by Peter Jenkins
It is tempting to assume that, for Iran nuclear negotiators, 2013 was a year of two halves: stalemate during the last months of the Ahmadinejad administration, and then, after the presidential election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani, a gathering of momentum towards the break-through announced in the early hours of November 24.
The reality was more complex. Many of the “elements of a first step” made public on November 24 were already on the agenda at the meetings that took place in Almaty in late February and early April. Secret talks between Iran and the US got under way in Oman in March, it later emerged. And reporting on the second day of the April Almaty meeting suggests that Western participants had sensed a sea-change in Iranian attitudes: stone-walling gave way to a readiness to negotiate.
Nonetheless, the key developments of 2013 were the election of Rouhani, the return to the playing-field, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, of Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the skill with which the latter executed Iran’s plays from mid-September through to 24 November.
His many meetings in New York in the second half of September helped to convince US, British and French Ministers that they could afford to be seen to be cutting deals with Iran’s new government.
His knowledge of the nuclear problem, dating back to its origins in 2003, and his formidable brain allowed him to engage in a meaningful quest for a balanced solution.
And his wit and resilience enabled him to survive the galling experience of being blamed by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the break-down that occurred at the first of two Geneva meetings in November — when the blame properly belonged to France’s Foreign Minister.
That said, credit must also go to Secretary John Kerry, to his British counter-part, William Hague, and to President Barack Obama. All three showed the political courage needed (regrettably) to ignore opposition to engaging Iran on reasonable terms, and to steer towards a solution that Israel and Saudi Arabia will deprecate. No doubt they drew strength from opinion polls that suggest little support for inflicting on Iran the death and destruction that both these turbulent allies have been advocating.
Iran’s readiness to support Russia in pressing Syria’s President to adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and surrender his CW also deserves mention. It helped US and UK Ministers to get out of a political corner which was unpopular domestically but into which they had unwisely strayed (or been pushed?).
Finally, the readiness of Iran’s Supreme Leader to displease Iranian “hard-liners” by authorising Iran’s new President, one of his former national security advisers, to show “heroic flexibility”, to secure an agreement with the West, should not go unnoticed. This was not the act of a Darth Vader or a Sauron, or even of a “mad mullah”.
Challenges in 2014
One of the most reassuring aspects of the understandings made public on November 24 is that the Joint Plan of Action lists “elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution”. The parties appear to have a reached a preliminary understanding on certain principles, such as that Iran’s enrichment program should have parameters that are consistent with practical needs. Applied intelligently, with strong political encouragement, these principles can offer solutions to the problems that will confront negotiators in the coming months.
Iran’s leaders cannot afford politically to write off investments in uranium enrichment and a 40MW research reactor; somehow they must convince the West that they have no intention of using their centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium, or the reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Iran does not want to feel that it is subject to more intrusive monitoring by the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) than other parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); but it has an interest in using the IAEA to rebuild global confidence in its peaceful nuclear intentions — confidence that was forfeited by concealing aspects of nuclear research and development over 18 years (1985-2003).
Iran badly needs the lifting of US and EU nuclear-related sanctions. Can it help make that possible by demonstrating that it does not seek the demise of the state of Israel, or even of a Saudi monarchy that is waging a proxy war against Shi’a Islam?
That said, the most pressing of this year’s challenges rests squarely on the shoulders of the US administration. The administration must safeguard the future of the negotiating process by denying Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez a veto-proof majority for the bill they tabled a few days before Christmas.
Though reluctant to interfere in US politics, the UK and other European allies will be willing the administration to succeed. Europe has paid an ill-affordable economic price for supporting US policy on Iran. It does not want the prize of a balanced and durable solution, which is consistent with the NPT, to be snatched from the West’s grasp at the behest of US friends of Israel.