The most recent round of nuclear negotiations with Iran began with optimism. The previous round of talks appeared to make headway and there was hope that a breakthrough could be achieved when the seven parties — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council or P5 states (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States), Germany and Iran — resumed discussions in Baghdad late last month. Those hopes were dashed, however, by the two sides’ intransigence. The next round of talks are scheduled to convene in Moscow on June 18 and 19, but in the absence of compromise, those too are likely to fail.
The P5+1 (as they are known) want to stop Iran from acquiring the capability to build a nuclear weapon. In practical terms, that means capping efforts to enrich uranium, giving up the enriched uranium it has, and opening up its facilities to inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the world body that sees that governments do not proliferate. Iran wants acknowledgement of its right to enrich uranium and the lifting of international sanctions that are crippling its economy.
If both sides are sincere — Iran says it has no desire to build or acquire a nuclear weapon and the West says that it does not seek regime change in Tehran — then a deal should be possible. The P5+1 would acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium and lift sanctions, while Iran would open its facilities to the IAEA and cap its enrichment effort at a low level — less than 5 percent — rather than its current enrichment level of 20 percent.
The problem is that neither side is prepared to move first. The P5+1 (or more accurately, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany) are not prepared to loosen sanctions before Iran limits its enrichment program. Those governments fear that once sanctions are lifted, Tehran will continue on as it has, in secret. Tehran worries that the West will never lift sanctions no matter what it does. In Baghdad, the P5+1 offered to lift restrictions on the supply of air plane parts; Tehran dismissed the offer as insignificant.
Iran is reportedly close to a deal with the IAEA on ways to clarify allegations of cheating and nuclear weapons programs. Iran and the IAEA were supposed to hold talks on Friday. It was not immediately clear whether details could be worked out, however.
While the outlines of a deal can be easily sketched, progress is unlikely at this point. The U.S. ability to compromise is always limited when dealing with Tehran — the humiliation of the 1979 U.S. embassy seizure remains fresh — but whatever tiny window exists is virtually shut during an election campaign. And while it is convenient to dismiss the government in Tehran as theocratic and authoritarian, Iranian political leaders are subject to domestic political pressures as well. They cannot afford to be seen as weak or abandoning the country’s sovereign rights.
If both governments are hemmed in by domestic politics, so too are they worried about losing leverage as the other creates “facts on the ground.” Iran is enriching uranium; it is making inexorable progress both in the amount of uranium it has created as well as the level of enrichment. Building an atomic bomb requires 90 percent uranium enrichment, a level that is far from Iran’s current capabilities. But it is much easier and faster to go from 20 percent to 90 percent than from 3 percent, and Iran adds capacity every day.
At the same time, the U.S. is hoping that sanctions will continue to bite and force choices on Tehran. Life is getting harder, and pressure keeps building. Washington worries that even a little relief will ease the squeeze and undo its leverage.
Worse, it fears that once relaxed, sanctions cannot be reimposed. It is doubly ironic then that the U.S. complains that Iran is “playing for time”: that is exactly what Washington is doing as it waits for pressure to build — and as it does so, it gives Tehran time to develop its capability.
There is another factor in this situation: Israel. The government in Tel Aviv sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat; a view that may be exaggerated but is understandable given the problematic rhetoric employed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The United States’ hard line against Tehran is an attempt to reassure Israel and keep it from taking precipitate action against the Iranian program. (While the odds of success are very limited and would likely only set back Iranian efforts rather than stop them, the bombing of Iraq’s reactor three decades ago inspires some hope for Israel.)
An unyielding hard line will block a diplomatic resolution. Russia has put forward a “step by step” approach that would match relaxation of sanctions with concrete progress in creating transparency and assuaging Western concern. Such a deal echoes the “action for action” approach that forms the basis of nuclear negotiations with North Korea. While such a framework makes intuitive sense, the results of that effort only further increase skepticism about its potential when engaging Iran.
The levels of ill will and mistrust between Iran and its interlocutors are poisonous. Yet no progress is possible unless both sides are ready to compromise. It is a recipe for failure, as last month’s meeting in Baghdad sadly showed.