Political Pressure Mounts Ahead of Iran Nuclear Talks

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Herbert Pfarrhofer / EPA

Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh arrives for talks with the IAEA in the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, May 14, 2012.

Iranian diplomat Ali Bagheri is reportedly now huddled with his EU counterpart Helga Schmid at an undisclosed location, shaping the agenda for the next round nuclear negotiations that are now barely a week away. Sequestering the envoys may be a prudent move amid the gathering political turbulence ahead of the talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad. “Western negotiators have made clear that when it comes to the exceedingly sensitive Iran nuclear negotiations process, they believe more can be accomplished in such quiet meetings,” notes analyst Laura Rozen. The stakes, of course, are high: Chatter aimed at limiting the range of options available to negotiators is becoming ever more insistent.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass on Tuesday H.R. 568, a Bill demanding that any agreement with Iran be based on “the full and sustained suspension of all uranium enrichment-related” activities, and which “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.” The fact that such a resolution is coming up for a vote on the eve of new talks is clearly an effort to turn up the heat on the Obama Administration. The current talks are not premised on demanding the full and immediate suspension of all uranium enrichment. Rather,  the most plausible diplomatic outcome is a deal under which Iran continue to enrich uranium to below 5% for energy purposes, but under tighter international scrutiny. It would also need to  satisfy concerns raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over previous nuclear work and agree to verifiably halt enrichment to 20% and ship out its stockpile of the higher grade material. In the minds of many of the House bill’s backers, however, even an Iran enriching uranium to less than 5% remains nuclear-capable, because it would retain the technological means to build a bomb.

(MORE: Israel Sets Tough Demands for Next Round of Iran Talks)

That’s a position shared by Israel’s leaders, who have insisted that the bottom line for a nuclear deal is that Iran agrees to end all enrichment and dismantle its existing capacity. The Israelis know, of course, that Iran has no intention of doing that, and they therefore view the talks with some trepidation, with their greatest fear being a compromise that falls short of their goals, while easing pressure on Tehran and tying Israel’s hands over the threat of military action. “Troubled by a possible deal between Iran and the world powers, Israel views the talks, set to take place on May 23 in Baghdad, with some bitterness, perhaps even with hopes that they will fail completely,” writes Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid. The Israeli leadership’s concern, he explains, is that the talks will produce an interim compromise agreement that would halt the more alarming aspects of Iran’s program (20% enrichment), which would set verifiable limits on Iran’s current enrichment activities and serve as a platform for a more comprehensive agreement to follow. “Israel completely rejects any kind of intermediate agreement,” Ravid adds. “Up until this point, the Israeli position has not held even an inch of flexibility on the subject. Most likely, any outcome from the next round of talks, save for failure, will garner furious reactions from Jerusalem.”

There’s also political backlash against the talks in Iran, with key supporters of the increasingly marginalized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now publicly criticizing the search by Iran’s decision makers — Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, and those who report to him — for a nuclear compromise in order to ease sanctions pressure. That, of course, reflects the intensity of the power struggle that has seen Ahmadinejad stripped of power and influence by Khamenei’s camp, but Iran analysts believe the real point of contention is less the prospect of a deal than the question of who will get the domestic political credit for one.

Another round of talks could potentially complicate the work of Schmid and Bagheri got underway in Vienna on Monday, when Iranian representatives met with officials from the IAEA to continue their efforts to resolve the transparency dispute at the heart of the standoff. The focus of the Vienna talks, reports suggest, is IAEA efforts to test Iran’s willingness to allow inspectors access to all suspected nuclear sites, particularly the military base at Parchin, where it believes Iran may have carried out experimental tests with high-explosive detonators used nuclear warheads.

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In a well-timed effort to turn up the pressure on Iran, an unnamed government leaked to the AP what it said was a computer-generated image claiming to depict the experimental detonation chamber at Parchin, although Iranian officials pooh-poohed the report. Iran’s position has been that Parchin is a military facility rather than a declared nuclear site and there that Iran is not obliged to allow inspections there under general IAEA safeguard rules, but is offering the prospect of access as part of a comprehensive deal to settle the standoff. But the IAEA appears to be insisting that access to Parchin is a precondition for making a more comprehensive deal. So, the talks in Vienna may not provide a particularly encouraging curtain raiser to the Baghdad meeting. Then again, progress in the one isn’t contingent on progress in the other: The Baghdad talks are between governments on all sides, a format that implicitly recognizes that the dispute can only be unlocked at the political level, given the longstanding deadlock between Iran and the IAEA. That’s why the main-event negotiations involve international powers grouped as the P5+1 — the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — and Iran.

On the Iranian side, reports that the Obama Administration is considering lifting the State Department’s “terrorist” designation on the Mujahedeen e-Khalq,  an exiled opposition group that is reviled by both regime and opposition Green Movement supporters, could be read as a sign that the U.S. seeks the violent overthrow the regime, creating more skepticism of diplomacy.

Then there’s the dose-of-cold-water assessment offered by Anthony Cordesman, respected strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who argues that both those who are placing their faith in diplomacy, and those who advocate military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, are missing the point. “We are putting far too much emphasis on Iran’s nuclear efforts without considering how these programs fit into Iran’s over military and strategic objectives,” he argues. “Iran’s efforts are part of a far broader range of efforts that have already brought it to the point where it can pursue nuclear weapons development through a range of compartmented and easily concealable programs without a formal weapons program, and even if it suspends enrichment activity.”

(MORE: Five Tips for President Obama on Nuclear Negotiations with Iran)

Cordesman warns that neither a military strike or an agreement to limit Iran’s enrichment program are themselves enough to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons if it deems it necessary to do so. His explanation of Iran’s motivations is one that introduces factors largely ignored in the mainstream debate. For Iran, he writes, “Nuclear weapons are not simply some form of prestige, a deterrent to the US, or part of some effort to counterbalance or ‘destroy’ Israel.” Instead, nuclear weapons would form part of Iran’s response to a strategic situation in which its conventional military is no match for even its tiniest adversaries — the modern U.S.-equipped air forces of the Gulf emirates, for example, would make short work of the antiquated Iranian air force — never mind the vastly superior militaries of Israel and the United States. Short-term nuclear deals or one-off bombing campaigns that fail to address the underlying strategic conflict over Iran’s place in the region, Cordesman warns, are not going to solve the problem.

Still, there may be sufficient incentive among key decision makers to at least try to change the dynamic and investigate the possibility of limiting the danger. After all, there’s little appetite on any side for the alternative: confrontation.

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