Iran’s Agenda: Why Tehran Plays Hard to Get on Nuclear Diplomacy

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BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP / Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses lawmakers on the county's economic situation during a session at the parliament in Tehran on Jan. 16, 2013. Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Tehran to try resolve long-running differences with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme.

“A decade of war in now ending,” President Barack Obama told Americans on Monday, vowing to “show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” That was widely taken as a reference to Iran, against which Obama has said he would be willing to order military action should that become necessary to stop Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. But while the President’s inaugural speech underscored his preference for diplomacy, prospects for a breakthrough in negotiations with Iran remain gloomy. Indeed, Western diplomats have been struggling, since last December, to even get Tehran even to commit to a time and place for a new round of nuclear talks they had hoped to hold on Jan. 15.

“We proposed concrete dates and a venue in December,” Reuters was told by Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who coordinates negotiations between Iran and the major powers. “Since then, we have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses.”

Despite Iranians’ suffering under the burden of ever-tightening Western sanctions, analysts believe Tehran has been evading a new round of nuclear talks with the P5+1 — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — because it believes Western powers don’t plan to offer substantially more than the package rejected by Iran at the previous round of talks in Moscow last June.

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“There’s been a gulf between the expectations of the two sides until now,” says Reza Marashi, a former State Department official now research director at the National Iranian-American Council. “Iran is demanding an end to sanctions as their starting point without clearly putting concessions of their own over 20% enrichment and the Fordow underground enrichment facility on the table, while the U.S. is demanding that Iran stop 20% enrichment, ship out its stockpile and shutter Fordow without offering substantial sanctions relief in exchange. I’m seeing a willingness expressed in conversations in Tehran to discuss halting 20% enrichment, shipping out stockpiles and sealing Fordow, but only in exchange for sanctions relief and acknowledgement of Iran’s right to enrich up to 3.5% on its own soil.”

Although Iran’s efforts to learn the contents of the next P5+1 offer ahead of another round of talks have been rebuffed, Marashi says signals from Russia and China have persuaded Tehran that it will not include substantial sanctions relief. “The fact that Russia has publicly demanded that the U.S. show greater flexibility is a sign that the package being offered by the P5+1 is unlikely to interest Iran,” he explains, “which may be why they’re holding off on committing to new talks for fear of being blamed for their failure. Iran won’t be able to stay away from the negotiating table beyond February or March, though, because Russia and China wouldn’t accept that and would turn up the pressure. Still, if the basic positions being offered by the two sides doesn’t change, the result may simply be more talking for talking’s sake.”

Iran is playing hard to get because its decision makers reportedly believe Iran faces no imminent threat of military action, and are confident in their ability to absorb the impact of further sanctions. Moreover, some of the voices around Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei claim that the West won’t offer a deal that recognizes Iran’s nuclear rights, meaning that talks inevitably fail and tee up further escalations of pressure.

Tehran’s negotiating outlook was recently outlined in an Iranian journal by Mahdi Mohammadi, a key architect of the Islamic Republic’s strategy for handling the nuclear talks. Mohammadi wrote that Iran won’t, on principle, change its position in response to escalating sanctions or military threats; it will only negotiate on an equal footing and on the basis of a substantial quid-pro-quo.

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“Iran is getting ready for a long-term game,” Mohammadi wrote, warning against “any delusional thinking about the possibility of putting a rapid end to Iran’s strategic contention with the United States.” That, he said, has prompted Iran “to brace itself for long-term pressures because it is most improbable in strategic terms that the United States will be able to replace its current dual-track strategy [combining sanctions pressure with talks] with a new one in the foreseeable future. Consequently, when Iran knows that the game will continue for long and is aware that the United States will not easily give up its pressure strategy, it would be too illogical and even childish for Tehran to sell all its assets at low price.”

In this schema, 20% enrichment may be an “asset” to be traded, but Mohammadi insisted that recognition of Iran’s right to low-grade enrichment and an end to sanctions are the basis for a deal. “It is impossible for Washington to drag Iran to a negotiation table where there is no balance between what is taken and what is given.”

Former State Department Non-Proliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick parsed Mohammadi’s comments for al-Monitor, noting that “It’s a mis-perception that Iran is on the ropes and … sanctions have driven them to the negotiating table… [Iran] doesn’t want to be seen hurting so bad. And they don’t want want to show over-eagerness to come  to the table.” But, he added the concessions Iran is demanding up front are beyond what the Obama Administration will be willing to grant, and he feared that that Iran’s reluctance to talk will strengthen calls for a military response.

The impasse has prompted considerable debate in Washington over whether the Obama administration should make the Iranians a more tempting offer on sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable curbs on its nuclear work. That might make Iran more likely to make a deal, goes the argument, but the risk would be that if Tehran declined to accept such an offer, pressure could rise to end diplomatic engagement and move towards confrontation.

(MORE: Israel Pushes Washington to Give Iran an Ultimatum)

In parallel, an unprecedented public debate is under way at the highest policy making levels in Tehran over the value of direct talks with the Washington, reports Farideh Farhi, a specialist on Iranian domestic politics at the University of Hawaii. Khamenei has not allowed bilateral talks with U.S. officials on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks since October 2009, she noted, and he’s unlikely to countenance direct talks before he can show that the U.S. has publicly taken positions that allow for a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to Iran. That means the focus will remain on the elusive search for a breakthrough in the P5+1 talks — albeit a limited one.

“Khamenei can be coaxed into compromise — one that concedes aspects of the program but not its entirety,” wrote former State Department Iran adviser Ray Takeyh, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, last month. “At this juncture, the Islamic Republic’s contentious and divided system can only countenance a limited deal, one that addresses the hard edges of its program. Khamenei is too invested in his enmities and too attached to his nuclear apparatus to accept its dismantlement. [But] an accord that curtails Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium can still reduce tensions and potentially pave the way for further arms-control measures… and [put] some indispensable time back on the clock.”

The question facing the U.S. and its allies, Takeyh explained, is “how to transact a limited deal while maintaining the leverage of the sanctions” — precisely the opposite of Iran’s goal of cutting a limited deal in order to neutralize the impact of sanctions. Still, Takeyh argued, “Khamenei may not want a deal with America, but increasingly he cannot afford not to have one. Ironically, a more circumscribed agreement that allows him to sustain the essential character of his nuclear program and his slogans of resistance may be his path out of the dilemma of his own creation.”

The game of brinkmanship over talks will take on an added urgency with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having warned at the U.N. last year that Iran would by the coming summer cross his ‘red line’ of stockpiling sufficient enriched uranium that, if reprocessed, could create a single bomb. Meanwhile, Iran will hold a presidential election for the successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, making high-profile nuclear talks with the West more politically risky for Tehran from late spring until the end of summer.

(MORE: For Israel, the Problem with Iran Diplomacy Is the Prospect of Nuclear Compromise)

Still, says Marashi, both Obama and Khamenei have an interest in playing the long game and avoiding a crisis, even if they can’t agree on the terms of a limited deal — or simply get together at the negotiating table. Last year, for example, Tehran raised eyebrows by unilaterally and without fanfare converting a substantial portion of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium into fuel plates that can’t easily be converted into bomb materiel — thereby easing anxiety over the steady growth of a stockpile of material that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade materiel.

So, even if the two sides are unable to reach even a limited agreement to resolve the nuclear standoff, both may be inclined to seek ways of finding sufficient common ground to prevent a complete breakdown in diplomacy.