Farideh Farhi: Too Soon for a Breakthrough but Progress Possible for Iran Nuclear Talks

by Jasmin Ramsey

Ahead of the technical-level nuclear talks that will take place in Istanbul on March 18 and the top-level talks that will be held in early April, Farideh Farhi, an Independent Scholar at the University of Hawaii and Lobe Log contributor, offers context and insight into what can reasonably be expected in terms of results.

Q): Considering the cautious optimism that was expressed by the Iranians after the Almaty talks (February 26-27), is there a better chance for a breakthrough during the March/April meetings?

Farideh Farhi: It is too soon to think of breakthrough at this point. But the decision on the part of Iran’s negotiating team to portray the slight move on the part of the United States [to offer slight sanctions relief] as a turning point, has given the leadership in Tehran room to sell an initial confidence-building measure in the next couple of months as a “win-win situation,” something the Iranians have always claimed to be interested in. Having room to maneuver domestically, however, does not necessarily mean that it will happen. In the next couple of months we just have to wait and see the extent to which opponents of any kind of deal in both Tehran and Washington will be able to prevent the optimism that’s been expressed from turning into a process of give and take.

At this point, though, it is noteworthy that the first signs of opposition to what happened in Almaty occurred in Washington and not Tehran (see this Washington Post editorial.) In Iran, the questioning that has since emerged is about whether the positive portrayal of a US shift, for example by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, is justified by an actual shift in Almaty, which some deem as not sufficient to warrant an agreement; at least not yet.

Q): CNN reported on March 2 that Iran was open to direct talks, but Iran has made similar statements before and you’ve pointed out that direct talks have already taken place back in October 2009. What happened during that meeting?

Farideh Farhi: I have written about what happened then here, but in short, during the October 2009 Geneva meeting, which occurred while Iran was in the midst of post-election turmoil, hopes were raised by the Saeed Jalili-led nuclear team, after he met with US negotiator William Burns, that a breakthrough had happened and the US had accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium in exchange for the transfer of uranium out of Iran (later to be returned to Iran in the transformed form of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor). But Iran’s tumultuous post-election environment, combined with a lack of transparency regarding the agreement’s details, led to opposition across the political spectrum. Rightly or wrongly, there was a sense in the public that the hard-line power leaders were making a behind-the-scenes-deal with outside powers in order to continue repression at home. Eventually the inability of both Jalili and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to convince others in Iran that the agreement included an explicit acceptance of Iran’s enrichment program led to Leader Ali Khamenei’s withdrawal of support for the agreement.

Q: Why do you think the administration is so focused on direct talks right now while Congress seems to be operating on a completely different beat, and what needs to happen for direct talks to happen again.

Farideh Farhi: The insistence on direct talks, I assume, is about receiving a signal from the Leader that he is interested in resolving the nuclear issue. The problem is that there is also a lack of trust on his side and he needs to be assured that the United States is interested in a process of give and take. He, along with quite a few others in Iran, need to be convinced that bilateral talks are not a trap intended to reignite the international consensus for the further squeezing of Iran, which the Obama Administration has been unable to sustain due to Russian and Chinese refusal to buy in at the United Nations.

In addition, many in Iran, rightly or wrongly, have come to believe that the US interest in direct talks is only about exacting concessions from Iran or serving its own interests without any attention to Iran’s needs and interests. Experiences such as Iran’s engagement with the US over Afghanistan in 2001, and the three rounds of talk over Iraq in 2006-07, have given the impression that there is no equivalency between what the US demands and what it’s willing to offer. In Iraq, for instance, the US wanted Iran’s help for the resolution of everyday security challenges that the US was facing without acknowledging that Iran also has interests in shaping the political direction of Iraq. There are other examples but the end result has always been Tehran’s increased caution regarding direct dealings with the US.

As of now, the two countries are still far from finding a common language to talk to each other with. Washington is still focused on the resolution of immediate issues of concern, be it Iran’s nuclear program or figuring out a way of getting Iran’s help — or at least reducing Iran’s incentive to create trouble — as it tries to untangle itself from Afghanistan. Tehran, on the other hand, is focused on longer-term strategic issues and the consolidation of its role in the region. For Tehran to enter into a direct conversation with the US, it has to be convinced that it will also get something tangible out of it.

Q: What needs to happen on both sides to increase the chances for progress during the March/April talks, and if you believe that nothing will happen on the Iranian side before the election, what needs to happen generally.

I fall into the category of people who think that something can happen before the election. The fact that the Iranians agreed to have technical talks so soon confirms my belief. The unambiguous signal from Tehran is that the nuclear issue is a systemic matter and will not be affected by the result of the election. Meanwhile, the decision by the United States to shift a bit before the election also signals to Iran’s leadership that it’s not betting on or hoping for the victory of any particular candidate in the election. If it’s sustained, this move, unlike the dynamics we saw during the 2009 election, will take the question of potential talks with the US out of the Iranian electoral equation because some form of them are already taking place.

What needs to happen in the next few months is a demonstration on the part of Tehran that it’s willing to suspend part of its enrichment program in exchange for the suspension of some sanctions on the part of the United States and Europe. Neither of these suspensions need to be consequential or major in terms of broader demands that both sides have on each other. But the acceptance of a mini-step as a first step is by itself a sign that a process — based on a more realistic understanding and expectation of what can be given and taken from both sides — has begun. If this happens — given the contentious dynamics in both countries and ferocious opposition by a number of regional players to any kind of talks between Iran and the United States — it’s a very big deal, even it it continues to occur within the P5+1 frame.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.