Iran Talks Yield No Deal, But Build Trust

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

"We had long and intensive discussions on the issues ... it became clear that the positions of the E3+3 and Iran remain far apart on the substance ... We have therefore agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process."

With these words, the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton summed up the results of the fifth round of multilateral Iran talks since last January, insisting at the same time that there was no "breakdown" even though there was no deal. In comparison, the Russian representative at the intense two days of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, between Iran and the world powers known as "P5 +1" put a more positive spin by describing it as transparent and constructive. Sergei Rybakov's sentiments appeared to be shared by the US representative, Wendy Sherman, who was able to engage in a lengthy dialogue with Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator, who responded to the questions in details and subsequently expressed satisfaction at "good progress."

Although no date for a future talk has been set, both sides seem determined to continue the (arduous) process and even Sherman seconded Ashton's comment on the inappropriateness of describing the stalled talks as having reached a breakdown.

On the contrary, the opportunity for substantive negotiations afforded in Almaty on April 5 and 6 simply means that talks to achieve better understanding of each side's points of views as well as build confidence have unique values in and of themselves that should not be ignored. Indeed, a new light has been shone on the crucial importance of "talk for understanding's sake", which is vastly different from "talk for talk's sake", particularly since the Iranian side has consistently couched itself in the language of "cooperation."

Echoing Jalili's cautiously positive sentiment, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has called for a calm environment at the atomic agency so that the current efforts at improving the foundation for future cooperation between Iran and IAEA can materialize. The Iranian point of view is that whereas the initial Almaty talks in early February gave the other side opportunity to submit a proposal, at this round it was Iran's turn to present its "comprehensive" initiative, which was a reworking of the proposal unveiled at the Moscow talks last Summer and boils down to two key components: recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium and the lifting of major sanctions in response to Iran' stoppage of 20% enrichment.

In a sign of Iran's growing displeasure, as well as impatience, with the intransigent and hostile Western approach over economic sanctions, Alaedin Boroujerdi, head of Parliament's foreign policy and national security commission, has threatened Iran's exit from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if Western nations continue with disrespecting Iran's rights and refusing to end the sanctions.

The nub of the problem is a basic mismatch between the Western powers' rhetoric and their proposals, the fact that they claim to recognize Iran's NPT rights and, yet, continue to push for the end of 20% enrichment only as a "short-term" or initial agreement, whereby a minor part of sanctions would be lifted. This has elicited the Iranian response of asking what the "end-game" is and how the short-term and long-term agreements are connected.

The moment the US and its allies recognize Iran's enrichment right, then a key implication would be the acknowledgement of Iran's low-enrichment activities and the related finality of any agreement on 20% enrichment and other subsidiary issues such as enhanced transparency. Instead, the Western approach continues to revolve around the full implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions which call for full suspension of all enrichment activities.

This is precisely why these powers are unwilling to lift the major sanctions in exchange for the 20% enrichment, offering instead incremental relief from sanctions that from the Iranian stand point fall dreadfully short. Tehran is also concerned that Washington may not be able to deliver on any such deals because of opposition in the US Congress.

Consequently, what we may witness in the foreseeable future is a fragile stalemate, characterized by sustained sanctions punctured by exemptions such as for some 20 Iran oil importers and for medical supplies, thus reflecting an enduring status quo whereby Iran evades the "red line" by self-limiting its enrichment stockpile and confirming the absence of any military diversion.

There are numerous side-effects to this uncomfortable status quo, yet its advantages also merit attention in terms of avoiding war and a complete collapse of the Iranian economy. Over time, however, this situation is intolerable for the oil market, Iran's economic well-being, and regional stability, all the more reason to telescope the talks to a meaningful final resolution. In fact, the latter is not difficult to surmise at all and can come about by following a formula for success based on the following elements:

1. A complete suspension of Iran's 20% enrichment.
2. Iran's signing a new modality with the IAEA to resolve the lingering questions on "possible military dimension".
3. Iran's agreement to adopt the intrusive Additional Protocol of the NPT.
4. Iran's agreement to register at the UN the Supreme Leader's edict on nuclear weapons.
5. World powers recognition of Iran's NPT right to possess a nuclear-fuel cycle.
6. The removal of all the UN and unilateral sanctions imposed in connection with the nuclear dispute.
7. World powers' guarantee of delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran.
8. World powers' firm commitment to assist Iran's civilian nuclear industry, including on safety matters.
9. World powers agreement to return Iran's file from the UN Security Council to the IAEA and declare all the Iran UN resolutions fulfilled.

All those elements, extrapolated from the overall context of the Iran nuclear crisis, are in fact rather straightforward and uncomplicated. Then the "short-term" agreement would be not a prelude to a future one but rather the end result, period. There would be serious mechanisms in place to ensure the peacefulness of Iran's nuclear program and, from Iran's point of view, sufficient and proportionate responses by the other side proving their good-faith in negotiation.

That, of course, is all hypothetical. The Western powers have resisted this sort of mutually acceptable agreement in part because they have alternative interests that dictate continuing the Iran nuclear standoff and, also, because it is not in Israel's interests to end the crisis so quickly. As in the past, Israel remains a main bulwark against a reasonable Western deal with Iran.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2004 to 2006). He is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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Source: Asia Times Online

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