To anyone trying to guess where this year’s re-engagement of Iran by the Obama administration is likely to lead, two things look clearer in the aftermath of the 18-19 June talks in Moscow.
First, the administration appears to have thought better of the idea of tolerating uranium enrichment, even at low levels, in Iran. The distinction President Obama drew earlier in the year between opposing the development of nuclear weapons (his position) and opposing the development of a nuclear weapons capability (the Israeli position), and the signal implied when the President authorised a resumption of talks with Iran even though Iran had failed to commit to suspending its enrichment activities–hitherto a pre-condition for such talks–have turned out to be misleading.
In Moscow, the US and its EU allies once more placed emphasis on the suspension of enrichment (a so-called “international obligation” which Iran must implement fully to secure a deal) and they declined to give Iran the assurance it wants that these talks will eventually result in the West tolerating enrichment.
Without that assurance Iran is unwilling to embark on the process of concession-making that is diplomatically termed “confidence-building”. Iran believes that it has a treaty right to master the nuclear fuel cycle provided it submits all nuclear material in its possession to International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspection. It also considers the UN Security Council resolutions that the West has sponsored to override that treaty right to be illegal. (The resolutions are certainly not a proportionate response to Iran’s IAEA safeguards non-compliance.)
Second, neither the US nor its EU allies seem inclined to purchase Iranian confidence-building by granting Iran the other thing (apart from “recognition” of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rights) that it craves: some measure of relief from the sanctions introduced by the US and EU (without UN authorisation) in the course of the past winter. Instead the West has sought to obtain concessions by offering what look like baubles for Iran’s negotiators.
On the face of it, therefore, re-engagement has been a failure. It has not sparked the give-and-take, the reciprocity that characterises almost all successful negotiations. It may have contributed to a pre-electorally useful drop in gas prices, but that drop is more likely due to a weakening global economic outlook. It has failed to deliver the Iranian capitulation that would complicate life for proponents of another war in the Gulf or regime change in Iran.
There is, however, an important difference between the 2009 version of engagement and the 2012 version. This time around neither side, it seems, is in a hurry to declare the process dead.
That this should be the case for the US and its allies is hardly surprising. In an electoral year the administration has every interest in heeding the American public’s preference for what Winston Churchill called “jaw-jaw” over “war-war”. And if diplomacy can contribute to lowering the cost of gas and make it harder for Israel to justify an aerial strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, so much the better.
What’s less obvious is what motivates Iran to help spin out talks that are going nowhere.
Iran does have an interest, of course, in making it harder for Israel to justify a strike. But Iran has never taken such Israeli threats very seriously and the opposition to a strike voiced by Israeli intelligence and military professionals earlier this year will have reinforced that inclination.
Iran has no interest in lower oil prices. But perhaps it reasons that bringing the Istanbul process to an end would not have much of an effect on prices, given the worsening economic outlook and the expansion of oil production under way in Gulf States allied to the US.
Perhaps, then, the answer is that Iran’s leaders are hoping that President Obama will be re-elected and that he will award them for their cooperation in keeping the show on the road until November by softening, early in his second term, the US position on enrichment and sanctions.
If so, will they be disappointed? At any time tolerating enrichment and removing or relieving sanctions will be politically costly for whoever occupies the White House, so widespread is Congress’ animosity towards Iran. The line of least resistance for an Obama II administration would be to back the judgement of those who claim that Iran will eventually capitulate under the weight of sanctions.
But it is not impossible that the President and his closest advisers have realised that a negotiated solution tends to be more durable than a solution imposed on a prostrate foe. That, after all, is a lesson that can be drawn from 19th and 20th century European history and from the 1783 Treaty of Paris between the US and Great Britain. Machiavelli once wrote: “I believe that forced agreements will be kept neither by a prince nor by a republic”.