Deadlocked, Iran and Western Nuclear Negotiators Agree Only to Keep Talking

No breakthroughs achieved as both sides dig in, overestimating their leverage

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Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Iranian diplomat and negotiator Ali Bagheri attends a meeting with the media in Moscow on June 18, 2012

UPDATED: The Moscow nuclear talks between Iran and world powers broke up Tuesday with agreement only to continue “technical” discussions at lower levels — and leaving diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff essentially deadlocked.”The choice is Iran’s,” said Catherine Ashton, leader of the delegation representing Western powers, China and Russia. “We expect Iran to decide whether it is willing to make diplomacy work to focus on concrete confidence-building steps and to address the concerns of the international community. But there’s a very, very long way to go.”

The parties agreed to hold a technical discussion in Istanbul on July 3 clarifying the content of the competing proposals tabled by Iran and by Ashton’s delegation, and  follow up conversations between Ashton’s deputy, Helga Schmid, and Iran’s number 2 negotiator, Ali Bagheri. Ashton said she and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, would then be in contact to discuss prospects for holding a further meeting of the senior delegations. Plainly, though prospects for such a meeting appeared grim at the close of the Moscow talks, given the gulf between the positions taken by the two delegations. And with harsh new sanctions taking effect just two weeks from now, the absence of a breakthrough after three rounds of talks will spur hawks on both sides of the divide to press for escalation.

Tuesday’s outcome was hardly surprising. “Frank and far-reaching discussions” is diplo-speak for talks that are tense and rancorous. So when Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann had called Monday’s session a “tough and intense exchange of views,” he left no doubt that the negotiations were in serious trouble. That much had been expected, since  the expectations of the two sides of what a confidence-building process would involve are  so far apart that prospects for a breakthrough remain remote.

Western powers are focused on getting Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20% purity, a rate that is closer to weapons grade than the 3.5% enrichment needed for reactor fuel. In exchange, Western powers would offer 20% fuel plates for a medical-research reactor, help with nuclear safety and access to embargoed airliner parts. Iran, which rejected that proposal at the previous talks in Baghdad, did so again in Moscow, making clear that its basic demands were for an easing of sanctions and Western recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. In exchange for these concessions, which Western powers are unwilling to offer at this stage, Iran reportedly offered simply to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to investigate Iran’s previous nuclear work. Iranian sources close to the regime have previously indicated that Iran might be willing to freeze 20% enrichment, but only at a price of easing sanctions and recognition of its nuclear rights. With both sides apparently playing hardball, prospects for bridging the chasm between those positions remain slim, because each side believes the other has more to lose if the talks collapse. The best efforts of the Russian hosts may be required to forge agreement just to keep talks going.

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Hawks often complain that Iran negotiates only to buy time to expand its nuclear capability, but Western leaders know that their economic choke hold on Iran will tighten regardless of what happens at the talks. An E.U. embargo on importing Iranian oil will take effect in two weeks’ time, as will new banking sanctions designed to cut Iran off from international trade and finance. Western powers haven’t put those measures up for negotiation, except in the highly unlikely eventuality that Iran suddenly capitulates on the issue at the heart of the standoff by stopping all enrichment of uranium in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions. Having defied that demand at great cost but with broad domestic support for six years, Iran insists that it has no intention of backing down on 3.5% enrichment. Indeed, one of its core demands for any movement on 20% enrichment has been for Western powers to acknowledge its right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrichment for peaceful purposes.

The Iranians appear to believe Western powers need a deal more than they do because of the potentially disastrous impact on the world economy of any confrontation over Iran. And they see the talks that began in Istanbul in the spring as a vindication of their defiance, believing Western powers will back down on low-level enrichment. But Western officials believe Iran has been forced to the table under the pain of sanctions, which gives the U.S. and its allies the whip hand. Regardless of the outcome of the Moscow talks, there will be a sharp escalation of pressure in the weeks ahead. Already, sanctions have cut Iran’s oil exports by as much as 40%, sent consumer price inflation soaring by 40% and halved the value of its currency, the rial.

In a reliably trenchant analysis, the International Crisis Group (ICG) sees a perilous situation emerging as a result of both sides’ overestimating their leverage. Western officials have operated on the assumption that sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action brought the Iranians to the table, but Tehran “also felt that it was in the driver’s seat, having strengthened its position over the preceding year by increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, enriching at higher levels and completing its work on the underground nuclear facility at Fordow,” according to the ICG. Iran also knows that, in an election year, President Obama can’t risk the sort of economic shock that could be triggered by a confrontation. Both sides are reluctant to squander leverage accrued at considerable cost and over a number of years, absent significant major concessions from the other. “Having accumulated precious assets that bolstered their hand in negotiations,” the ICG warns, “both parties are now loath to use the leverage they sacrificed so much to acquire.”

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Given the steady expansion of sanctions, Western powers may actually be more patient than Iran at the negotiating table. After all, they believe Iran is not rushing to build nuclear weapons, even though it is steadily expanding infrastructure that, if repurposed, would give it the means to create bomb material. But its economy is being choked, and there is talk in Washington that a new raft of even harsher measures could be adopted later in the year if diplomatic efforts dry up. “Right now, the Iranians are negotiating under the threat of sanctions,” Georgetown scholar and former Administration official Colin Kahl recently told Al-Monitor. “The West’s leverage doesn’t go away if there is no agreement in Moscow — and it could conceivably increase once oil sanctions are fully implemented … We still have time for a diplomatic process.”

Many Iran scholars and analysts are skeptical, however, that sanctions will force Iran to change course. If the current talks fail to bring relief from sanctions and Western recognition of Iran’s right to low-level enrichment, as Iranian leaders expect and have promised their public, Tehran may be the more likely party to walk away from the table. It threatened to do just that during the previous meeting in Baghdad, after Western powers tabled the offer that one former Iranian negotiator likened to asking Iran “to give diamonds in exchange for peanuts.”

Domestic matters will also make it difficult for Tehran to back down. “Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei has publicly given his backing to this process, so if it fails to stop new sanctions coming into effect two weeks after the Moscow talks, Iran will feel obliged to respond with further escalation of its own,” says Iran expert Trita Parsi, author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. “And the problem is that options for escalation on the Iranian side are fewer and more dangerous.”

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Iranian escalation could take the form of saber rattling over the Strait of Hormuz to send oil prices soaring, or moving to install the full centrifuge capacity at Fordow, knowing this is an Israeli redline. Tehran doesn’t appear to take the threat of Israeli military action that seriously, but if they were feeling especially reckless, the Iranians might even push up against Washington’s redlines by moving to enrich uranium at levels equivalent to bomb grade, either on the grounds that such material is used in some medical applications or, as one Iranian military official suggested last week, to power a new generation of submarines.

Meanwhile, those with influence over Iran, including Russia and China, will likely keep the pressure on Tehran to stay at the table, while pressing Western powers to be more flexible. One key measure of diplomatic progress: whether Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili is willing to meet directly with his U.S. counterpart, Wendy Sherman. In the last three sessions of talks between world powers and Iran, Tehran’s representatives ducked the opportunity to talk directly with the Americans. If that pattern continues in Moscow, hopes for diplomacy look dim.

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