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Iran Analysis: The Real Explanation for the Delay in New Nuclear Talks

Last week, a couple of curious stories emerged about the proposed resumption of nuclear talks, suspended since a high-level meeting in June in Moscow, between Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, Germany, Russia, France, and China). 

Julian Borger of The Guardian declared, "Nuclear Talks with Iran Delayed" because of "internal wrangling" in Tehran: "Western diplomats point to disagreements at the top of the Tehran leadership over the wisdom of entering new talks as the most likely reason for the delay and mixed messages."

Laura Rozen echoed, "Iran Seen Stalling on Date for Nuclear Talks":

Western diplomats are not encouraged --– if not much surprised --- by signs Iran is playing games in scheduling a new date for nuclear talks.

Iran doesn’t seem ready to negotiate, or else is “playing for time,” one US administration official told the Back Channel [said].

International negotiators have been waiting for Iran to agree on a date for a new round of talks with six world powers–possibly as soon as next week.

The line of both stories was clear: Iran was to blame for the inability to get back to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme.

Now why is this curious? Well, because for weeks, it is Tehran --- both through State media and its politicians --- which has been making the public running in the effort to resume discussions. Tehran announced that it had prepared a nine-step plan linking the suspension of enrichment of 20% uranium to a lifting of sanctions. The Foreign Ministry played up discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency, set to resume in Tehran tomorrow, on inspection and supervision of nuclear facilities.

Earlier this month Iran's lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said that a new set of talks had been agreed. He did not give a date and location; however, an official from Russia --- seen as the closest of the 5+1 Powers to Tehran --- said they would be in Istanbul at the end of January. 

It was the US and the European Union who refused to be drawn on the issue. A spokesman for the EU's Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiatof for the 5+1 Powers, declared new talks would be welcome but said nothing had been agreed.

There had to be an explanation --- beyond the blame of Tehran for "internal wrangling" and the declarations of Western officials --- for the clash between Iran's public position and the line fed to Borger and Rozen.

My thought at the time, although I had no proof,  was that the US and Europe are refusing to back away from their "stop, ship, and shut" pre-conditions for talks: a halt to enrichment of 20% uranium, despatch of all existing 20% fuel outside Iran, and closure of the recently-developed enrichment facilty at Fordoo. That line, with the token concession of a lifting of sanctions on aircraft parts, was rejected by Tehran at Moscow last June as trading away their "diamonds for peanuts".

Earlier this month, there were hints of a way forward --- see "5 Steps for a Breakthrough in the Nuclear Talks" --- but they remained only hints.

This morning Barbara Slavin of Al Monitor offers the confirmation of my theories:

Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,

An Iranian source [said]...a lack of agreement on these issues was slowing a resumption of talks, which had been expected this month....

Iran wants its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to be stated in the agenda, “which means there will not be any restriction for enrichment …The second request is to decrease the sanctions from [the] UN not America and Europe.” If these two items are included, the source continued, Iran “will be in the position to discuss about a general agreement which includes any matters … interesting for IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] and [the] 5+1 countries.”

Slavin reviews other reasons for Tehran's position:

It is possible that Iran is engaging in pre-negotiation negotiations in an effort to gain psychological advantage in the talks. Iranian officials may also be divided among themselves about the wisdom of resuming the process when it appears that the P5+1 is not going to sweeten significantly an offer Iran rejected last year....Iran may also be awaiting the results of new talks with the IAEA this week.

The journalist even throws in the incorrect and diversionary "red herring", also put out by Borger, "that Iran is waiting for President Obama’s new Cabinet to be confirmed".

In the end, however, Slavin gets back to the main point through a quote from Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, “[The Iranians appear] to feel that they have to have something to show even to have an agreement to go back and talk.” 

Or, as I wrote with Nicholas J. Wheeler and Josh Baker a month ago:

Waiting on Iran to make the first move before offering anything more significant, and thereby dismissing in Iranian eyes what they view as prior conciliatory moves, risks poisoning still further the relationship between the West and Iran.  This scenario makes the [US] language of "reciprocity" a slogan rather than a practical policy.

Amid the uncertainty of propaganda, I am still certain of that conclusion.

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