By Peter Lesniak
George Bernard Shaw used to say that political necessities sometime turn out to be political mistakes. As things stand in ongoing negotiations between the west and Iran, this seems to be the parallel for what is going to happen in yet another round of talks in Russia later this month. Let us consider the current balance of play.
In his recent public appearance Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the west of fabricating information about Iran’s nuclear progress to cover up its own problems. In the same speech he warned that Israeli military action against his country would be met with a “thunderous blow”. It is worth reminding that this is the same person who, under his religious jurisdiction, has forbidden the development of the nuclear weapons in Iran some time ago.
Fereidoun Abbasi, Iranian nuclear chief stated recently that at least two new nuclear plants will soon be built and that there is no reason why Iran should stop its 20% uranium enrichment. More importantly, Iranian Defense Minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, has announced that the new space facility is under construction. While we cannot deny Iran’s ambitions beyond the atmosphere, such installations can also be successfully used for military purposes: to carry intercontinental missiles and warheads.
Wednesday 6th June, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – Ali Asghar Soltanieh, accused the Agency for spying and stated “Iran will resist to the end […] and never suspend its enrichment activities”. He denied the previous statement from the IAEA that wider access has been granted to its officers after talks on 22nd May.
IAEA chief, Yukiya Amano, will meet with Iranian representatives again on Friday to discuss unrestricted access to Parchin military site (about 20 miles South of Teheran). Surprisingly, no consideration is given to the other five major nuclear sites (Arak, Bushehr, Esfahan, Fordo and Nantz), which Iran will try to use as leverage before the P5+1 talks resume in Moscow on June 18th – 19th. In the meantime, Russian president Vladimir Putin is set to meet Ahmadinejad in Beijing today for ‘preliminary talks’ before the summit begins in Moscow later this month.
Now, we might argue whether Iran is a rational actor or not and considering historical parallels of current negotiations, the latter would probably be the more appropriate analysis. Accepting the unacceptable is also not a viable solution. As much as everyone would like to see the diplomatic resolution of this conflict, Iran does not make this easy. Nor did it show any signs of progress during earlier talks in Baghdad and Istanbul. On the other side, western negotiation tactics does not carry much finesse with it either. Obama’s ‘containment is not an option’ strategy and starting the talks by demanding the immediate closing of nuclear facilities and approval for ad-hoc IAEA inspections on the ground without any flexibility in approach didn’t prove very productive. Most importantly, however, to reach an agreement in international negotiations, each side has to be assured that the other is serious about negotiating a settlement: neither side holds that assurance.
Unfortunately, between the carrot and the stick, the west seems to be more familiar with the latter. We can, quite rightly, argue that increased sanctions brought Iran back to the negotiating table, but there isn’t much consideration given to how much sanctions are affecting every-day Iranians and most of civil society in the country. And worse is yet to come after 1st July when an EU oil embargo starts. If that doesn’t tighten the belt quite enough, there have been ideas of imposing an airline embargo, other transport limitations or formal financial sector limitations (including limits of transferring funds from Iranian SWIFT codes). As much as Iran could possibly handle most of the sanctions as a regime, the impact this can have on wider population can be disastrous, as we have seen in many cases in the past.
History shows us that wishful thinking has no place in the matters of political urgency and international conflict. Perhaps the dynamic of negotiations with Iran should change from being western-led and, in the eyes of the regime, unfair, suppressive and one-sided. Perhaps Catherine Ashton could strike a better deal in engaging local actors that would certainly not benefit from Iranian possession of nukes – actors like Pakistan, India or more productive involvement of Turkey to negotiate a right nuclear balance for the sake of local stability of power? Using the Brazilian example and their dealings with the nuclear potential would also be a helpful means of negotiation. Thinking outside the box, more productive cooperation with Mujahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK) could result in a lot of useful information needed at the negotiating table. MEK has been perceived as the Iranian ‘government in exile’, and only in 2009 removed from the US and EU list of organisations it designates as terrorist. Working to overthrow the Islamic republic, MEK members have been supplying invaluable intelligence to the United States and the UK for years not only about Iran’s development of such nuclear weapons but also about its secret influence in Iraq.
This is not to argue that current negotiations are not a matter of political expediency – they are. This is to argue that by opening approach and targeting the issue from many fronts using different political actors and complementary objectives might just bring the right amount of trust to secure the initial settlement. Just as Benjamin Franklin, I am neither bitter nor cynical but I do wish there was less immaturity and more openness in political thinking.