Nobody was expecting a breakthrough at Wednesday's nucleartalks in Baghdad, but most weren't expecting a breakdown,either. Indeed, predictions were that Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S.,Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) would engage on moredetailed proposals for concrete, reciprocal confidence buildingmeasures, and then adjourn by day's end having scheduled anew round of talks in a few weeks. But in what may be an exercisein brinkmanship, or a sign of an impending crisis, Iranianofficials balked at the offer from the Westernpowers. "The points of agreement are not yet sufficientfor another round," an anonymous Iranian official at thetalks told AFP. Iran's state media, whose upbeat spin on the talks in recentweeks had many analysts concluding that Tehran was preparing itspublic for a deal, slammed what it called the"outdated" and "unbalanced" proposals bythe Western powers in Baghdad. |
At Iranian insistence, Thursdaywill see a second day of talks in Baghdad, and the parties remainedlocked in negotiations until midnight. That looked like a tactic tocreate a mini crisis on the key sticking point in the talks: thequestion of whether Iran will be granted any relief from escalatingWestern sanctions if it agrees to the immediate confidence-buildingsteps demanded by the P5+1. ( MORE: Why Tehran Might Be Ready to Talk ) Proceedings began with the P5+1 outlining its proposals, underwhich Iran would be required to: Halt enrichment of uranium to 20% purity (ostensibly to fuel a medical research reactor, although Iranhas already created ten years' worth of fuel) whichconsiderably shortens the time-span required for reprocessinginto weapons-grade materiel Ship out the stockpile of 20% material for conversion intorelatively harmless fuel rods Shut down the enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom, which,while under IAEA monitoring, is embedded so deep in a mountainsidethat it may be beyond the reach of Israel's air force In exchange, Iran would be offered: fuel rods for the medical research reactor as well as help withbuilding newer ones Assistance in raising the safety standards at Iranian nuclearfacilities An end to the embargo against supplying Iran with desperatelyneeded parts for its decaying fleet of civilian airliners. The P5+1 also offered to halt further efforts to tighten U.N.sanctions Perhaps not surprisingly, the Iranians were unimpressed.
An Iranian official close to the talks told the Christian Science Monitor that, while Iran is willing to compromise on 20% enrichment, itwould do so only in a reciprocal process of equivalent concessions.Iran has already created its own fuel for the research reactor, soU.N. sanctions are of minimal importance. Further measures would beunlikely to pass Russian and Chinese objections it's theunilateral Western sanctions on banking and energy exports thatconcern Tehran. The Iranians complain that they're beingasked to make concessions important to the West on 20% enrichmentand Fordow, but in exchange receive nothing they deem particularlyimportant.
Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalilireportedly made clear during the P5+1 presentation that Iranexpects an easing or suspension of some sanctions, particularly theoil embargo due to take effect in July, as its price for halting20% enrichment. Given the history of the standoff, it'sunlikely that Tehran will embrace a deal that brings no relief fromthe sanctions inflicting the most pain. But Western powers haveinsisted they're not about to trade away their key leverageat this stage. ( MORE: Five Tips for President Obama on Nuclear Negotiations with Iran ) U.S.
officials told the Post that such steps could only be taken once Iran had come intocompliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which would meansuspending all uranium enrichment. For Tehran, that's anon-starter. The Iranians insist that enrichment to 3.5% is theirright as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and havingdefiantly maintained that position through six years of escalatingpressure, they are unlikely to back down now.
Iran's handlingof the Baghdad talks suggests it has a different reading on thebalance of power, and is signaling that by declining a new round oftalks before the other side gives more ground. "We believethat the two parties must agree on common points to merit a newround of negotiations," explained AFP's Iranian source.In his view, "the Western parties want to continue thesenegotiations at any cost. This is not our position." ( MORE: Iran Nuke Concession? ) While there's no question that sanctions are hurtingIran's economy and putting pressure on its regime to cut a deal, the leadership in Tehran may also becounting on economic and diplomatic pressures rising on the Westernside. With both the U.S. and European economies on the brink ofrecession and Europe's intractable financial crisisconsidered a matter of continent-wide emergency by decision-makers escalating tensions with Iran, and the resulting upward pressureon oil prices could worsen Western economic woes.
(Global oilprices hit a nine-month low on Wednesday, precisely because talksbetween the two sides lessen the danger of confrontation.) And asIran analyst Vali Nasr noted earlier this week, "confronting Iran may no longer be aEuropean priority in the face of the region's grave financialproblems." The readiness of Russia and China to go along with the P5+1 processhas been vital to the success of bringing Iran to the table. ButMoscow and Beijing have been skeptical of the unilateral sanctionsstrategy adopted by the U.S. and Europe, and the Russians andChinese will be inclined to soften sanctions in response toconcrete Iranian measures to reassure the international community."As Iran takes a step toward the global community, the worldcommunity should take steps for weaker sanctions againstIran," said Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in remarks quoted Wednesday in Russian media. This may helpexplain why Iran pushed back on the position offered by the P5+1 onWednesday.
Indeed, the Iranian press reported that the P5+1 was "divided" over the proposalspresented on Wednesday, claiming that some delegations had actuallyoffered the Iranians a different view. The negotiators, onThursday, will likely find ways of sustaining the process, becausethat's a shared goal. And their job, often, is finding waysof disguising concessions so that both sides can claim victory. Thenext key deadline is July 1, when a European embargo on Iranian oilexports is due to go into effect. Tehran's message onWednesday appeared to be that it will withdraw its offer tocooperate on 20% enrichment if the chokehold on its economyintensifies even while they're doing so.
That's aproposition some in the Western camp may be willing to test, but itremains to be seen whether the P5+1 will remain unified ifIran's response to its proposals is, ‘Yes,but…' MORE: What Lies? Beneath the Mysterious History of an Iranian NuclearSite.
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