US & Canada

Despite endgame fears, no need to rush Iran nuclear talks

Meeting of P5+1 in Baghdad, Iraq 23 May 2012
Image caption The negotiators of the P5+1 - Russia, China, France, Britain, the US and Germany - held talks with Iran in Baghdad last week

Talks between Iran and the international community went into overtime last week because of a sandstorm rather than a breakthrough.

When the two-day meeting ended, the participants acknowledged that "significant differences remain". All they could agree on was another meeting in Moscow next month.

This is not a surprise. Given the substantive, geopolitical and historical challenges of a problem three decades or more in the making, any quick result was more likely to be a breakdown rather than a breakthrough.

The question of time - how much there is and whom it favours - significantly impacts expectations of these talks.

Many see the game in its final stages, with the clock ticking down towards a confrontation either weeks or months from now.

Iran's centrifuges keep spinning. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection discovered trace amounts of uranium enriched above 20%, ever closer to levels required for a nuclear weapon.

More (significant, if not crippling) sanctions are looming.

Pressure tactics

This frames the next session in Moscow as a make-or-break moment. An inflection point will shift the focus from diplomacy towards military action.

Image caption Satellite images from 2009 revealed a facility under construction inside a mountain near Qom, Iran

Not necessarily so. Baghdad revealed that there is a real diplomatic process underway, but these negotiations are in their early stages. Both sides laid out maximalist positions: all take and little give.

Look beyond the posturing and there are the makings of an eventual agreement - a limited Iranian nuclear programme under intensive international scrutiny.

Getting there will take time, and there is more of it available than is generally understood.

While Iran is approaching the point where it could build a weapon if it chooses, the intelligence community does not believe that Iran has made that strategic choice.

While trend lines are worrying there is still time - years, in fact - to work this diplomatically.

A military strike may buy time but it would most likely produce the very outcome the international community wants to avoid - Iran with an actual nuclear weapon.

Saddam Hussein expanded his nuclear programme after the Israeli strike against the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981; only the Gulf War and the weapons inspections that followed prevented him from developing a weapon.

The military option should remain on the table as a pressure tactic but there are clear downsides if forced to use it.

Israel continues to threaten military action, which keeps the threat credible. But the Israeli political and security establishment is deeply split about its prospects, with high-level voices preaching caution, given everything else happening in Israel's backyard.

Weighing benefits

And with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now leading a government of national unity, he may be willing to give negotiations more time as long as Israel's core security concerns are protected.

Image caption Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has a political fissure to fix

Sanctions are raising the costs of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Its oil output and customer base are both in decline.

This has certainly played a role in getting Iran back to the table in search of relief both from sanctions that have been imposed and those that will go into effect this summer.

At the same time, Iran continues to demonstrate a willingness to absorb these costs.

It remains unclear whether sanctions will bite to a sufficient degree that Iran concludes that the costs of a nuclear programme outweighs any strategic benefit.

As Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center pointed out, following the Baghdad meeting, the only country that can stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is Iran.

The current talks are the most viable option to convince Iran that the costs of its nuclear programme, to whatever level Tehran takes it, outweigh its benefits.

This cost-benefit calculation is not just about the nuclear programme but about Iran's place in the Middle East pecking order and its relationship with the West, particularly the United States.

Tehran offered to expand the agenda to reflect this broader set of issues. The P5+1 declined - for now.

Ironically, this is where the Obama administration started in 2009 when the president offered to engage Iran based on mutual respect and mutual interest if Iran would "unclench its fist".

The unrest following Iran's disputed election made it impossible for both sides to respond meaningfully.

'Greater flexibility'

The conditions the US hoped for three years ago are finally appearing, but President Obama does not have the political flexibility now that he had at the start of his presidency.

Image caption What would a Romney administration's approach to Iran look like?

In a sense, neither does Iran.

But this can change in time. Should he be re-elected (a Romney win would send the entire process back to square one) President Obama would acquire greater "flexibility", as he told Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in a different context.

Meanwhile, next year's election in Iran gives Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a chance to repair the political fissure that has developed with current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and see him replaced with someone the West feels it can do business with.

Thus, for a variety of reasons, mostly political, success is not likely this year.

Better negotiating conditions may have to wait until 2013, when both sides are in a better position to give something to get somewhere. More time works to the advantage of all sides.

The current talks serve an important purpose, keeping time on the clock until a peaceful resolution becomes possible. There is no reason to rush to failure. That is what happened in Iraq.

PJ Crowley is a former US Assistant Secretary of State in the administration of President Barack Obama.

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