As talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1) move to Baghdad, leaders and analysts alike are wondering whether diplomacy will be any more successful now than during previous negotiations involving the Obama administration. To answer that question, it is important to understand why the previous talks failed and what is — or might be — different now.
The previous two rounds of talks — which came in 2009, after Obama took office and almost immediately extended a hand of friendship toward Iran, and again in 2011 — failed for eight major reasons. In many of these areas, circumstances seem at least slightly improved this time around.
1. Conflicting agendas. During earlier negotiations, the Iranians and the United States were both dealing with other issues that made it difficult to compromise. The Iranians faced the consequences of the Green Revolution and the struggle for power that followed President Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election. Similarly, President Obama had a full political plate, trying to deal simultaneously with the collapse of the economy, landmark health care reform legislation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tensions with Russia over missile defense plans. In fact, a senior State Department official told the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi that the talks had to work right away or not at all. “Our Iran diplomacy was a gamble on a single roll of the dice,” he said.
2. Lack of trust. Neither side trusted the other sufficiently to make a deal earlier in the Obama administration. The mistrust was especially strong on the Iranian side. At the Bonn conference in December 2001 that followed the defeat of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the Iranians persuaded their Northern Alliance allies to support putting Hamid Karzai in power; Iran was “rewarded” for this cooperation in early 2002, when President Bush dubbed that country part of an “axis of evil.” Despite Obama’s campaign promises and unique background, the Iranians were uncertain that the new president viewed them any differently than President Bush. It is unclear whether the Obama trust situation has improved.
3. Iranian power struggle. Until recently there was a power struggle between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei. In October 2009, Ahmadinejad’s representative had actually agreed to a key compromise — a fuel swap that involved Iran transferring enriched uranium to Russia — only to have the Supreme Leader overturn the decision when the representative returned home. That same representative, Saeed Jalili, is attending the negotiations in Baghdad — but this time on behalf of the ayatollah himself. And Khamenei, now consolidated in power, has twice reiterated his fatwa, or religious order, prohibiting Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
4. Split international community. Until recent months, the international community was split in regard to Iran’s nuclear program, with Russia and China taking a much more accommodating line toward the Islamic Republic than the Western democracies. Now, however, the P5+1 countries have placed very tough sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Because of the reset in US-Russian relations that has resulted from the ratification and implementation of New START, Russia has supported the sanctions, backed the negotiations, and told Iran it must comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
5. Loss of an ally. Iran’s main ally in the region, the Assad regime in Syria, is no longer a symbol of governmental endurance and strength, but a regime tottering on the brink of overthrow.
6. Less containment. With the American exit from Iraq and the beginning of the Afghanistan withdrawal, Iran no longer feels encircled by the United States. In fact, Iran has become influential in Iraq, which is why it has insisted that the talks move from Istanbul to Baghdad next month.
7. Economic squeeze from sanctions. The incentives for success are far stronger this year that they were in 2009 and 2011. Iran is now in real distress; economic sanctions are beginning to bite and will become more draconian in July, when the European Union’s 27 member countries — which buy one-fifth of Iran’s oil exports — are set to stop Iranian crude purchases. As a result, the value of Iranian currency has already fallen sharply. Meanwhile, success in the Iranian negotiations has real appeal, both political and substantive, for President Obama, who would like to see himself as transformational; reducing nuclear weapons and curbing nuclear proliferation have been high on the list of transformations he’s hoped to foster.
8. Improved intelligence. As a result of an intelligence surge, the United States now has much better information about what is actually happening with Iran’s nuclear program than was the case during previous negotiations. This surge has involved the use of CIA drones, ramped up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, and an expanded network of spies.
Does the improved atmosphere for negotiation mean that these talks will be successful? There won’t be a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma unless both sides understand that there is no perfect solution to this complex problem, and that only a partial bargain can be reached. More important, each side must be willing to understand where the other is coming from.
For their part, the United States and its partners must recognize that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program and that the nonproliferation policies of the major powers have been wildly inconsistent — even within the relatively constrained universe of rogue regimes with nuclear capacity. North Korea, for example, has conducted nuclear tests and exported nuclear technology, yet until it attempted to launch a missile last week, Pyongyang was on tap to receive almost $400 million in food aid from the United States. Similarly, Pakistan, one of the most unstable countries on the planet and a supporter of terrorism and exporter of nuclear weapons technologies, receives billions of dollars in US aid each year. And India, which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has received all the benefits that signatories have. Iranian leaders have at least a prima facie case for believing their country is being discriminated against in nuclear matters.
In addition, the United States must not reinforce the perception that it (or its ally Israel) is intent on attacking Iran. Not only would such an attack fail to achieve its objectives, the consequences would be far worse than an Iranian nuclear weapon. The United States and its allies can contain a nuclear Iran, just as they have lived with a nuclear North Korea and Pakistan (not to mention a China that acquired nuclear capability under Mao Tse Tung). Talk of a preemptive attack makes it more, rather than less likely that Iran will deploy nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
The United States and its partners must recognize that Iran will not compromise on its right to enrich uranium. Even if the Iranians made such a compromise or the United States bombed Iranian nuclear facilities, the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon cannot be unlearned. The P5+1 should seek Iran’s agreement to cease its 20 percent enrichment program and to export the roughly 100 kilograms of fuel already processed to include that level of uranium 235.
For their part, the Iranians simply must grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to their country’s nuclear plants and facilities. Without this access, it is hard to see the international community gaining enough trust to relax sanctions, which should be the carrot for Iran to carry out its end of the bargain.
The conditions that favor an agreement are more favorable now than they have been in several years. Hopefully, the negotiators will capitalize on these conditions to reach an agreement that takes into account the legitimate concerns of each side and achieves a diplomatic solution to this critical problem.
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