Negotiating with Iran: Expectations for Baghdad

By Emily B. Landau | May 6, 2012

The only visible achievement of the talks between the major powers and Iran in Istanbul in mid-April — 15 months after the previous round had been pronounced a failure — was agreement to meet again in Baghdad. When judged against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s expressed determination to finally see concrete steps taken by Iran — halting enrichment to 20 percent uranium 235, shipping its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country, and closing the Fordow enrichment facility — this result was a disappointment. It was certainly not enough progress to put to rest fears that Iran might once again be using negotiations as a tactic to play for time — a familiar dynamic from the past decade of international efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy.

Amid ongoing concerns that Iran might still not be negotiating in good faith, there is nevertheless a chance that this time things will be different. Tentative indications of a changed Iranian attitude find expression in the very fact that the Iranians have agreed to discuss the nuclear issue, which they had not been willing to do in recent years. Moreover, despite repeated Iranian attempts to convince European Union foreign affairs and security policy representative Catherine Ashton to lift the pending European oil embargo, the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany, or P5+1, did not budge on this, and Iran nevertheless agreed to another round in May, knowing that the expectation for movement on their side will be even higher next time.

There should be no illusions, however, that these indications of a slightly more cooperative Iranian attitude signify a basic change of approach in the nuclear realm. Some confusion in this regard has been introduced of late due to a growing emphasis on the lack of clear-cut evidence that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has taken the decision to move to the actual development of nuclear weapons. The context for highlighting this issue over the past months has been the debate over whether and when Israel and/or the United States might take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Obama administration has clarified that absent evidence of Iran’s intent to actually produce the weapons, it would not consider the use of military force; its goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not the possibility of acquiring one.

While this question has attained prominence in the debate over the possible use of military force, which by all accounts would be an extreme measure, it is not relevant to the negotiations debate, which aims to resolve the nuclear crisis. Therefore, in assessing the prospects for negotiations, what is important is not whether the decision to go the final mile has been taken yet, but rather the nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has given clear indications of its steadfast determination to develop and maintain the ability to become a nuclear-capable state in short order if it should so decide. If Iran wants to continue to develop and maintain that breakout capability — even remaining one step short of actual weapons — it will not seriously pursue a negotiation that would prevent it from moving to nuclear weapons development.

Thus, for Iran to become more serious about negotiations to resolve the nuclear crisis, something must alter its calculus and make a negotiated settlement seem more attractive than the current situation. With its strong motivation to acquire a military capability, changing course for Iran requires the ongoing presence of severe pressure. In fact, if there are indications that Iran is indeed more serious this time around, it is only because it is responding to the very significant increase in international pressure since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its critical report on Iran’s nuclear program in November 2011.

Iran’s nuclear program is a cause for concern because it has cheated on its nuclear commitments and deceived the international community for years about its intentions and the nature of the program. The onus is therefore on Iran to convince the international community that something has changed. Agreeing to an external supply for the 19.75 percent enriched fuel required to run the Tehran Research Reactor would be a start. Beyond the demands set forth by the Obama administration with regard to uranium enrichment and the Fordow facility, it is an absolute necessity that Iran accept an intrusive inspection regime that would have a constant presence in the country. When a state cheats, it has to work hard to regain the confidence of others.

On the other hand, the international community is certainly not bent on humiliating Iran, nor does it discount the importance of providing Iran with a ladder it can use to descend from the high tree it has climbed. If Iran is serious, it knows what the international community is looking for: Iran needs to genuinely change course. Allowing Iran to claim victory in that the P5+1 now accepts its right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes — although this right was never negated in and of itself — could help Iran save face. Accepting the centrality of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be part of this frame. Agreeing to Iran’s desire to hold the next round of talks in Baghdad is a first step down the ladder, and the international negotiators could also agree to broaden the spectrum of issues under discussion, along the lines of a statement made by a member of the Iranian parliament in mid-April, claiming that the negotiations should not be confined to the nuclear issue, but also include topics such as confronting terrorism and drugs, regional crises, and energy. If this broadening of the talks is done in a serious manner, and not as a ploy to push the nuclear issue to the sidelines, the P5+1 could accept it, although the nuclear issue must remain the core issue to be resolved, and in short order.

This menu of steps to help Iran save some face cannot, however, include the lifting of sanctions. The pressure that comes with crippling sanctions is the only true leverage that the international community has over Iran, and — together with the threats of military consequences — it is what brought Iran to the negotiating table. Therefore, the major powers cannot offer lifting sanctions as a so-called confidence-building measure, nor can sanctions be conceded in return for initial Iranian steps. Sanctions cannot be lifted until the latter stages of negotiations, when Iran’s new seriousness has been demonstrated through concrete and meaningful steps in the nuclear realm.

The new round of negotiations has had a welcome side effect: The crisis has returned to its proper international framework. The dynamic of recent months — in which Israel, driven by its fears of unfettered Iranian nuclear progress, moved to the fore — had the effect of pushing the critical global nonproliferation challenge posed by Iran to the sidelines. Moreover, by allowing Israel to take center stage, international actors implicitly avoided their own responsibility to stop Iran, sidestepping the reality that Iran is very close to its goal because of the ongoing failure of strong international actors to work with determination and in unison over the past 10 years to curb Iranian ambitions.

Stopping Iran is first and foremost a global concern. Iran is violating an international treaty whereby it made a commitment to remain non-nuclear. This treaty — the NPT — was meant to curb nuclear proliferation worldwide. If Iran were to become a nuclear state after cheating on its commitment and deceiving the international community for years, the implications for the NPT would be devastating, and the prospects for further nuclear proliferation in the region and beyond would increase. Coupled with the threats that Iran is issuing across the Middle East and its aspirations for regional domination, a nuclear-capable Iran would pose a concrete and dire threat to regional security. Hopefully these stark realities, and the responsibility they have to deal with them, will be on the minds of the P5+1 negotiators when they face Iran in Baghdad.

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