Little Hope for Nuclear Sparkle in Geneva

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

The next round of multilateral nuclear talks between Iran and the "P5+1" (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany) is due next week in Geneva and, yet, despite some confidence-building efforts at the United Nations in September, October does not hold much promise for a nuclear surprise.

Why? This is because Western powers led by the US are full of rhetoric about working with the new moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani, but substance is lacking to back up the words in terms of making new offers conducive to a nuclear deal.

The distinct possibility that the Geneva talk may be doomed as yet another fruitless round has been raised by, among others, the "hint" given by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Iran will not be presented with any "new package". In other words, more of the same; namely, limited offers of relief from the comprehensive "crippling sanctions" in exchange for rather exorbitant demands on Iran over its nuclear program.

Even before Kerry spoke, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, made a similar "hint" in her meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on the sideline of UN General Assembly summit in late September. Ashton was all smiles when she sat next to Zarif and Kerry at a subsequent meeting, but the reality of a continuing inflexible and rigid Western stance on the nuclear issue invites continued impasse rather than soliciting hope. If between now and October 15, when the Geneva talks are scheduled to start, the US-led coalition of sanctioning powers fails to address Iran's request, articulated by Zarif, to reconsider its position, then the chances are that we are headed for more escalation of the nuclear standoff; especially in light of the warning by the US negotiator, Wendy Sherman, that US will push for new and tougher sanctions if the Geneva talks fail.

What this means is that the Western powers in Geneva will re-represent their "package of proposals" submitted in Almaty in June, which failed to put the main (ie energy and financial) sanctions on the table, while asking for serious nuclear concessions from Iran. In turn and just like in the past, Iran will in all likelihood reject the "Almaty package" as insufficient and one-sided.

This potential deadlock could be broken by a more flexible and imaginative Western diplomacy, one that would focus on the "end-game" and articulate the intermediary steps toward the ultimate goal, whereby the genie of Iran nuclear crisis would be put back in the bottle. Unfortunately, so far there is very little evidence that such a novel approach toward Iran from Western powers, addicted as they are to punitive actions and coercive diplomacy, may be forthcoming. On the contrary, there is reason to believe that the US is taking a giant step backward by insisting that all Iranian enrichment activities must stop before sanctions would be removed.

This is, in fact, the West's "new approach". It is a semi-turnaround from the previous "hints" and informal and or quasi-formal "suggestions" that Iran's right to peaceful uranium enrichment may be acceptable, under strict International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards of course - a rational position which seems to have been endorsed by US President Barack Obama himself in his UN speech last month.

That was before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's US visit, which prompted a more hawkish shift by Obama, who rekindled the "military threat" after a brief toying with "Iran engagement" policy. This was naturally repulsive to the Iranians, who immediately questioned Obama's unprincipled "flip flop", to paraphrase Zarif. As a result, the policy gap between Washington and Tel Aviv is narrowing considerably and perhaps even closing, to the detriment of a viable compromise formula with Iran in Geneva next week.

What makes this situation rather perplexing, however, is that Sherman, in congressional testimony that brought a negative response from hawkish lawmakers, raised the prospect of relief from sanctions on Iran, without being more specific. That relief could turn out to be a rehashing of the Almaty proposal, which called on Iran to stop the 20% enrichment of uranium and adopt the intrusive Additional Protocol, the voluntary but advanced nuclear safeguards standard introduced in the mid-1990s, in exchange for allowing Iran to trade with precious metals and an exemption on petrochemical industry sanctions. Iran's reaction back then - that it was unbalanced and did not put the main sanctions on the table - will likely be heard in Geneva again, perhaps with the caveat that Iran's "red line" on enrichment right is sacrosanct.

According to a Tehran University political science professor, who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity, the Iranian nuclear negotiation team "is counting on Russia and China to play a more proactive role and pressing the US for more flexibility". Whether or not this is in the cards remains to be seen as the government shutdown in Washington is bound to distract Obama from foreign policy matters. As both sides jockey for a better diplomatic position ahead of Geneva, there is still time for a US re-thinking of its negotiation strategy that has a minimal chance of success unless it reflects the Iranian demand for concessions on the main sanctions.

With only a few days before the parties congregate in Geneva, and with US domestic priorities pushing the foreign priorities to the side, the worst thing going for the Geneva talks may be that its timing coincides with the political showdown in Washington that is moving steadily toward an unprecedented debt default. Although most Washington observers gingerly conclude that the crisis will be averted at the eleventh hour, that is unlikely to happen before the October 15 talks commence. Still, with both sides seeking to avoid the impression of a failure, the best that can be expected is a marginal progress. That would keep the nuclear crisis intact for the foreseeable future.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) .  Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), 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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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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