During a visit to Israel on Wednesday, Catherine Ashton, the European diplomat leading nuclear negotiations with Iran, got a reminder of the enormity of the challenge she faces. Ashton met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior cabinet members to brief them on plans for the Baghdad talks scheduled for May 23. Unlike last month’s ice-breaker meeting in Istanbul, in Baghdad, the two sides are required to begin putting cards on the table outlining reciprocal steps each would be willing to take to resolve or ease the dangerous international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu reportedly delivered a blunt warning: “Iran is trying to gain time through talks with the West, and has no intention of halting its nuclear program,” the Israeli leader told Ashton at the closed meeting, according to Israeli accounts.
Netanyahu warned, according to the AP, that the talks would be considered a success “only if Iran agrees to halt all uranium enrichment, ship its current stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country and dismantle an underground enrichment facility near the city of Qom” — and that it commit to a timetable for completing those steps. By that benchmark of success, it’s a relatively safe bet that the talks will fail. Iran has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of heeding all of the demands outlined by Netanyahu.
While Ashton reportedly assured the Israelis that she and her colleagues in the P5+1 group (the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China) will expect Iran to take verifiable, concrete confidence-building steps in short order to ensure that the diplomatic process continues, they’re unlikely to set the bar defining progress as high as the Israelis have. Although Israel is not party to the talks, it remains the proverbial elephant in the room by virtue of its leaders’ threat to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities if they conclude that the Western strategy of negotiations backed by escalating sanctions is failing. And Netanyahu, in his meeting with Ashton, appears to have set a prohibitive benchmark for success, precisely to avoid what the Israelis see as the pitfalls of a nuclear compromise.
The Israeli leader is certainly correct that Iran is showing no sign of halting its nuclear program; Iranian leaders continue to insist that they have no intention of suspending, much less abandoning their enrichment of uranium, nor do they intend to close the Fordow plant near Qom. But the demand that Iran abandon all its enrichment of uranium isn’t really on the table in Ashton’s negotiations, whose agreed framework is the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT grants Iran the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under international scrutiny once it has taken whatever steps are deemed necessary to satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency of the peaceful nature of its nuclear work, past and present. Although Iran is obliged under current U.N. Security Council resolutions to suspend enrichment until it has satisfied all concerns raised by the IAEA, Western powers years ago abandoned the insistence that Iran halt enrichment as a precondition for talks. That’s because while Iran has for the past six years consistently refused to heed the U.N. demand, it has lately signaled a renewed willingness to discuss concrete steps it could take to restore international confidence in its intentions by strengthening verifiable safeguards against weaponization of nuclear material.
The current talks are aimed at reaching agreement on measures to verifiably limit the scope of Iran’s nuclear activities, rather than to halt its nuclear program. The initial focus, as has been widely reported, is on Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% purity, ostensibly for the production of medical isotopes, but which considerably reduces the time required for reprocessing to weapons-grade material than the 3.5% enrichment it had previously undertaken. Iran is reportedly prepared to consider a deal under which it agrees to halt 20% enrichment, and even possibly ship out its 210-pound stockpile of such material, although it has ruled out closing the Fordow facility near Qom. But it would expect, in exchange, a significant easing of the Western sanctions targeting its energy exports and cutting it off from the international financial system. It also wants Western powers accept its right to enrich uranium to 3.5% under NPT, with the possibility of enhancing verifiable safeguards against weaponization by adopting the Treaty’s Additional Protocols which allow for more intrusive inspection.
Iran’s leaders certainly appear to be preparing their own public for compromise, using the time-honored trick of painting it as victory. “The regime’s propaganda machine is already portraying the Istanbul talks as a triumph for the Islamic Republic and a setback for the West,” notes Iran scholar Mehdi Khalaji, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Indeed, it is setting the stage for a significant compromise by preparing both the Iranian public and the global community.” A number of regime figures have in recent weeks proclaimed the Istanbul talks as a breakthrough moment in which the West finally recognized Iran’s nuclear rights. But, says Khalaji, while Khamenei may see the need to compromise to avoid confrontation and an economic decline that would threaten his regime, doing so potentially weakens his authority. “To compromise,” Khalaji writes, Khamenei “must save face; but, to save face, he must not compromise.”
Iran analysts suggest that Khamenei’s personal involvement in overseeing this round of negotiations raises the stakes from previous episodes, in which he was able to distance himself from the efforts of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whom he saw as too inclined to compromise. It gives the talks more legitimacy, but also potentially requires a tougher Iranian stance. So a compromise, perhaps, but Iran will be expected to drive a hard bargain — possibly harder than the Western political constellation is currently able to accommodate.
Even the best-case deal would in all likelihood require that the U.S. and allies abandon their rejection of all enrichment in Iran, something that is reportedly under consideration in the Obama Administration, with some officials recognizing that low-level uranium enrichment is a fait accompli in Iran. That trend may be enhanced by the ouster of the leading European hardliner on Iran, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in last weekend’s French election. But any such deal would also require convincing Israel that such a compromise is more beneficial to its security needs than starting a war would be. And Netanyahu’s rhetoric in recent weeks, where he’s likened Iran’s nuclear program to the Nazi plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews, suggest that he’ll look askance at any compromise proposal that leaves that program intact.