Friday, May 18, 2012

The Iranian nuclear talks, part 2: Back to the negotiating table

By Ali Ezzatyar

(For part 1, see here.)

Iran and the international community (read: U.S.) are set to retake their seats at the negotiation table next week in Baghdad. If these were real chairs, one would hope they were made of a durable mahogany, as they have been frequented for ten years by fidgety, tough-talking diplomats on both sides, and there is still no likelihood that they will be retired soon. The talks are seen by both sets of negotiators as a zero-sum game, where no confidence-inspiring measures have been seriously considered -- the other side's threat of force has been the bottom-line motivator for both. As an important diplomatic window opens again, America and the world need to seek a grand bargain with Iran instead of the same old course of action. Think three factors: Assets, Sanctions, and Enrichment.

I argued previously that Iran's nuclear ambitions, while scary to the West, are understandable. They are reasonable from an energy perspective, as Iran can diversify its energy composition for domestic use and boost sales to the outside world of its most valuable natural resource. The nuclear program also offers Iran, even if it fully abides by the legal requirements of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), dual-use capability that allows it to be a potential acquirer of nuclear arms, and hence to have a deterrent. This nuclear policy is supported by a vast majority of Iranian citizens, who otherwise (mostly) disagree with their government on most things.

So while the fundamental calculation for both sides to push full-steam for their objectives has not changed, the constantly changing threat of force from each respective side has colored the way in which negotiations have gone forward. From the U.S. perspective, Iran's temporary halting of uranium enrichment in 2003 was an exceptional step that was not adequately taken advantage of. In 2003, America's aggressiveness in the region was Iran's primary motivating factor to consider this concession. Later, as the U.S. position in Iraq deteriorated, Iran utilized its proxy groups and resources to drive America into an even more precarious position there; this distracted America's attention from Iran's nuclear program almost totally, and even lead to the U.S. asking Iran for help and cooperation in stabilizing Iraq. That was music to Iran's ears, and the death knell of a genuine nuclear diplomatic process as far as the Iranians were concerned.

Today, there is still no clear existential danger in the view of the Islamic Republic. Threats of attack from Israel fall short of a regime-change scenario; the regime is likely to survive even if sanctions continue or get worse; and the United States is largely viewed as being out of the regime-change game, in particular where such a campaign in Iran would make Iraq and Afghanistan seem almost effortless in hindsight. There is one very important consideration in Tehran, however, that in addition to the aggregate effect of the latter annoyances has convinced the Iranian regime to play peace-seeker again.

The on-and-off tinkering of the Syrian regime, the only true regional ally that the Islamic Republic has ever had, is probably the largest existential threat to the Islamic Republic as well. Iran has sacrificed resources, political capital, and even its revolutionary idealism in supporting Bashar al-Assad with his brutal crackdown. The Saudi regime, Iran's primary rival in the region, is seeking not only to oust Assad due to his faithfully anti-Saudi stance on all issues, but also as a blow to its main rival.

From the moment America began dedicating countless resources to preventing Iraq from spiraling into civil war, and its positions in Afghanistan and the region were similarly weakened, Iran has not had a series of pressures that have convinced it that it needs to negotiate. The current tenuousness of Iran's position presents an opportunity. As a result, both sides (but particularly the U.S.) must take the initiative in proposing solutions -- solutions that will be viewed by both sides as painful concessions at home. The reality is, the necessary compromises have been clear from the beginning.

Iran's billions of dollars in frozen assets residing in the U.S. or in U.S. financial institutions must be back on the table as an incentive. There were early discussions of an offer to unfreeze Iran's assets in 2002, but that was soon replaced by a more hawkish stance on the American side that basically only considered more or fewer sanctions as the two options for going forward. The U.S. needs to acknowledge that it doesn't have a kitchen sink to throw at Iran anymore militarily; it needs to offer to repair Iran's refrigerator instead. The partial unfreezing of sanctions needs to be the ultimate carrot, short of restoration of diplomatic relations, to motivate Iran. Talk of this possibility should be brought up early enough to have a fruitful bearing on the conversation, and the appearance of weakness should not be a preoccupation of the American position. 

Speaking of broken refrigerators, a genuine plan to quantifiably reduce or end sanctions against Iran must also be presented as a prize for Iranian cooperation. The sanctions have always had the wrong effect on Iran, preventing ordinary Iranians from procuring key supplies necessary for important medical research, spare parts for civilian aircraft, and other supplies, while actually strengthening the regime's hold on power. While the sanctions are just recently leading to Iranians holding their government responsible for the consequences of sanctions, the people and not the government continue to be the primary group affected by sanctions in Iran's autocracy. Scaling the sanctions back as good reward is a no-brainer.

Iran must be prepared, in return, to freeze its uranium enrichment once again. More importantly, it has to be willing to abide by one of the various plans that have been proposed historically that allow it to develop its technology unhindered, with checks against production of nuclear arms. Such a process might entail having weapons-grade uranium produced offshore and imported at no extra cost to Iran, and will most certainly necessitate frequent inspections by the IAEA that are to some extent a blow to Iran's sovereignty. But the trade-off could be immense, and could (for better or worse) guarantee survival of the Islamic regime while leading to greater prosperity in Iran.

If the U.S. makes the right promises, Iran should take an active step towards easing American fears of a weapons program. This must be reciprocated by a temporary rolling back of certain sanctions against the Iranian regime, while a final plan is worked out for a functioning Iranian nuclear program in line with the NPT. That is the chronology. Ultimately, a full proof process that is acceptable to the world, guaranteeing that Iran cannot develop nuclear arms in the short term, should be reciprocated with Iran's inclusion in the international community.

Surely, critics will say that such proposals are idealistic, technically incomplete and shabby, and naive. But no matter how these negotiations are analyzed, sanctions, assets, and weapons-grade uranium enrichment are the three main factors. Everything else -- accusations of support for terrorist groups in the region and threats against Israel on one side, regional imperialism and an anti-Muslim crusade on the other, will not derail the negotiations if genuine will exists as to those three points.

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