There’s a great deal of huffing and puffing about the suspension of talks between Iran and the P5+1, the international bloc of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The talks, which began Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey, ended Saturday with no accord, and no further meetings were set.
Various hardliners, hawks and neoconservatives around the world are, predictably, saying that talking with Iran is hopeless and that only pressure, sanctions, and eventually military force will stop Iran from getting a bomb. Take, for instance, the hawkish Australian, whose editorial said: "Diplomacy looks to be at a dangerous dead end in Iran after the failure of the latest talks in Istanbul between Tehran’s negotiators and the P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany. Iranian obstinacy meant the meeting in Istanbul was over in a day. There was no give, no attempt at compromise, and there are now no plans for further talks on Iran’s nuclear program."
The Daily Telegraph found one US official who warned ominously of the need to take out "the stick" in the form of military threats, and the French foreign minister, another hawk, is talking about imposing yet stronger economic sanctions on Iran.
In fact, the situation is not bleak. Not only will the talks resume again, and probably soon, but the reports that the talks were useless or counterproductive are simply wrong. In fact, despite the breakdown of the negotiations, President Ahmadinejad of Iran said on Sunday that they’ll be back. According to The Daily Star, of Beirut, "Iran hopes to resume talks with world powers on its nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday, a day after discussions ended in stalemate with no clear agreement to meet again. ‘If the other party is determined and committed to law, justice and respect, there is hope that in the next sessions good results would be achieved,’ Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech to a crowd in the city of Rasht."
The talks began with Iran proposing what Saeed Jalili, their erudite negotiator, called "prerequisites," and the P5+1 called "preconditions," namely that the P5+1 recognize Iran’s right under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium and that the economic sanctions be lifted immediately. None of the P5+1 powers were likely to respond positively to that idea—at least, not yet, not without some Iranian concessions—and so the talks stalled. The Moscow Times reported: "During the summit in Istanbul on Friday and Saturday, Iran pushed demands that it must have known were unacceptable to the six—a lifting of sanctions and acceptance of its enrichment program before any further discussion of its nuclear activities."
But that’s not the whole story. On Friday, Jalili—who refused to meet one-on-one with Bill Burns, the US State Department deputy secretary—did meet one-on-one with Catherine Aston of the European Union and with the Chinese and Russian representatives. And according to Ashton, on Saturday the P5+1 left Iran with the outlines of an updated offer to transfer some, but not all, of its enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing into nuclear fuel for a research reactor, and possibly, for its nuclear power plant in Bushehr. Ashton told reporters that they’d told the Iranian side to take the offer back home, think about it, and come back to the talks when they are ready. "There are no talks planned at the present time, [but] our door remains open, our telephone lines are open," Ashton said.
Germany’s foreign minister echoed Ashton: "We are still prepared for talks. I hope that Iran is ready to take the outstretched hand of the international community."
And the Chinese weighed in with a reasoned response, too. According to Reuters, China’s assistant foreign minister, Wu Hailong, said: "The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated and sensitive, and obviously cannot be comprehensively resolved through one or two rounds of dialogue. But still, each side needs to be dedicated to talks and negotiations in a flexible and pragmatic spirit, create mutual trust and make efforts to solve the issue comprehensively and appropriately."
And, rather than take the view of the hawkish US official who talked to the Telegraph, a senior US official told reporters afterwards: "The Iranians are notoriously tough negotiators. There was bound to be a serious test of international resolve. I think it remains to be seen whether the Iranians are serious about engaging in practical steps to get from where we are. And I don’t think [we are going to figure that out] in one or two meetings. I think there is still time to test that." The fact that he said that there is "time" for the talks to resume means that the Obama administration isn’t panicking or trying to portray the Iranian nuclear program as a crisis. The real problem is in Tehran, since the highly complex political dynamic there makes it difficult for any Iranian faction to accept a deal with the United States and the West unless it’s ratified by all, or nearly all, of Iran’s power centers, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader; the conservative, anti-Ahmadinejad leadership in parliament; and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees the nuclear program. And the US official is right that Iranians are "tough negotiators."
Still, Jalili said after the talks, according to the Tehran Times: "We are ready for more talks. We have always urged the other side to return to the talks. We think the time is always right for talks and cooperation, in light of our pure logic and good potential as well as our proposals."
It’s possible to question Jalili’s understanding of "pure logic," but Iran is correct that the P5+1 will ultimately have to recognize Iran’s right to enrich and to lift the sanctions.
Some analysts have identified Iranian interal politics as a critical factor. Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute said, according to VOA, that Ahmadinejad cannot risk looking weak at home: "He does not want to have himself sidelined by being depicted by Khamenei’s people as the weak one who unpatriotically sold out. I think we should be much more aware of how domestic politics in Iran is manipulating Iran’s diplomatic position, because on the surface what the Iranians are doing does not make sense. For them to show up in Istanbul and literally go away with nothing, this cannot be incompetence. So there is something here at play, there is disagreement that they cannot come out and publicly tell us, and the disagreement is rooted in the ambitions of the real players behind the nuclear program and I see it as Ahmadinejad versus Khamenei at this stage."
Reading tea leaves in Tehran is notoriously difficult. But so is reading the nuances of the Obama administration’s muddled approach to Iran’s nuclear program. Obama, too, seems afraid of looking weak in front of US hardliners and hawks. What, exactly, did the United States and the P5+1 put on the table in Turkey? According to Reuters, "During talks in Istanbul on Saturday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton proposed to the Iranian side that Tehran send abroad 2,800 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 40 kg of higher-grade material, according to one Western diplomat." That’s more, a lot more, than what Iran was supposed to ship out as a result of the October 2009, deal that fell apart. On the surface, at least, it looks like a tougher proposal. But, as I reported last month:
"The scuttlebutt in Washington is that the Obama administration is prepared, going into the talks, to present Iran with a very favorable offer. According to insiders, they’ll ask Iran to ship nearly all of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for reprocessing into fuel rods. (Last year, the deal was for Iran to ship the bulk of its LEU to Russia and France, but the French have acted so annoyingly obstreperous that this time they’re being shut out of the deal.) Some of the LEU would be further enriched for use in the medical-use Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). But since the TRR doesn’t really need very much fuel, the rest of Iran’s LEU would be transformed into fuel rods for the just-opened, Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant. That’s important, because it allows Iran to claim that its enrichment program is designed to produce fuel for Bushehr, not for a weapon. If Iran does this, the United States will agree to allow Iran to keep its current centrifuge program spinning, producing more LEU, which could be recycled into fuel in Russia, as long as Iran doesn’t add more centrifuges or expand its centrifuge program. (Right now, Iran is having trouble keeping those centrifuges operating, and according to one source the international sanctions against Iran are effective in preventing Iran from acquiring the materials it needs to build more, anyway.) And, of course, Iran would have to accede to the stricter IAEA oversight."