WASHINGTON: The news reports over the weekend that an agreement had been reached for direct Iran-US talks over Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons is one case where there is less than meets the eye.
Even if the news does come on the eve of a crucial debate between US President Barack Obama and his challenger former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the bottom line is that nothing is going to happen with Iran until after the US elections.
So far, the talks are a dialogue of the deaf, with Iran wanting sanctions stopped and the United States waiting for Iran to make a show of good faith, so that negotiations can start for real.
The White House’s denial was categoric. “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement after the New York Times story appeared. Vietor also said: “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.” He was referring to the six nations – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – which are negotiating with Iran.
This is the rub. Bilateral US-Iran talks have already taken place within the framework of the P5 +1 and further bilaterals will almost certainly be within this framework. It is no secret that the United States wants a new meeting of the P5 +1 and Iran. US and Iranian officials have spoken about negotiations possibly resuming in November. This could be at an experts level to prepare the way for a meeting of senior foreign ministry officials from the six countries.
The last US-Iran bilaterals were held in October 2009, when the two sides agreed to a fuel swap that would have had required Iran ship its fissile material out of the country. This would have left the Islamic Republic without enough enriched uranium to refine further to weapon-grade and so would have been a confidence-building measure that would have opened the way to serious talks. The fuel swap never worked out.
And so we are left in the current impasse. The United States has drawn the line at a first move, with this now being for Iran to stop making 20 percent enriched uranium, which it does to fuel a research reactor that makes medical isotopes. The problem is that this level of enrichment is significantly closer to weapon-grade (over 90 percent enriched), raising fears the Iran is moving toward a “break-out” capability to rush towards making a bomb.
Also, Iran is producing this enriched uranium at an underground site in Fordow which is all but impregnable to air attack. So the US demand is the three Ss: shut Fordow; suspend making 20 percent enriched uranium (which Iran also does at the Natanz site); and ship out of the country the 20 percent enriched uranium it has already made.
Washington does not see this as a concession by Iran. It is, rather, an essential first step, especially since the big nut in this confrontation is Iran’s enriching uranium at all, which it has been doing in large amounts of up to 5 percent for fuel for power reactors, even if it has no power reactors for which it needs to make fuel. Iran’s one working power reactor is in Bushehr and is fueled by Russia. Iran is under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions requiring that it suspend the enrichment of uranium.
The Iranian point of view is that its cutting down, let alone ceasing 20 percent enrichment, must be answered by the lifting of sanctions which are crippling its oil sales and driving down its currency. After years of sanctions, Iran’s economy is finally being seriously hurt.
Thus the deadlock, which is reinforced by Iran’s concern that the United States is after something greater than the nuclear issue, namely toppling the Islamic Republic. This dilemma is relatively immune to U.S. electoral politics and will be little changed by the outcome in the presidential election in the United States on November 6. At issue when talks begin again will be whether the sanctions are affecting Iran enough to force it to change its behavior on the nuclear issue, or whether Iran is going to tough this one out as it moves closer, some believe by the middle of 2013, to having enough fissile material to move ahead and make bombs.
Progress depends on either Iran and/or the United States deciding to change the givens, so that a real dialogue — rather than just a restating of positions — can begin. On the Iranian side, this may mean Tehran accepting that sanctions relief will come at the end of a process, not at the beginning. A deal between the two might look like this. Iran steps away from 20 percent enrichment and then gets to keep a lower level of enrichment. The United States would then have to sell that to hardline allies like Israel and France.
Such a deal may depend on Washington pledging to Iran what it is ready to offer at the end of the process. This could be a two parter. On the technical level, the United States would have to promise to let Iran keep its centrifuges turning to enrich uranium, even if there will be all sorts of restrictions to guarantee that the resulting fissile material could not be used for weapons. On the political level, Iran may need guarantees that its sovereignty will be respected, although Tehran could settle for a technical agreement that freed it from sanctions.
In any case, the Iranians will find it easier to bargain when they have an idea just what it is they are buying. But the United States and allies like France and Israel have so little trust in Iran that they say they are not ready to lay out such a road map. If the Obama administration were ready for such a move, it is not clear whether a Romney administration would be. So the prospects for talking, at this point are not yet as hopeful as some news reports might be hinting.