by Farideh Farhi
From the looks of it, the second round of talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan was a complete failure, with both sides unable to even find a common language to begin a process of give and take. The sense I get is that the US side is rather unhappy, even more than expected, with Iran. After all, it made a slight move during the first round by reportedly not demanding the complete dismantling of Fordo and rather asking for its suspension with provisions that would make its return to operation difficult. In return, it offered some sanctions relief regarding the gold trade and petrochemical industry.
The Iranian leadership did not think this was a balanced offer even if they acknowledged the US move as a positive step. The closure or non-operation of Fordo is a key component of a solution to the nuclear conflict while the slight sanctions relief offered in return hardly impacts the complex web of trade and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. More importantly, for negotiation purposes, Fordo — an under-mountain site built in reaction to the repeated refrain of “all options are on the table” — is Tehran’s most important leverage for the talks. So, giving it away cheaply is just bad negotiating strategy.
There were attempts by some members of Iran’s foreign policy establishment to sell the US offer as a good first step to the Iranian public but that didn’t work out. In private conversations, even those hoping that Tehran would take the offer talked about the need for the Leader to take the “poisoned chalice,” a reference to Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous words when he accepted a ceasefire with Iraq in 1988. In other words, even those hoping for the acceptance of the offer considered it unbalanced and only necessitated through circumstances.
Subsequent efforts to make the offer more balanced during the technical talks in Istanbul failed. Hence, as they have done before, the Iranian negotiating team shifted gears and began talking about a comprehensive solution to the Iran question that will address other regional issues (i.e. Syria and Bahrain) as well as delineate what the end game will be. The endgame for Tehran since everything began in 2003 has always entailed the right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. In retrospect, we should have expected Iran’s shift back toward a comprehensive discussion — which also happened in Moscow — after efforts during the technical talks to make the revised proposal more balanced failed.
As a result, the question of “now what?” will have to be on the table for the US. By moving a bit, the Obama administration has acknowledged that just making demands without at least appearing to address some of Iran’s bottom lines won’t move the process forward. Similarly, the presumption that a successful sanctions regime will convince Tehran to accede to a perceived bad deal in order to rescue Iran’s economy also just received a solid beating.
The US can of course continue to tighten the economic noose on Iran, although it is not clear how much more “useful” damage that will actually do. Two recent reports from completely divergent outlets — the National Iranian American Council and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — suggest that Iran’s economy is adapting to the limits that have been imposed on its oil exports. Neither of these reports deny the harm sanctions have inflicted or the opportunity costs that have resulted, but they do acknowledge that Iran has been able to adjust and limp along at least in terms of macro trade and budget numbers. Even a recent joint-report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists — while focusing on the costs and risks of Iran’s nuclear program — ends up acknowledging that costs from the loss of oil exports and opportunity costs resulting from the loss of foreign investment have been absorbed by Iran.
Indeed, continuing with what hasn’t worked in the past with the hope that it will one day work is what Gary Samore, Obama’s former nuclear advisor, expects. I guess the hope is that something magical will happen with Iran’s June 14 election and a newly elected president who will take charge by August. Perhaps he will be able to convince the Iranian leadership across the board that the offer Iran just designated as neither balanced nor comprehensive needs to be accepted.
This expectation or hope is a risky one. It is premised on the belief that Iran is a contested political environment and the harshness of sanctions will eventually pave the way for folks who think it’s time to abandon Iran’s nuclear program in favor of economic riches to gain the upper hand or argument. But the logic of Iran as a contested political terrain actually brings us to the opposite conclusion. One can more easily argue that the inability to begin a process of give and take on the nuclear issue before Iran’s election provides incentive to those who insist on Iran’s nuclear rights — and also happen to be in charge of the country — to make sure that a president is elected who will continue to toe their established line. In other words, the further escalation of sanctions may end up impacting the Iranian election, but not in the way that was intended.
So are there other options? Yes, according to another recent report by the Atlantic Council called Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy on Iran. It calls upon the Obama administration to “lay out a step-by-step reciprocal and proportionate plan that ends with graduated relief of sanctions on oil, and eventually on the Iranian Central Bank, in return for verifiable curbs on Iranian uranium enrichment and stocks of enriched uranium, and assurances that Iran does not have undeclared nuclear materials and facilities.”
Various sections of the report appear like they have been written by different members of the Council’s Iran Task Force, but the process laid out is pretty close to what the Iranians have articulated; if the issue is Iran’s nuclear program, then let’s lay out a roadmap and endgame for how the nuclear issue can be resolved to the relative satisfaction of all sides. The report also calls for opening an US Interests Section in Iran and increased people-to-people contact. Although it doesn’t come right out and say it, it effectively endorses various improved relations (people-to-people or government-to-government) as a companion to or simultaneous with a clearly defined step-by-step framework that reduces pressure on Iran in exchange for limitations on its nuclear program.
I’m not sure if the individuals who wrote the section on people-to-people contact and the need to use stepped-up public diplomacy to make Iranians “aware of the real reasons for sanctions” (to ensure the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear program) understand how hard it is even for the most adept propaganda machine — and our country does have a pretty good one — to sell the idea that the US is justified in collectively punishing Iranians for the policies of their leaders. Nevertheless, making the case that the US is really not that bad while the sanctions regime is being relaxed through a step-by-step process of negotiations is a whole lot easier than what is being done right now: escalating the process of squeezing Iran while denying responsibility for it.
The Council report curiously does insist on maintaining one aspect of the Obama administration’s approach. It says that the majority of the Iran Task Force favors maintaining the military option as a last resort. It calls on the Obama administration to make sure that the option remains credible despite the acknowledgment that “While the drawbacks of a nuclear Iran are grave, the ramifications of a premature military strike—what the US military refers to as “second- and third-order effects”—could also be dire.” My dictionary tells me that “dire” is much worse than “grave” and I guess the report tries to ignore this by highlighting its rejection of a “premature” strike, whatever that means. But the dire effects of a premature strike are the same, I suppose, as a rightly timed strike.
Beyond this, I am truly puzzled by the inability of those promoting this type of public discourse to understand the corrosive impact that the language of “all options are on the table” has on the so-called international community that the Obama administration claims to represent, as well as various stakeholders in Iran, including the “Iranian people” who we apparently love and are so interested in establishing contact with. These fighting words do nothing to make the threat of military attack credible to those who run Iran’s nuclear policy precisely because of the “dire” effects that the Council report lays out. They also undercut any claim to righteousness regarding the nuclear row for the people who occupy the land and buildings that are being threatened. I cannot claim to know what the “Iranian people” think, but I can say that the overwhelming majority of Iranians I know, inside and outside of Iran, consider this language vulgar and appalling and reflective of an utter disregard for other people’s lives and livelihoods. Who else speaks this way nowadays? North Korea?
America’s “now what?” moment regarding Iran could be a productive moment if it begins to come to terms with the fact that the sanctions regime has not changed the calculation of the Iranian government — as evidenced by what just happened in Almaty. It can only do so, however, if it acknowledges that the military option cannot be made credible because the idea is both stupid and offensive.