Playing Iran at Its Own Game

The lack of any meaningful offer in Baghdad would indicate that the P5+1 is now confident of two things: that Iran is not currently building a bomb and that there is time to negotiate before a possible Israeli attack.

David Patrikarakos
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Iranian representatives participating in nuclear talks in Baghdad.
Iranian representatives participating in nuclear talks in Baghdad.Credit: Reuters
David Patrikarakos

The result of last week's talks between Iran and the P5 +1 is clear: the promise of more talks in Russia later this month. What may seem depressingly slight counts as progress on the Iranian nuclear file these days. It was after all an agreement to meet again - the importance of which should not be discounted. Since the two sides met in Istanbul in April, we have witnessed the most sustained engagement between Iran and the P5 +1 (the United States, the UK, France, Russia and China, plus Germany ) in almost three years. From the end of 2009 to April 2012, Iran made great progress with its nuclear program and largely refused even to meet with the P5 +1 to discuss it. Its strategy was simple: stall diplomacy, move on with enrichment and increase its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. During 2011, Iran even managed to smash through a technological barrier and enrich to 20 percent, from which it is only a small step to weapons-grade uranium. With things going so well, there was just no reason to negotiate.

But now it seems there is, and the talks began with a P5 +1 proposal. While no details were officially released, it reportedly involved allowing the Iranians to enrich to low levels. Clearly, neither side is ready yet to compromise on its respective red lines. For the P5 +1, this is the demand that Iran cease enriching uranium to 20-percent levels at its Fordo plant, and the need for Tehran to surrender its existing stockpile of the same. For Iran, it is an end to the sanctions on its oil and banking sectors that have been in place since the end of last year. The P5 +1 offered to lift only a few peripheral sanctions, on items like Iranian aircraft parts - something Iran greeted with derision, while continuing to argue for its "inalienable right" to enrich uranium under article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which allows states to pursue peaceful nuclear technologies "without discrimination" ).

And the Iranians, for once, had a point. The P5 +1 offered nothing of substance, refusing even to show reciprocity to news earlier in the week that in separate negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran was close to allowing inspectors greater access to some of its more controversial nuclear sites. While it was likely this was another case of Iranian stalling, even IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano described the possibly of an imminent deal as "an important development."

Asking Iran to enrich at lower levels than it is currently doing in exchange for a token lifting of peripheral sanctions was to proffer the stick with no attendant carrot. An offer to lift sanctions in exchange for a ceiling on enrichment would have been more logical (and made Iran look utterly unreasonable if it were rejected ). All of which begs the question of why such a palpably weak offer was presented in the first place.

The answer lies in the fact that there were talks at all. Iranian diplomats were in Baghdad for the simple reason that they needed to be there. The country is under serious economic and political pressure. Sanctions are hurting and will hurt even more when the EU oil sanctions (which will join unilateral U.S. oil sanctions ) come into force on July 1. The unified front necessary at home to withstand the combination of political and economic pressure has, since the 2009 elections, disappeared. Even the rallying cries of influential conservative newspapers like Kayhan, which urge the mullahs to forget negotiations and push on with enrichment, have been ignored.

Iran's ability to stall is legendary. I have spent countless hours listening to shell-shocked veterans of negotiations with Tehran recount tales (with, it must be said, a certain begrudging awe ) of Iran's ability to drag things out. If its flexibility is not lauded, its stamina certainly is. For a long time, the Iranians calculated (correctly ) that each day without diplomatic movement was one more day of uranium enrichment. Now, it seems, they need that movement, but unfortunately for them times may have changed.

The lack of any meaningful offer in Baghdad would indicate that the P5 +1 is now confident of two things: that Iran is not currently building a bomb and that there is time to negotiate before a possible Israeli attack. As each day passes, Iran's economy weakens; its people grow more restless: There are not enough jobs for the young, fewer subsidies for the old and little money for anyone except regime officials and their cronies.

For years, the word most often used to describe negotiations with Iran was "circular": endless rounds of talks raking over the same issues repeatedly, with no apparent end in sight. But now it is the P5 +1 that appears happy to let things drag on, to let sanctions ravage Iran's economy and to see just how high a price Iran is willing to pay for its continuing enrichment. The P5 +1 is now playing Iran at its own game and it seems that we may have come full circle after all.

David Patrikarakos is a journalist and the author of "Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State," due to be published by I.B. Tauris this August.

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