Time to Rekindle Talks with Iran

iran-missiles-nuclear-iaea-report-negotiations-diplomacyThe latest International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report on Iran may dangerously undermine prospects for a reasonable and negotiated resolution of the Iran-West nuclear standoff.

The report’s veracity and authenticity is in itself questionable, for it heavily relies on rehashed data and documents provided by a number of Western intelligence agencies. More worryingly, the timing of its release invites tremendous skepticism. Bent on increasing their pressure on Iran, Western powers and Israel are trying to come up with any sort of justification to push for a new round of even more punitive sanctions, which could potentially target Iran’s central bank and oil exports. The dubious allegations regarding Iran’s purported assassination plot in Washington are a crucial indicator of how America and its allies are seeking to tighten the noose around Iran.

In light of major upheavals across the Middle East and the shaky foundations of the global economy, Washington should realize that the last thing it needs is to be dragged into a new and even more destructive war. More importantly, pushing for further sanctions would only embolden Iran to reconsider its very membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), given Tehran’s increasing frustrations with the IAEA. The best solution is to channel this renewed sense of urgency into the diplomatic track by reviving talks and exploring the so-called “step-by-step” option proposed by Russia. This is the best way to avoid a global tragedy. There is still time for proper negotiation.

Iran in the Crosshairs

After months of media frenzy over developments in the Arab world and the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Iran is back at the center of global media’s geopolitical discourse. Both the Israel lobby and the Obama administration have played a crucial role in putting Iran back in the spotlight. Two important developments contributed to this.

First was the bizarre and almost surreal allegations against Iran, implicating members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in a supposed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States. Without even confirming the veracity of the accusations in a credible court, Washington turned down Tehran’s offers for cooperation and formal diplomatic clarification. To make things worse, President Obama condemned Iran and called for even more severe sanctions. Subsequently, Washington dispatched an envoy to Europe to discuss the prospects of imposing sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports, which could potentially paralyze Iran’s transition economy and drive oil prices to new heights. While Iran extended the olive branch, America stepped up its rhetorical warfare. Consequently, Iran found itself pushed against the wall as the United States and Saudi Arabia stepped up their pressure on Tehran.

However, America’s other major ally, Israel, was busy pushing the envelope even further. The Israeli lobby and the Republicans in Congress stepped up their pressure on Washington to adopt an even more confrontational approach toward Iran. Obama’s tragic endorsement of the flimsy “Iran plot” opened up a floodgate of political chutzpah and ideological zealotry. As a result, the House Foreign Affairs Committee was able to advance a new sanctions bill, which if turned into law could make it practically impossible for the U.S. government to negotiate with Iran. By any measure, this bill represents one of the most absurd pieces of legislation on foreign affairs. Never in modern history has the U.S. government been barred from negotiating with even its mortal enemies, be it China or the Soviet Union. Of course, one hopes the Obama administration will come to its senses and veto this bill if and when the full Congress approves it.

The Agent Saboteurs

Since the early 1990s, Israeli politicians, from Shimon Peres to Benjamin Netanyahu, have been warning the world about an imminently nuclear Iran. Interestingly, they have, over time, added an additional element to their doomsday premonitions: the threat of a unilateral Israeli attack if the international community fails to stop Iran. This strategy has enabled Israel to continuously disrupt nuclear negotiations by pressuring the P5+1 to focus on sanctions and political pressure rather than dialogue, compromise, and carrots. This explains why in earlier years, namely 2002-2005, the West was not only pushing for more intrusive inspections — outside the NPT ambit — through the so-called “additional protocol,” but it also called for the total suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment. The West essentially demanded that Iran give up its nuclear program wholesale. Obviously, this was unacceptable to the Iranians. As a result, the Iranian doves — who favored negotiations and more compromise with the West — were discredited, while the more hawkish elements were vindicated. Nonetheless, there were subsequent efforts at exploring a reasonable compromise within the framework of the NPT.

The problem is that every time there was a development on the negotiation front, the Israelis lobbied for more sanctions, threatened to launch an attack, came up with dubious accounts of nuclear warhead research and development by Iran, and produced inconclusive and circumstantial evidence in order to demonize Iran. Israel has undermined any trace of goodwill and trust — essential elements for compromise — in the negotiations. Although Israel’s strategy has led to continual sanctions against Iran, it has done nothing to resolve outstanding differences between Tehran and Western powers.

Israel’s strategic reasoning is increasingly clear. In many ways, Israel’s main objective in “securitizing” the “Iran threat” is to prevent Tehran from normalizing relations with great powers, especially the United States, while making sure that Iran is continuously isolated over its nuclear program. Aware that the Iranian nation is firmly in support of the country’s inherent right, under the NPT, to sustain its multi-billion dollar civil nuclear program, Israel hopes to indefinitely leverage the specter of a “nuclear Iran” to isolate Tehran from the Western international order.

Of course, Israel-Iran tensions have further intensified in recent years. On one hand, Iran is continuously mastering its nuclear technology and rapidly developing its ballistic missile capabilities. On the other hand, the current Israeli government is composed of a coalition that includes ideologues such as Foreign Minister Lieberman and hawkish politicians such as Prime Minister Netanyahu, who have painted Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel and the region. Unless the Obama administration decides to rein in Netanyahu’s zealotry, America will be embroiled in more and more conflicts. Washington is already isolated over its opposition to Palestine’s bid for statehood. The last thing it needs is to engage in a military conflict with a determined and ambitious regional power such as Iran. Israel is a strategic liability for America. America should begin to recognize this.

The IAEA Reportage

For Iran, the IAEA is increasingly becoming pliable and vulnerable to Western pressure. The recent IAEA report heavily relies on Western intelligence agencies, and there are concerns that its head, Yukiya Amano, enjoys a cozy relationship with America and its allies, as revealed by nuclear Wikileaks cables. Worryingly, given that the IAEA does not have its own independent intelligence-gathering capabilities, it is not clear how it “authenticated” the information it received from outside sources.

The report also relies on rehashed data and circumstantial evidence, which was previously dismissed by the former IAEA chief, Mohammad Elbaradei. Back in 2007, Iran actually responded to the same allegations, deconstructing and rebutting the major arguments of the report in a lengthy 118-page paper. In fact, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report also stated that Iran never really decided to push through with weaponizing its nuclear program. No such executive decision was ever made.

The report talks about a number of issues, which go way back to 2004. As former IAEA official Olli Heinonen said, the report does not constitute a “smoking gun.” There is no conclusive and verifiable evidence suggesting that Iran has actively pursued the development of a nuclear warhead. Until 2005, the IAEA inspectors actually visited areas of concern, especially the town of Parchin, and found nothing suspicious. Assuming – but not conceding – that the report is correct in identifying some “research-related” activities with respect to developing an explosive nuclear device or computer models of a warhead, one could not conclude that the Iranian regime per se was automatically involved. Besides, there is a huge gap between research and actual development of a warhead. This is a crucial point.

The IAEA report could be extremely counterproductive if it begins to seriously estrange Iran. Ahead of the release of the report, Iran sent a letter to Amano, making certain clarifications and issuing some requests. He refused even to respond. Aware of how counterproductive and questionable the report is, China and Russia lobbied the IAEA to defer its release. However, it seems that the IAEA has succumbed to pressures to release this report, probably in an attempt to paint Iran in a dim light.

If this trend continues, there could be two disastrous consequences. First, Iran may begin to fear that inspections could turn into intelligence-gathering activities with respect to Tehran’s military capabilities (outside the nuclear gambit). Tehran recalls how, in the 1990s, Iraq found out that spies had infiltrated UNinspection units. In fact, Iran has already complained that the report goes well-beyond IAEA’s institutional mandate because it covers issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, which are clearly outside the realm of the country’s nuclear program. Second, Iran may reconsider its very membership in the NPT. Perception is crucial in international affairs. An IAEA-Iran estrangement is a dangerous prospect for both Iran and the international community. So far, Iran has not indicated any inclination to withdraw from the NPT, but the probability will increase unless the IAEA and the Western powers re-focus their energies on constructive engagement and nuclear negotiations. The IAEA should give Iran sufficient time and opportunity to clarify the issues raised by the latest report.

Re-Engaging Iran

Looking at the dynamics of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, we can clearly see that they are fraught with threats of sanctions and military attack, while there is a clear absence of a reasonable diplomatic approach. In the early years of the 21st century, the West could have resolved the conundrum by offering Iran real carrots. Instead of calling for intrusive inspections – involving Iran’s military establishments beyond its nuclear program – and/or a total suspension of nuclear enrichment, the West could have offered technical assistance or industrial-scale power plants to help meet Iran’s rapidly growing energy needs.

The reformists, under President Khatami, were obviously ready to negotiate, cooperate, and resolve the issue once and for all. Iran’s main aim was to establish energy self-sufficiency and feed its rapidly industrializing economy. There was no incentive for inviting sanctions that would hurt Iran’s economy.

However, Iran is now well past that point. It has already invested billions of dollars in the program. It has a wide network of nuclear plants and research and development centers. The Bushehr power plant is already operational and generating electricity. In this sense, the West does not have much of a carrot to offer. The best it can do is to offer technical cooperation and ensure the safety and stability of Iran’s nuclear installations. Of course, under better conditions, the West could cooperate with Iran in building safe and modern civilian power plants in the future.

For Iran, the barrage of sanctions and continuous accusations against Tehran come off as some synchronized conspiracy to stymie Iran’s technological development. This is a sentiment that is shared by most Iranians, regardless of their political leanings. Iran is a signatory to the NPT and therefore relishes its legal and sovereign right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. Moreover, Iran has actually welcomed efforts at resolving tensions over its nuclear program. Back in 2010, Iran agreed to a Turkish- and Brazilian-brokered deal that would have allowed Iran to obtain higher levels of enriched uranium (strictly for medical purposes) though a third party, in exchange for its domestically enriched fissile material. It was a potential breakthrough in negotiations, but the West dismissed the deal right off the bat and slapped Iran with new rounds of sanctions, which are imposing immense hardship on the entire economy.

The Istanbul talks failed to resolve differences between Iran and European powers. So, in an attempt to break the deadlock, Russia proposed the so-called “step-by-step” approach, whereby in exchange for Iran’s cooperation at every stage of negotiations there would be a corresponding rollback in sanctions. Tehran welcomed this approach. Critically, this novel approach strikes at the heart of the problem in a decade of fruitless negotiations: a general trend where sanctions and threats supplant true negotiation, dialogue, and compromise.

The Russian proposal could re-energize talks, because it offers strategic engagement and constructive dialogue in exchange for transparency and downgrading of sanctions. This is perhaps the best way to resolve tensions and channel our new sense of urgency into a more constructive endeavor. Given Russia and China’s opposition to any new round of sanctions or/and military aggression, the United States should avoid alienating these powers and instead more assiduously follow the diplomatic track.

After all, Fareed Zakaria was perhaps right when he said, “Strategic engagement with an adversary can go hand in hand with a policy that encourages change in that country. That’s how Washington dealt with the Soviet Union and China in the 1970s and 1980s. Iran is a country of 80 million people, educated and dynamic. It sits astride a crucial part of the world. It cannot be sanctioned and pressed down forever. It is the last great civilization to sit outside the global order.”

There is also the bigger geopolitical picture. In light of America’s withdrawal from Iraq, and eventually from Afghanistan, engaging Iran carries immense strategic dividends. Iran is not only crucial to the world economy as a major producer of oil and gas, but it also wields considerable influence across a volatile and extremely strategic region. Further sanctions against Iran, targeting its central bank and oil exports, would simply drive oil prices to historic heights, choking off a fragile global economy. Any aggression against the country, or more punitive sanctions, could encourage Iran to use its regional influence to undermine U.S. interests in the region. Iran has well-developed ballistic missile technology, and it has a wide network of asymmetrical warfare capabilities to deter any form of aggression. Therefore, neither war nor more punitive sanctions seem to be reasonable. The West should acknowledge Iran’s regional status and use this to its advantage by actually accommodating Iran’s legitimate interests. After all, a “grand bargain” is perhaps the best way to resolve Iran-West tensions.

At this point, the IAEA report suggests that Iran is far from developing a nuclear warhead. Iran has not yet made that decision. There is still time for real negotiations and compromise.