Disappointed in Almaty

by Charles Naas

The second round of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan between the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran ended just about where they started — no advance from the March talks and the glimmer of hope that perhaps some kind of momentum could be established. Unlike Almaty I, no date was set for a continuation of the negotiations. Western diplomats offered mixed messages about what happened during the two lengthy sessions. In fact, there should be no mystery about the sick snail pace of the negotiations The two sides are not on the same page and are talking past each other. As long as this continues, an understanding will be highly unlikely.

The P5+1 are focused on an agreement that is limited to the nuclear issue and as restrictive as possible on Iran’s program in the future. When negotiations began during the Bush administration, the US demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment which Iran was producing at the reactor fuel level of 3.5-4% as a condition for the talks. That was a non-starter and quickly put aside when Iran decided to enrich uranium to 20% at its Fordow facility, which is buried deeply in a mountain near the holy city of Qom. Twenty percent enriched uranium can be enriched to explosive level in as quickly as 3 months or less if Iran decides to race for a bomb. Fordow has, therefore, become the central concern of the P5+1, though the revised proposal reportedly softened the demand for its total closure. It’s unclear whether the 6 powers have explicitly or implicitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium to fuel its future power reactors. The Six have reportedly offered small-scale sanctions relief and the sale of selective goods to Iran, but otherwise continue to take a hard line on keeping the talks tightly tied to nuclear affairs.

It has become clear that Iran’s position is based on the principle that it’s a fully independent and equal member of the world community and will go to extreme lengths to avoid accepting a lesser status. Call it Iranian pride, self respect, history and ambitions for the future. The two times in modern history that Iran was forced to accept foreign dictate — the 1907 Russian-UK Agreement on spheres of influence and the World War II occupation — still rankle, as does the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh in 1953. In line with this principle, Iran insists that it has all the rights of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — to which it was an early member — and that this includes the full fuel-cycle from enrichment to reprocessing of spent fuel.

Iran has been consistent. In the mid-1970s, the US and Iran engaged in lengthy talks about a new treaty to permit US cooperation on the sale of reactors to the Shah’s very ambitious power reactor program. Iran’s negotiators adamantly assumed the same position that they operate on now: Iran should be regarded and treated as the proud and sovereign nation that it is. Iran has, therefore, rejected any restrictions on its civilian power reactor program but has apparently indicated some willingness to cooperate on the output of Fordow. But this was likely expressed in an ambiguous manner and remains insufficient for the P5+1. The Six’s offer of slight sanctions relief has also been implicitly spurned.

By its mere presence at the meetings, Iran has accepted the premise that its nuclear program is both important and contentious, but its objectives are far-reaching in contrast to the Six’s aim of restricting discussions to nuclear affairs. Iran will not move far, if at all, without significant sanctions relief, and, as a final step, the conclusion of all UN and other sanctions against it. Beyond these measurable aims, Iran has indicated that negotiations should be expanded to include an examination of the power realities within the region and on how Iran is perceived by major powers. The more ambitious Iranians who are involved with the country’s international concerns see Iran’s long history; its central geographic position; the size of its population; its realizable great wealth from petroleum; and the potential from its rapidly growing, educated population (particularly in the sciences), as inevitably leading it to a form of regional hegemony. These negotiators have carefully and with some subtlety melded their objectives.

The strenuous diplomatic process with Iran has been taking place in the background of more than thirty years of enmity and decades of steadily increasingly, painful sanctions. American threats of “all options are on the table”, cyber warfare directed at Iran’s enrichment facilities and substantial US and allied military forces in the Gulf, have added to ongoing tension and feed Iran’s concern that we really are aiming for regime change. Our strong ties with Israel, which compel us to support the notion that an Iranian ability to build a nuclear explosive poses an existential threat, also amplifies Iran’s distrust.

On the other hand, the US and others have alleged that Iran is a major supporter of international terrorism and that it has the intention of at least getting to the point where it could rapidly create a nuclear weapon. Iranian denials of such plans, and Leader Ali Khamenei’s Fatwa, have had no resonance in the Obama administration. Add to this an emerging friction in current political alliances within the Middle East.  Iran — and the Russians — support the other Shi’a states, Syria and Iraq, and parties such as Hezbollah. The US, UK, France and Germany have sided with the Arab Sunni monarchies, the Syrian rebels and Israel.

At this point, neither side has moved significantly from its opening position. Unless both sides give their negotiators new and more flexible instructions, movement towards an agreement is highly unlikely. Meaningful change is domestically difficult, but it may be worth continuing talks simply to have an established site for future exchanges as problems arise. So far, perhaps the main positive result has been the seemingly successful process of breaking ice between Iran and the US.

Photo: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (R) meet on the sidelines of the Iran’s talks with the E3+3 on Iran’s nuclear program in the Kazakh city of Almaty on April 5, 2013. EU/AFP/ANATOLY USTINENKO  

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Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.