Yet another round of talks between Iran and concerned nations over Iran’s nuclear program has ended in failure. Ten years of negotiations have yielded precious little progress and doubts surrounding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions continue to grow.
It is within Iran’s power to end this deadlock and to reduce the sanctions that are inflicting great harm on its economy. Only misplaced pride, dangerous domestic political calculations, or perhaps a genuine nuclear weapons development program could account for Iran’s tenacity. Experts expect little change until this summer after Iran holds national elections. Delay, however, will only bring closer the time at which other countries will have said they must act to deny Iran a nuclear option.
Multilateral talks between Iran and the “P5-plus-1” (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — and Germany) have been going on since 2006 to resolve the nuclear crisis. Iran admits that it has a nuclear program, but insists it is for civilian purposes only.
Tehran, however, has neither given the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to facilities nor answered questions that would put to rest all doubts about Iranian intentions. Convinced of its right to pursue the peaceful use of atomic energy, a right granted by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran continues to modernize and develop its capabilities, spurring concern that the country is just a few years away from acquiring the ability to produce the fissile material needed for a nuclear bomb.
That prospect alarms many nations, but none more so than Israel. With Iranian leaders challenging that nation’s very right to exist, Israeli politicians rightfully consider a nuclear-armed Tehran an existential threat. That view is shared by the U.S. government.
U.S. President Barack Obama promised in Israel last month that he would do “what is necessary” to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb. And Washington and Tel Aviv are not the only governments troubled by that possibility. It is believed by many that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities would likely prod Turkey and Saudi Arabia to do that same.
So, the stakes are high. Unfortunately diplomatic progress has been elusive. Two days of “long and intensive” talks in Kazakhstan on April 5-6 failed to bridge the gaps between the two sides. This round followed a meeting in February, at which the P5-plus-1 presented what its representatives called a “fair and balanced offer.”
Rather than respond to it, Iran reportedly provided a plan of action of its own that the other five countries are now studying, a move that Russia officials characterized as “a step forward.”
Anonymous U.S. officials conceded that “there was no breakthrough but also no breakdown.” The focus of the dispute is twofold: the sequencing of steps, including the lifting of U.N. sanctions imposed against Iran for its defiance of the IAEA, and the access that Tehran would give to international inspectors.
The P5-plus-1 want Iran to abandon all enrichment activities. Iran rightly notes that this right is granted under the NPT, but that is only when the activities are supervised. Reportedly Iran is demanding an end to restrictions on its oil trade and financial transactions; its negotiating partners are only willing to lift sanctions against gold transactions and petrochemical trade.
It is not clear what access Iran is willing to grant, but thus far it has refused to permit inspectors on the most sensitive facilities, claiming they are military in nature or not involved in the nuclear program. With a presidential election scheduled to be held in Iran in June, there is very little chance of a breakthrough in the negotiations. Having pushed the nuclear program as far as it has, the current government in Iran is unlikely to bargain it away. Its negotiating partners also do not want to force a showdown that would risk a breakdown.
If a more moderate Iranian government takes power, it would be easier for it to work within an existing diplomatic framework than to resurrect a deal rejected by its predecessor.
At the same time, however, there is the danger that the delay only permits Iran to get closer to the realization of its nuclear ambitions. Israel believes Iran is only stalling, drawing out the talks to give it time to create a nuclear fait accompli.
Two external factors are likely to shape Iranian thinking. The first is the standoff the world is having with North Korea. Tehran has close ties to Pyongyang and it has been carefully watching how the world has responded to North Korea as it has developed its nuclear program. Tehran will demand equal treatment.
The second factor is the situation in Syria. Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East and the unrest there is extremely troubling to Tehran. Western intervention in Syria would be viewed as a dry run against Tehran.
If the Syrian government of President Bashir Assad were to fall, Iran would feel very isolated. In such an environment, a conservative government in Tehran would see a nuclear arsenal as even more compelling as a guarantor of its security and survival. The key then is to convince the Iranian people and their government that the West’s complaint is not the government in Tehran, but its policies.
All is possible if Iran were to reach a nuclear accord. There is still time, but it is getting short.