Iran Nuclear Talks: Hitting the ‘Snooze’ Button on the Alarm Clock of Confrontation

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Tolga Adanali/Pool/Reuters

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili pose for media before their meeting in Istanbul April 14, 2012

Staying within the “clock is ticking” metaphor favored by the Obama Administration when discussing diplomacy with Iran, Saturday’s talks in Istanbul could be said to have hit the snooze button. The doomsday alarm could yet sound, but not for a while yet. Iran and Western powers agreed Saturday to hold another round of talks—in Baghdad, of all places, at Iran’s request—on May 23. That means a proverbial “diplomatic window” (another rhetorical favorite of Administration officials) will remain open at least for the next five weeks.

And there are indications from Istanbul that the parties are working towards a formula for keeping the window open a lot longer. “We have agreed that the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement, to ensure all the obligations under the NPT are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” said the West’s chief negotiator, EU foreign policy chief Dame Catherine Ashton, at the conclusion of Saturday’s talks. “We want now to move to a sustained process of serious dialogue, where we can take urgent practical steps to build confidence and lead on to compliance by Iran with all its international obligations. In our efforts to do so, we will be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.” 

Despite no breakthroughs or even substantial discussion in Istanbul over specific proposals, there’s more to Ashton’s comments than pablum. Successful negotiations require a common framework in which each side is able to see its core concerns addressed, even if their understandings of that common framework are different.

For Tehran, the importance of the NPT is that it grants Iran, as a signatory, the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under international scrutiny. That’s a right that Israel, France and the U.S. (at least previously) have demanded that Iran forego, because enriching uranium gives it a key piece of infrastructure that could be used in any bomb program. But the NPT also requires that Iran account for all of its nuclear work to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which it has not done until now. And it provides a framework (the treaty’s “Additional Protocols,” which allow for more intrusive inspections) for enhanced international monitoring and other guarantees against any attempt by Iran to weaponize nuclear material.

(MORE: Iran Nuclear Talks: Can Islam Guide the Way to Peace?)

The “reciprocity” principle highlighted by Ashton also allows Western powers to demand that Iran make an early substantial gesture establishing confidence in its bona fides and the negotiation process, while offering Tehran a basis to demand substantive concessions from Western powers in exchange. In the talks between lower-level negotiators from both sides to map out the terms of possible compromises, which will continue between now and the Baghdad meeting, Western negotiators can be expected to focus on pressing Iran to halt uranium enrichment to 20%, while Iran will likely demand a substantial easing of sanctions targeting its financial and energy sectors.

Stopping the proverbial clock of escalation was clearly a common interest of all those around the table in Istanbul: Iran is feeling the bite of sanctions designed to choke its economy and erode its standard of living, with even harsher measures on the way, while President Obama and his international partners want to halt the slide towards a confrontation they view as both potentially catastrophic and also unnecessary given Iran’s current level of nuclear development. And if, as analysts suggest, tension with Iran and the risk of war adds a 25-cents-a-gallon premium to the price of gasoline in the U.S., then reducing that tension will help Americans’ economic woes ahead of the November election.

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

In Istanbul, and the talks that preceded it, each side appears to have shown the other enough to at least justify scheduling a second round in Baghdad. But one key player not in the room—except as the proverbial elephant—was not happy with the outcome. “My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It has got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition. I think Iran should take immediate steps to stop all enrichment, take out all enrichment material and dismantle the nuclear facility in Qom.”

The Israeli leader’s complaint clearly irked Obama, who responded during a visit to Colombia that “the notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks.”

Both Obama and Netanyahu, of course, are playing to a U.S. domestic political gallery. Ashton, representing the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, certainly didn’t enter the talks expecting that Iran would immediately halt all enrichment of uranium, or even agree to do so in the future. Instead, at least initially, they’re seeking the more modest goal of concrete, verifiable Iranian steps to demonstrate that its nuclear activities are limited to those of a peaceful nature.

Having been locked in on-and-off negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program for the past nine years, the key players have honed their own strategies of mustering leverage to enhance their bargaining position. The U.S. and its allies have steadily piled pressure on Iran through unilateral sanctions targeting its energy and banking sectors, and on the eve of the talks even moved a second aircraft carrier to Iran’s doorstep. Iran’s most important leverage comes through behaviors that mostly alarm its Western interlocutors—the steady expansion of its nuclear work in a manner that puts the means to build nuclear weapons ever closer to hand, even if it has thus far not yet decided to do so.

(MORE: Iran Talks: Amid Ticking Clocks and Closing Windows, What Would Success Look Like?)

In 2005, Tehran had reversed its previous suspension of uranium enrichment as a confidence-building gesture for talks with the West—some 18 months of talks with European powers had gone nowhere, and Iran’s leaders concluded they would strengthen their position if they negotiated with centrifuges spinning than with them standing idle. While that approach failed to achieve any breakthroughs, it did result in Iran steadily expanding its nuclear capacity. More recently, Iran upped the ante by using the needs of a medical research reactor to begin enriching uranium to 20%,  as opposed to the 3.5% enriched uranium it had been previously producing as reactor fuel. Reprocessing 20% uranium to the more than 90% required for bomb materiel takes far less time than reprocessing 3.5% uranium to the same level, raising the concern that Iran was shortening the duration of any “dash” to build a bomb.

But statements from Iranian officials ahead of the talks suggested that enrichment to 20% could be halted—ostensibly on the basis that its medical needs had been fulfilled. This indicates that it may, in fact, be a key negotiating chip Iran is prepared to play once the game gets underway. But it will expect substantial concessions on sanctions in response, which will be a tough call in an election year in which Republicans have identified Iran as a key foreign policy wedge issue.

Iran is also aware that the tenuous unity of purpose built by the Obama Administration with the Europeans, Russians and Chinese is more likely to be weakened by a “yes, but…” than by Iranian defiance. Indeed, the group led by Ashton may not yet have achieved a consensus on what would constitute an acceptable deal with Iran. Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov said as much in Washington last week, noting that “we really do not have a common view of what’s the real offer to be made to Iran to bring it to serious negotiations.”

Netanyahu might concur.

So while the Istanbul talks were the first hurdle on the path to a diplomatic solution, clearing it involved little more than agreeing that there’s a basis to talk. The process could yet fail at the second, or third hurdle. After all, the parties have arrived at the table bearing sharply divergent objectives and outlooks, and a deeply rooted mutual mistrust which won’t be easily bridged, particularly given the domestic political pressures on some of the key players. Indeed, one key indicator of the prospects for diplomacy with Iran in the coming weeks will be found not in the leaks and statements carried in media front pages, but instead in the quotidian indicators housed in the business section: Keep an eye on oil prices, which tend to serve as the coal miner’s canary when it comes to tension with Iran.