Iran and the West Have Strong Incentives to Continue Talks

Friday, June 1, 2012

Interview with Gary Sick
Middle East Affairs Analyst and Former Member of the US National Security Council

There was no breakthrough at the Baghdad talks. Was the outcome different from what you had expected earlier?

Well, I was modestly optimistic. I thought that there was an opportunity here for some real progress, at least some initial agreement about the 20% enriched uranium, for instance. But I was surprised to discover that the P5+1 were not willing to offer anything in the way of sanctions. We’ve got a lot of sanctions on Iran, and I had thought that it would certainly be possible to give up some of those as part of a bargain. But the P5+1 were not willing to do that and, in a way, it is a classic negotiation that each side is taking a position, saying “you need this more than we do” and they are sticking to their position and I guess the only thing that I am happy about is that there was an agreement for another meeting which suggests that both sides are certainly willing to continue the discussion. But it is a classic negotiation situation. Both sides are being very tough in the negotiations and we’ll see what actually is produced.

So, you are still optimistic in terms of the upcoming round of negotiations in Russia.

I think that the incentives for both sides are sufficiently high that they will not want to see this process end. For Iran, clearly they do want the sanctions removed or some of the sanctions lifted. That’s I think a very important thing for Iran, as well as getting acknowledgement of their rights and so forth. And on the West’s side, I think there is a recognition that if talks broke down completely, there is a very good prospect that the price of oil will go back up again. And I think in fact Iran has some capability of influencing the price of oil. So that would be something to be avoided as far as it could be in the US presidential campaign. If the price of oil went up and the price of gasoline went up in the US right during the peak driving season of the summer and at a time when the presidential campaign is going on, that clearly would not be good for President Obama. So I think both sides have a strong incentive to continue and I can’t predict what the outcome is going to be, but to say I am at least encouraged that they are planning to go back to the bargaining table.

Why do you think the US and its allies remained inflexible to allay some of the sanctions against Iran? What is the reason in your estimation?

I think they are taking a classic bargaining position, so if you are in the bazaar and you go into a shop and you’re looking at a carpet and you like it and the owner says what would you be willing to give me for this and you say well I like it but not enough to pay much of anything for it and you turn and walk away. And it seems to me that is exactly what the West is doing and in one respect I think this is a very dangerous prospect. This risks a complete breakdown which could be bad for both sides. On the other hand, I’m rather taken with the fact that the US and the West are actually practicing very good negotiating techniques and that they are willing to take a risk to make their point. This is something fairly new. We have always thought that the West was incapable of being a really clever bargainer and I think these discussions show that they are willing to take some risks and they are willing to take a position which I think Iranians would understand very well. Because Iranians know more about bargaining that we do.

There is definitely one positive development in terms of the US stance towards the Iranian nuclear program: they accepted that Iran continues enriching uranium up to 5% purity. While in 2010, as you remember, Iran signed a nuclear fuel swap deal mediated by Brazil and Turkey to transfer its uranium supply to a third country, but at the time the US called it “too little, too late”. How do you see this shift in US policy towards the Iranian nuclear program?

One of the things that I have found most difficult, maybe not to understand, but to appreciate, is the fact that the danger for the US, it seems to me, is to be so enamored of their sanctions that they are not prepared to use them for bargaining purposes. In fact, the sanctions are probably not going to be able to ever force Iran to change its position, but the sanctions can be used as bargaining tokens to make progress. And what I worry about when I see the US taking a very tough position with regard to the negotiations, is that they are afraid to ever give up any of their sanctions. That is what happened in 2010, where basically if they had agreed with the initiative by Turkey and Brazil, undoubtedly it would have undercut the sanctions effort that was underway at the UN at the time. And I think the US felt that it had such a large stake in that negotiating procedure with the Chinese and the Russians and everybody else, that they were not prepared to sacrifice that. Now those sanctions are in place and I think the West now is willing to consider going back to where it was before. I personally have disagreed with US policy in both cases, both in 2009 and 2010. I thought there was the makings of an agreement then and the West was simply not ready for it. Now, having had another round of very serious sanctions imposed, they seem to have agreed that, ok, we have the sanctions in hand, now we can negotiate. But as I said it worries me that they are so taken with their sanctions policy that they will not use the sanctions, as they could for negotiating purposes.

Do you believe that the US’ bigger interests in the Middle East and Central Asia, especially their security concerns in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and the issue of terrorism, give a tangible incentive to the US administration to reach a compromise with Iran? How do you see the role of such issues in the thinking of the US administration?

Well, one of the things that I had hoped is that, in this round in Baghdad, that they would create some subcommittees to look at other issues, I think drug trafficking, the security situation in Afghanistan, in terms of the security situation in Iraq, and the general security situation in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. All of those are areas that people have talked about repeatedly as areas where in fact the West and, in particular the US, and Iran actually share a set of interests. You would think that these were issues that could be addressed very productively. However, up until now, the emphasis has all been on the nuclear side and again I question that. I think the issue, if I understand the US negotiating position, my guess is that it is that they are afraid that taking up these other issues will end up being a distraction, and will distract from the main issue as far as they are concerned, of the nuclear issue. I think that is a questionable position, but that, I believe, is the position, and since they have made that the centerpiece, I am seeing some indications of, from what I understand of the Iranian position in Baghdad, that the Iranian position was to promote some discussion of other issues, but I don’t think that was rejected necessarily, but, as far as I can see, it has not been taken up systematically. So I would like to see a two-track, or even three-track, negotiation, in which the nuclear part was one, it is going to remain the center of the issue, but other issues that added on separately, which I think we could move much more quickly and productively in areas like Afghanistan and others than we can on the nuclear issue.

Do you think reaching a compromise with Iran would benefit Barack Obama in his presidential campaign?

Not necessarily. The main problem is that, whatever he does on Iran, his opponents will either say that he has failed or that he hasn’t done enough. I think he would be subject to criticism either way. I think, to me, the worst outcome would be a complete breakdown of talks, an exchange of a new round of threats, which then raises the tension level in the Persian Gulf, and also raises the price of oil. To me, that would be the most harmful way that would happen that would directly affect Obama and his election chances. If some kind of an agreement is reached, it would not necessarily help him in the sense that people would vote for him for that reason, but it would prevent the worst case scenario, and in fact in that way it would be generally be helpful to him. I think that is as much as one can hope.

So you believe that the Obama administration intends to avoid a new war in the region?

I think so. In everything that I have seen, you kind of remember, that back almost four years ago now, four to five years ago, Israel specifically suggested to the Bush administration in its last year or two years, Israel suggested that they wanted to get approval from the US for a possible attack against Iran. This was made very public and it was not a big secret, and I was struck by the fact that the Bush administration, in its last year, when it had very little to lose, decided to say no. And basically, they rejected that request from Israel. I am oversimplifying things, but that is what happened. It is hard for me to believe that the Obama administration is going to approve an attack that the Bush administration would not. That strikes me as very unlikely and, from my own perspective, the outcome of any clash in the Gulf area is going to be a disaster for everybody, for Iran, for the US, for President Obama, for Israel. In every way, I think, it would make things worse and so, my guess is that whoever is in a position to talk about launching a new attack in the Persian Gulf, they will have to stop and think very very seriously about that before going ahead. Up until now, we had a lot of talk about attacks in the Gulf, attacks on Iran, and you may have noticed that they have not happened. I think that tells you something about the realities of the situation.

If you were to advise Iran on the nuclear issue, what would you recommend for the talks in Moscow?

Well, I think Iran, first of all, was correct in meeting separately with Mr. Amano, and so what I would recommend very strongly is to sign an agreement with the IAEA which the terms of that have apparently been worked out. I think they should sign that agreement and begin to implement it very quickly. There are a set of, what they say are, unanswered questions that deal with Iran’s activities back in the days of Saddam Hussein; we are talking about a period now almost ten years ago. That is the sticking point as far as the West is concerned, and that is what all of the sanctions are about in the Security Council. [They] are about things that are activities of Iran that are reported to have taken place back in the days of the end of the Iran-Iraq war and up until the time when Saddam Hussein fell. It is entirely possible, and I personally don’t find it unbelievable that Iran was, in fact, conducting experiments about nuclear weaponization during that period when they thought that Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat to them, and Iran could have used a nuclear deterrent. By all accounts, Iran ceased that activity in about 2003 and 2004, and I can understand why it would be embarrassing for Iran to admit that, in fact, it did certain things ten years ago, but, at the same time, I think the only way we are going to end this problem is by Iran saying, “Yes, we did some things, there were some programs going on that we wouldn’t be doing today. All of those have been stopped, we put an end to all of that in 2003, 2004” just as the western intelligence system says Iran did. And that’s that. And it might be embarrassing, but it is worth it to open things up. I think Iran is going to have to address those earlier issues, and I personally feel “the sooner the better”. Otherwise, I think Iran is probably correct in insisting that it should have its rights recognized by the West, and that they have the right to have their position heard, and I think they are also within their rights to call for a relief from the sanctions. I think that is very reasonable and my guess is that that will happen over time, but I think it is going to be slower than we would have hoped. The outlines of an agreement are fairly easy to see. It doesn’t take any great brilliance to figure out what a final agreement would look like. But did we expect these ten, twenty years, knowing how the outline of such an agreement would look? And it hasn’t happened. So I think, we perhaps are a little premature to expect the whole thing to be resolved quickly.

As for the last question, what would be your recommendation to the Obama administration if it intends to secure an agreement with Iran in the Moscow talks?

I think that the concept of the Russian plan, which is step-by-step concrete steps by each side where you know what the outcome is going to be and you work your way to that point, that it seems to me is the right way to go. The Russians have that proposal on the table, that is very well-known, the meetings are going to be in Moscow, where presumably the Russians will have somewhat more influence than they had perhaps in the past, and, to me, the Obama administration should accept some form of that kind of a proposal, where each side agrees on a set of steps, each side measures the progress step-by-step, and you know what the outcome is supposed to be. So you know where you are going, and you know how you are going to get there. That sounds easy, it may be very difficult in terms of the precise details, but I think that is the way the Obama administration should try to structure its own policy.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)

More By Gary Sick:

*It Takes Two to Tango:

*Are We Headed for a Bay of Pigs in Iran?:

*Will Israel Really Attack Iran?:

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