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Thursday
Feb072013

Iran Opinion: Condemning the Nuclear Talks --- and Tehran --- with Ill-Informed Analysis

Nuclear Negotiators Catherine Ashton & Saeed JaliliA good starting point for analysis of Tuesday's announcement that Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia) will resume nuclear talks on 26 February in Kazakhstan --- consider how, after weeks of haggling, the two sides reached agreement to sit around the table, their first high-level negotiation since last June in Moscow.

For example, you might look at the dispute over the agenda and process that stalled the agreement, with a last-minute cancellation of the plan to convene in Turkey on 28-29 January. Did the US and Europe finally accept some notion of "reciprocity", in which Iranian steps moving away from enrichment of 20% uranium would be matched by a recognition that Tehran could enrich to a lower level and by an easing of sanctions? If so, why?

Or was it Iran that gave way, accepting the US-European starting point of "stop, ship, and shut" --- the end to 20% enrichment, the movement of all existing 20% fuel outside the Islamic Republic, and the closure of the Fordoo enrichment plant --- before any consideration of sanctions relief? If so, why?

You might go beyond the surface announcements and investigate the "back-channel" process that continued even as it appears that the high-level "talks about talks" had broken down. You might note the former Government officials, analysts, and scientists on both sides who have convened to find a way around apparent deadlock.

Alternatively, if you are an "analyst" asked for a comment by the media, you can take the easier route and just declare that the talks are still doomed because of the mischievous/devious/duplicitous/malevolent Islamic Republic.

That's the road taken by the talking heads in an article by Laura Rozen of Al Monitor, "Iran Weakness May Hinder Nuclear Deal, Strategists Argue".

Rozen is an excellent journalist, so I have no reason to think that her quotes from a panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies  are taken out of context, such as this sweeping judgement from CSIS's Jon Alterman:

Rather than play a positive game, [Iran] pursues a negative game: to deny the objective of its adversaries. It does not have a positive goal.

Iran has the conviction that...if the U.S. accepts [any] offer, it must be disadvantageous to Iran. So they will work to get the offer down again. To keep from getting the deal that people in the US government would like to strike.

 

So the talks are doomed because only the US and its European partners can be "positive". Tehran has no reason to reach an agreement --- for example, getting recognition of its right to enrichment, albeit at a 5% level; obtaining a guaranteed supply of 20% supply of uranium for civilian purposes, such as medical care; lifting the sanctions; getting beyond the nuclear issue to discuss regional issues from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria and to make itself a player on global issues such as non-proliferation --- because it only sees "disadvantage" in any negotiation.

I know Jon Alterman. He is, as Rozen notes, a "Middle Eastern analyst". He is not a specialist on Iran. He shows no knowledge here of the domestic aspects of the Islamic Republic; of the economic context, of the complexities of the bureaucracy, including the serious fight between President Ahmadinejad and the regime; or even of the discussions within Iran of the future of the nuclear programme. He offers nothing to indicate that he knows of the back-channel discussions, especially those between the US and Iran last autumn.

No, he merely pronounces The Talks Won't Work (and It Will Be Iran's Fault).

So what?, you may ask. After all, there has been more than a decade of brief starts, hesitations, and then collapses of discussions on the nuclear issues. Tehran certainly is not blameless for the failure to reach an agreement. So, even if Alterman is one-sided in his doom-saying, isn't his projection a possibility?

Perhaps. But the danger is that Alterman's condemnation of the talks to failure opens up an alternative, one that Rozen features via her next source:

“A negotiated settlement may be doable,” ret. Maj. Genl. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. 

If it comes to the point that “diplomacy has run out,” — and it hasn’t yet, Dempsey said, military power could be brought in to “reset the diplomacy.” But “you need to be sure the military options exercise fit the activity and desired end in sight.”

So, if diplomacy has not "run out", it will --- according to Alterman. And then, according to Dempsey, it will be time to get the bombers ready to hit Iran's nuclear facilities.

It is this type of talk that has put Washington's consideration of the Iranian nuclear issue into a cul-de-sac. The US Government cannot possibly start from the premise of genuine talks because the Islamic Republic is not trustworthy.

So sanctions have to be imposed on Iran to force it to the table. But, even then, you have to assume that the Iranians will try to wangle their way of a deal --- your deal, forcing them to make all the key concessions before you consider lifting the economic or military sword from above their heads.

Since Iran is highly unlikely to surrender at the table, the talks stall. And then you go back to even more sanctions or the "military option".

So far the Obama Administration has forestalled that final option. Indeed, a good analyst might assess that both sides finally agreed to sit down on 26 February --- before Iran's Presidential election in June occupies the regime's attention --- precisely to put aside talk over the spring and summer of an Israeli attack.

But good analysis does not necessarily make for dramatic headlines or appeal to those who take up their polemics-first positions --- whether that is a condemnation of Iran or, for a few who represent the "other side" of the Punch-and-Judy debate, an unmitigated defence of the regime.

So the conflict, at this point one of tense diplomacy but also one of economic punishment, drags on. So the conflict offers the "promise" that tense diplomacy and economic punishment can give way to the "military option".

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References (3)

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