Art exhibit in Tehran - AP
An art exhibit in Tehran. Photo by AP
Text size

Not everything in Iran revolves around the country's nuclear program and sanctions. This week, for example, the annual book fair is taking place in Tehran; more than 2,400 Iranian publishers and about 1,600 publishers from 77 other countries are participating. Also in Tehran, a unique exhibition of paintings opened this week, and last week a photography exhibition called "Iran Through Ali Hatemi's Eyes" opened, featuring still photos taken by the late filmmaker.

The Iranian media, and not only those outlets that support the government, provide details of the exhibitions at the many galleries in the capital and in other major cities. Last week in Tehran scores of people expressed their support for those who help keep their environment clean, when they took to the streets on their bikes and rode from the Quds Cinema building in southern Tehran to the municipality building, dressed in the orange garb of sanitation workers and carrying signs that said, "My city is cleaner than my home." That same week also saw the screening of veteran filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui's movie, "Dressed in Orange," which depicts the change in the life of a photojournalist who decides to desert his profession and become a sanitation worker after reading a book about environmental quality.

However, the question of whether or not the sanctions are working cannot be answered by the Iranians' ability to go to the movies or visit art exhibitions. The issue must instead be evaluated with the help of orderly tables of data on the amounts of oil Iran is producing, the decline in the price of its oil and the macro data of its economy. These figures, and not the number of inhabitants who can or can't afford to go the movies, are what will ultimately determine whether Iran will accede to the West's demands.

This month two rounds of talks are slated on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. The first one will begin on May 14 and will last for two days. Participants from Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency will discuss the opening of the nuclear site at the Parchin military complex to inspection, as well as IAEA demands to inspect other military installations. The second, considered more dramatic, will take place about 10 days later in Baghdad. There, the Group of Five plus one (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany ) will discuss with Iran a new framework for Iranian uranium enrichment.

Iran's position was summed up last week by its envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh. He made it clear that Iran does not see any reason to shut down the subterranean installation at Furdo, south of Tehran, since it is under IAEA supervision in any case. Soltanieh, a graduate of the University of Utah who is an expert on nuclear physics and a senior lecturer at a number of universities in Iran, also says Iran "will not take orders from any foreign entity concerning the enrichment of uranium." As for inspection at the Parchin site, Tehran says it is a military site, not a nuclear site, and is not included on the list of sites the IAEA is allowed to visit. With statements like these, ostensibly there is nothing to talk about.

When you listen to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, however, it seems the diplomatic window of opportunity is still open. "If we have taken one step forward at the meeting in Istanbul, I am certain we will take several more steps forward at the conference in Baghdad," he has declared.

The choice of Baghdad as the site of the conference is aimed at making it clear to Turkey how displeased Iran is with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policy toward Syria. In fact, Tehran even "threatened" to hold the first round of talks in Baghdad, but the European countries insisted that they take place in Istanbul. In exchange, though, they agreed to hold the second conference in Baghdad.

Beyond the international spectacle, which is supposed to demonstrate the interdependence between Iran and Iraq and to give a light slap on the cheek to Turkey, it appears that the "steps forward" to which Salehi referred are related to Iran's willingness to content itself with enrichment of uranium to the level of 5 percent, in exchange for receiving nuclear fuel for research purposes. There is agreement at the moment that this enrichment scheme is the minimum that will be demanded by the U.S. and the European Union. But this minimum demand could also turn out to be a maximum demand, as Iran has made it clear it will not agree to send the uranium it has already enriched anywhere beyond its borders.

In any case the Baghdad conference will not be a spectacle of Western dictates to Iran. After both sides have adopted a strategy of "mutual listening" without preconditions, which proved itself at the Istanbul conference, Iran will present demands of its own in Baghdad.

The main condition will be a Western commitment to begin lifting the sanctions on Iran in return for its agreement to the enrichment scheme and to inspection of the sites the IAEA wants to enter. This reciprocity is not to be taken for granted. It requires a timetable and agreements on the type and conditions of the inspection, though there is still no agreement as to the extent of the enrichment Iran will be permitted or about which sanctions will be lifted.

This is where Russia is expected to come in and play a key role. Iran has already announced that "the Russian plan for phases could serve as a good basis for discussion." This is a reference to a plan that was discussed last week by Iran and Russia, whereby in return for every agreement on Iran's part, a portion of the sanctions would be eliminated. The Baghdad conference might be an indication as to the direction Iran will now take. The conference will make clear whether Iran has decided to leverage its power to threaten in order to make diplomatic gains, or whether it still prefers a flamboyant nuclear program and continued sanctions.