconian economic sanctions.

Perhaps as a result, Iran allegedly dragged its feet on setting a date for talks. Despite prodding from the P5+1 – including urgent efforts by Russia — in January Iran reportedly went silent about talks. Russia, increasingly frustrated by the inability of Tehran and the West to negotiate seriously, vented its frustration. “Some of our partners in the six powers and the Iranian side cannot come to an agreement about where to meet," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference. "We are ready to meet at any location as soon as possible. We believe the essence of our talks is far more important (than the site), and we hope that common sense will prevail and we will stop behaving like little children.”

According to analysts in Washington, reinforced by comments from Iran itself, a big reason for Tehran’s recalcitrance is that Iran wants to prove to the United States that its vaunted sanctions regime will not force Iran to make unilateral concessions at the bargaining table. In addition, Iran is concerned that it won’t get much in return in talks with the West, and that it will be asked to make unilateral concessions on uranium enrichment without getting sanctions relief in return. Combined with Iranian internal divisions, as its own presidential election season gets underway, that could mean that for the next six months or so Ayatollah Ali Khamenei simply won’t be ready to talk seriously, despite scheduling the Kazakhstan round.

Others suspect that Iran is waiting to see how President Obama’s new national security team – with Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and John Brennan at the Central Intelligence Agency – will shape Obama’s stance at any talks.

In Washington, some would argue there’s a growing consensus, at the level of think tanks, Iran experts, and other analysts, that a preliminary, first-round deal, including “shop, ship, and shut,” might work, if in response the P5+1 could lift some of the economic sanctions on Iran and agree to limited Iranian enrichment.

Perhaps the best-case scenario is the possibility that there are ongoing, secret and back-channel talks between Washington and Tehran. Nothing along those lines has leaked and there is no indication of this, yet. But in advance of the first round of Iran-P5+1 talks in Vienna in 2009, the United States and Iran did indeed engage in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

In fact, of course, any sanctions relief for Iran will occur slowly and step-by-step, not all at once, in parallel with steps taken by Iran and openness to more intrusive inspections and oversight by the IAEA.

But it’s certainly not helpful that in early January yet another round of unilateral sanctions was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The complex set of new measures targets key industrial sectors, including shipping and imports of products such as aluminum, steel and coal, and seeks to block Iran from using barter commodities such as oil and gold to pay for imports. The Washington Post paraphrased U.S. officials as saying that, “the new policies are closer to a true trade embargo, designed to systematically attack and undercut Iran’s major financial pillars and threaten the country with economic collapse.” Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that contained the sanctions provisions despite having hinted earlier that he might veto the NDAA over a host of measures contained in the bill.

If the Obama administration believes that ever-tougher sanctions will cause Iran to cave in at the talks, it’s likely that they are badly misreading Iranian politics.

For many observers, however, and for Iran, too, the nomination of Hagel for secretary of defense may be a sign that the White House is beginning to realize that sanctions, and threats of military action, won’t force Iran’s hand.

As has been widely reported, hawks, neoconservatives, and members of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington have slammed Hagel for his past comments and positions on Iran. In conjunction with Israel-friendly members of Congress, they’ve warned Obama to rein Hagel in so as not to send a dovish signal to Tehran. Robert Satloff, executive direction of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israel think tank, warned bluntly that the White House should act quickly to make sure that Hagel backs away from his previous views on Iran and at least toes the administration’s tougher line. “If the White House does not take steps soon to correct that impression, the chances for a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis will fall nearly to zero and the likelihood of Israeli military action will rise dramatically,” he wrote.

Indeed, within days of his nomination as secretary of defense, Hagel was already backing away from his earlier views, meeting with senior Pentagon officials and influential senators who’ll vote on his confirmation to clarify his views on Iran, asserting that he supports broad international sanctions against Iran and that he believes that the military option ought to be “on the table.” Several Democratic senators who met with Hagel announced with satisfaction that the former senator from Nebraska had sufficiently backtracked or “clarified” his views on Iran. Consequently, they announced that he had earned their support – and their vote.

Then, during his confirmation hearings on January 31, Hagel – under hostile questioning from several Republican senators – backed away from earlier-held positions on Iran, including the role of sanctions. And, though he previously been a sharp critic of a military attack on Iran, in his opening statement Hagel said: “I am fully committed to the President’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and—as I’ve said in the past—all options must be on the table to achieve that goal. My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment—and the President has made clear that is the policy of our government. As Secretary of Defense, I will make sure the Department is prepared for any contingency.”

Satloff’s views were echoed by another tough-talking official at WINEP, former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a pro-Israel hawk who served as Obama’s top adviser on Iran during much of the president’s first term. “I think 2013 is going to be decisive,” Ross told the Los Angeles Times, expressing concern about Hagel’s previous comments. “Time really is running out. For diplomacy to have a chance of success, the Iranians need to understand that if diplomacy fails, force is going to be the result. We still have a challenge to convince the Iranians that we’re quite serious about the use of force,” he said. “In the first term, the administration didn’t always speak with one voice on this issue. So what Hagel says can make a difference.”

Despite his poorly receieved performance at his confirmation hearings, it’s widely believed in Washington that Hagel will be confirmed as secretary of defense and that his private advice to Obama will more closely hew to his long-held beliefs about the futility of sanctions and the grave downside to a military strike. Partly for that reason, it remains very unlikely that the Obama administration will resort to force to resolve the dispute with Iran. In fact, in remarks that Iranian officials cited as promising, Vice President Joe Biden expressed the administration’s willingness to hold bilateral talks with the Iranians. In response to a question at the Munich Security Conference Biden said, “We have made it clear at the outset that…we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership” when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is serious about negotiations. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi responded favorably and said, “I am optimistic, I feel this new administration is really seeking this time to at least divert from its previous traditional approach vis-a-vis my country.”

But if Washington remains committed to ever-tougher sanctions – and without promising Iran that sanctions will be lifted as part of a deal – then negotiations are unlikely to succeed. Vali Nasr, another former Obama administration official with expertise on Iran, suggested recently that there's not much more the world can do to sanction Iran, and that such penalties could drive Tehran to take radical action. The regime of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activity "really has reached its end," Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said during the World Economic Forum in Davos. And he warned that unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough — or, alternatively, an attack on Iran — "you really are looking at a scenario where Iran is going to rush very quickly towards nuclear power, because they also think, like North Korea, that (then) you have much more leverage to get rid of these sanctions.”