Baghdad Nuclear Talks: Strategic Questions

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mohammad Hassan Sheikholeslami
Assistant Professor of International Relations and University Faculty Member

The latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers over the Iranian nuclear energy programme had provoked reactions much earlier than they were held on 14 April, let alone after it. After 11 hours of intensive negotiation, Dr. Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, and Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, appeared before the reporters, this time with a smile on their lips, and spoke of the constructive atmosphere of talks as well as the agreement of both sides to continue the dialogue on the basis of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). According to media reports, the deputies of both high-ranking officials were supposed to confer with each other and reach an agreement on the framework or agenda of the next round of negotiations, scheduled to be held in Baghdad on 23 May. Along parallel lines, the Iraqi Prime Minister, accompanied by a high-ranking delegation, made an official trip to Iran to consult on the development of Iraqi-Iranian bilateral ties and preparation of the necessary conditions for the Baghdad nuclear talks with Iranian authorities.

The accurate analysis of what discussions have been made during the Istanbul negotiations and their outcome is not possible now as no reliable information on the proceedings has yet been published. All that is available now is a collection of scattered data publicized by either unofficial or semi-official figures in Iran, a couple of interviews on the event, or comments written by low-profile European individuals, which can hardly be relied upon. Therefore, All we now have access to is a big cluster of comments and interviews which are based more upon the whims and wishes of their producers or their relative knowledge – of the developments related to Iran’s nuclear programme Iranian-Western relations, Iranian-American relations, or the concerted efforts of the Israeli Zionists in the West against the Islamic Republic – than upon accurate and reliable information. Authorities most probably refuse to publish or publicize the details of Istanbul nuclear negotiations due to their high sensitivity and simply suffice to reiterate their official and cautious positions and statements so that they may not imperil the delicate and vulnerable agreements reached during the talks. Thus, one will be well advised to treat all these comments, pieces of analysis and interviews, including this very article, with caution and read them on the assumption that they suffer from many deficiencies, which is due to the limited knowledge of their writers, including the author, about the relevant developments and details.

The author believes that the general and strategic questions about the issue are as follows:

First, what motive or motives beyond the involved actors’ official positions have persuaded and convinced them to resume negotiations? Pertinently, are both Iranian and Western sides serious about trying to settle Iran’s nuclear issue? Should one view and read the engagement of both sides in negotiations as a tactical or strategic action?
Second, is the recent attempt at resuming negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear energy programme a part of the greater endeavour to resolve the issues and problems existing between Iran and the West? Or the beginning or result of such an endeavour? Or perhaps there is presumably no relationship between the two? Third, in the current circumstances and given the intensive talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the past years and the West’s continuous pressure on the Islamic Republic – which have been exerted by slapping bilateral, multilateral and international sanctions and leveling baseless allegations against Tehran about terrorism, interference in other countries, and similar issues – and also given the Islamic Republic’s clear and transparent positions on the nuclear rights of the Iranian nation as well as the fact that the atmosphere of negotiations is presumably political rather than legal, what exactly is there to be bargained, exchanged or traded? Assuming that the Iranian and Western sides’ intention is to settle the dispute or at least scale down the tensions, what are they supposed to offer or have so far offered us and on what grounds should the Iranian side come to terms with the West? And what are we going to abandon? Fourth, considering the recent stances of Russia and China on the Syrian crisis, has our understanding of these two countries’ roles in the Iran-P5+1 nuclear negotiations or our expectations of them undergone a transformation? Do we expect to see the adoption of new approaches by Russia and China, that is, more reliable approaches which show a firmer resistance against the illegitimate demands of the West? Do we suppose that Russia and China have arrived at a more correct and proper assessment of the nature of their relations with the Islamic Republic? Fifth, apart from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), what rules and principles should be taken into consideration in devising a modality for future negotiations in order to attain fair and, more importantly, irreversible – that is, not susceptible to deceitful distortion and manipulation – results?

There are certainly other questions in addition to these, which should be discussed on other occasions. Thus, this article will try to review and assess the existing perspectives on the first four questions as broadly as possible. The author also assumes that in the current circumstances and given the lack of necessary political and technical information, it is not possible to answer the fifth question adequately.

There are two general takes on the first question, with the first assessment being that resuming nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic and the West is an inevitable or tactical move, and the second that this round of negotiations is different from those held in the past and Iran or the West or both have come to a definite conclusion about the necessity of resolving the dispute or easing the existing tensions. The proponents of the first view put forward a number of arguments. They argue that as far as the West is concerned, the economic crisis and the problems emanating from the hike in oil prices, the US and French presidential elections, Islamic Awakening in the Middle East and the crises in Syria and Bahrain, and the inability of Israel to put into practice its hollow threats of military action against Iran – which have been so exaggerated and thus exhausted that they have even elicited objections from Western analysts – constitute the major factors that have forces the United States to come back to the negotiation table. This group of observers maintains that the West is not serious about conferring with the Islamic Republic on the resolution of the Iranian nuclear controversy and just needs time to manage the aforementioned crises and control their future trends and trajectories.

Along the line, they contend that as far as Iran is concerned, Iranian politicians’ aversion to the election of a Republican candidate as the next president of the United States, the severe impact of sanctions - which are expected to be intensified in the coming summer – the unfavourable and adverse situation of Iran’s currency and gold market, the escalation of internal differences among Iranian political groups as well as among the executive, legislative and judicial sections of the government, Iranian leaders’ consideration of the threats of military action against the country as serious, and other security concerns resulting from the deterioration of economic and social conditions inside the country are the principal reasons behind Iran’s willingness to resume talks on its atomic programme. From this perspective, Iran is seen as not serious about the talks, but rather trying to buy more time as it has invariably done as the sole strategy in the case of negotiations over its nuclear activities during the recent years.

Seeking to prove that this round of nuclear talks is quite different from the past ones, the advocates of the second perspective point to the Iranian authorities’ official and repeated emphasis upon the necessity of total compliance with the religious edict of the Supreme Leader on proscribing the use of nuclear weapons, the change in the tone and language of both sides during the negotiations, the constructive statements by Dr. Jalili and Lady Ashton following the Istanbul meeting, the comments by some Iranian officials about the possibility of limiting high-degree uranium enrichment, and finally the unpreparedness of the world and the region for the intensification of tensions between Iran and the West.

In the final analysis, though it is hardly right to make a judgement about these two views because of existing intelligence deficiencies one may claim that the engagement of the Islamic Republic in nuclear talks is a strategic move – not due to the aforementioned reasons but to the priorities and requirements of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies as outlined by the Supreme Leader and the necessity of handling the regional developments appropriately – while the decision of P5+1 states to resume negotiation is a tactical one.

As for the second question, there are different arguments. Some believe that the process of reducing tension in relations between Iran and the United States have already started, citing the following factors and developments to hammer home their argument: Two secret letters the US President Barak Obama has sent to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the efforts of unofficial politicians and academics close to the Iranian government to establish a direct but informal relationship with American politicians within the framework of second-tier diplomacy – which was repudiated by the Iranian Presidential Office – the controversial claims made by the head of Expediency Council Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani about his past correspondence with the late Imam Khomeini on the necessity of resolving Iran-US hostility during his own life time and the radical and moderate reactions of political parties and groups to the claim, Obama’s obvious and direct remarks about his opposition to military action against Iran and even his attributing the increase in oil prices in the US and EU to the adoption of strict and stringent policies towards the Islamic Republic, the general disregard for the allegations of Tehran’s involvement in terrorist attacks against Israeli embassies in a couple of countries, the divergence of American and Israeli policies on how to confront Iran, the US concerns about the recent positions taken by Russia and China in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the UN Security Council and the possibility of their repetition in the case of the Iranian nuclear programme and thus Iran’s further strategic proximity to Russia and China, the election of Vladimir Putin as the next Russian president, the spiritual and moral influence of the Islamic Republic many groups and leaders involved in recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and generally their being inspired and influenced by the discourse of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the consolidation of national power in Iran in the wake holding successful parliamentary elections in the country, and a number of other reasons and factors.

In this respect, the former EU foreign policy chief Xavier Solana recently revealed that Washington has set up a direct channel for communicating with the Iranian government. At any event, this group of pundits regards the success of future talks on Iran’s nuclear programme dependent upon détente between Tehran and Washington, maintaining that both sides should make maximum use of the opportunity created by easing Iran-US tensions to settle the nuclear dispute. In contrast, another group presumes that the willingness for and success in resolving the existing problems between Iran and the United States are the result of a step-by-step process initiated by the progress of nuclear negotiations. They consider holding nuclear talks not as an opportunity to settle the controversy itself, but as an occasion to start the process of alleviating the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Gestures made by Dr. Jalili and Lady Ashton have quite excited both groups and provoked interesting responses among them. Take a look at the newspapers and websites affiliated with different political parties in Iran and you will see that both groups maintain until and unless Iran comes to terms with the United States, its domestic and foreign problems will not be solved. Not only is such an argument erroneous and one should not trace the origins of problems in the country and the possibility of their elimination to foreign factors, but also the over-thirty-year experience of the post-revolutionary era shows that whenever Iranians did so, problems were not solved, but even became worse and deepened. The fact is that such an approach weakens the position of the Islamic Republic in nuclear negotiations. If Dr. Jalili’s smile has caused some so-called political figures and groups to state in the run up to the Baghdad talks that the United States is the preeminent world power and we have no other option than to solve our problems with it or the military attack is imminent and it is high time to compromise and concede defeat, I wish he had not given that smile. It is evident that once the conditions of equal, just and useful dialogue are met, nobody in Iran is against dialogue and negotiation with any state, provided that it is a real state.

Giving a convincing answer to the third question requires both awareness of general information about Iran's nuclear negotiations and access to technical knowledge and data about the Iranian nuclear programme. For the time being, one can only say that there is no sign whatsoever indicating that the Islamic Republic is willing to retreat even an iota from its red line, namely its inalienable nuclear rights based upon the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iranian officials, topped by the Supreme Leader, have all stressed the point while according to NPT all countries are entitled to enriching uranium for civilian purposes. Some Iran-based as well as Western analysts have claimed that during the nuclear negotiations, the P5+1 group has asked Iran to allow the agency to inspect a number of military sites in the country or to stop enriching uranium to high degrees. Assuming that P5+1 members have made such demands, one should insist that they are neither among Iran's obligations on the basis of the Non-Proliferation Treaty nor among the red lines of the Iranian government. Therefore, it is possible to negotiate on them, provided that the other side in return proposes real measures beyond making such economically simplistic and low-value offers as membership in the World Trade Organization and then implements then in an irreversible manner.

Though Russia’s “step-by-step” scheme or any other plan of the type, according to which taking a step by one side is contingent upon a practical step by the other, can act as an appropriate basis for negotiations, the issue of irreversibility and, planning trustable mechanisms to prevent cheating and deception and reducing uncertainty as much as possible via these mechanisms should all be seriously be taken into consideration. One should not forget that it is wrong to test an already tested plan and that the “acceptance of negotiations based upon NPT by the P5+1 group” is by no means a great achievement deserving propagation, as this is a point they had clearly conceded to in the first article of the Paris Agreement as well as in the EU-3 talks held in Tehran subsequently.

Fourth, if the unofficial information which European negotiators have provided about the Russian position in the recent nuclear talks in Istanbul is correct, then one may not expect Russia and China to adopt a stiff position in support of Iran’s nuclear programme as they have done in the case of the Syrian government. Arguably, Beijing and Moscow have not, in the current circumstances, been willing to throw their weights behind the Islamic Republic and its nuclear stances any more than what we have witnessed so far. In other words, there is no strong and acceptable evidence to the effect that in the near future we will witness a shift in the foreign policies of these two big powers towards the Iranian nuclear programme. Meanwhile, we always face the more essential question, has Russia accepted a nuclear Iran or will prevent its nuclearization through others as far as it can?

In sum, faithful and conscious reliance upon God, honesty towards people, undisputed and firm commitment to national interests as defined by the responsible and endorsed by the Supreme Leader, leaving the affairs in general and technical nuclear negotiations in particular to those well attuned to them, showing flexibility within the framework of national interests, abstinence from overoptimism, trying seriously prevent the meaningless and opportunistic interference of political dealers and irresponsible media in the country’s sensitive affairs and finally creating maximum consensus inside the country, not least among the experts and actors involved in the negotiations, are some of the points attention to which will make those in charge of the issue stand tall before God, people and history.

Key Words: Strategic Questions, Baghdad Nuclear Talks, Iran and P5+1 Group, Non-Proliferation Treaty, IAEA, Sanctions, Step- by- Step Plan, Sheikholeslami

Source: Khabaronline News Website
Translated By: Iran Review

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