Flexibility points to Iran breakthrough By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"Negotiations can advance as long as the threat environment does not dominate
- Iran's Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei
The United States' decision to set aside its previous preconditions for direct
negotiation with Iran by taking part in multilateral diplomacy involving Tehran
in Geneva at the weekend is a long overdue and welcome step forward. It could
culminate in a significant breakthrough in the stalled relations between the
countries should both sides take advantage of the moment and build on the
momentum generated toward civility in their hitherto confrontational approach.
The Geneva meeting between Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed
Jalili, and the "Iran Six" delegation led by the European Union's foreign
policy chief, Javier Solana, has now acquired a new level of importance as a
result of Washington's sudden policy shift, reportedly steered by Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, who could count this as a key legacy of her tenure in
office should the talks reach tangible results. William Burns, the State
Department's third-ranking official, will be in Geneva along with
representatives from France, China, Russia, Britain and Germany for talks on
Iran's nuclear program.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain will likely harvest the benefits
of this shift as well, by denying his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, a major
foreign policy issue that has been a thorn on the side of the George W Bush
administration for the past seven years.
With Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei,
putting his seal of approval on the negotiation path, and reports of a near
deal between Tehran and Washington regarding the opening of a US Interest
Section in Tehran, the next stage in US-Iran diplomacy is about to materialize.
This thawing began in Iraq when the taboo of direct dialogue between the two
traditional adversaries was broken, and comes at a time when other tensions in
the region are subsiding - the Israel-Hezbollah prisoner exchange, the
Israel-Hamas ceasefire, Syria-Israel peace (pre) talks, and Iraq's security
These warrant a similar improvement with respect to Iran's nuclear crisis.
Tehran does not wish to remain isolated or be perceived as "the odd man out" in
the region's seeming evolution along peaceful tracks. And now that Iran's
military has projected power (through maneuvers and missile tests), providing a
background buffer for its diplomacy, Tehran is properly positioned to reach a
new understanding with the "Iran Six" regarding its nuclear program.
In an article on Irandiplomacy.com, Iran's former ambassador to France, Sadegh
Kharazi, admitted that United Nations and other sanctions had harmed Iran and
he criticized certain "radical stances" that had proved counter-productive for
Iran. This echoes the views of Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister
and now advisor to the Supreme Leader, who recently criticized the foreign
policy rhetoric and inflexible nuclear stance of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's
But Khamenei has now put his weight behind Ahmadinejad by stating unequivocally
that the "nuclear file" is handled by the Supreme National Security Council
"headed by the respected president". This sends an important signal to the
outside world that Iran is internally united behind the president and his
nuclear negotiation team, just as the US's decision to participate in the
Geneva talks is meant to "show the unity of the 5 +1 ["Iran Six"] nations", to
With both Solana and French officials urging Iran to provide a "constructive
response", and Iran showing extra sensitivity toward President Nicolas
Sarkozy's new assertive diplomacy in the Middle East, the chances are that the
Geneva meeting will bring about the interim result of a "six-week
suspension-for-suspension" whereby Iran refrains from expanding its
uranium-enrichment program and (perhaps) puts it on standby mode in exchange
for a freeze on new sanctions against Iran.
Such an outcome will have its detractors on both sides. In the US, the
neo-conservative critics of the Bush administration are angered, such as former
UN ambassador John Bolton, who has labeled as a "concession" to Tehran the
administration's turnabout from its past "preconditions" for direct nuclear
talks. In Iran the conservative daily Jomhoori Eslami ran an editorial on the
"mirage" of a new US policy, criticizing a US State Department spokesman's
reference to suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment program during the interim
talks. Another conservative daily, Kayhan, has on the other hand put the accent
on the Supreme Leader's emphasis on "Iran's red lines".
However, the Geneva talks represent a mini-victory for the flexible diplomacy
spearheaded by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who has identified
"seven common grounds" between Iran's package of proposals and the "incentive
package" presented to Iran by the "Iran Six" in June. Recently, at a luncheon
at the Iran mission to the United Nations, the foreign minister told the author
that he was optimistic over the talks between Solana and Jalili.
From Iran's vantage point, already familiar with the nuances of the Bush
administration, it is better to strike a deal with the outgoing US president
than to deal with the anxious-prone uncertainties of the next US president, be
it Barack Obama or John McCain.
Simultaneously, various Iranian officials, including a high-ranking military
leader, have openly admitted that the "Western threat against Iran is serious",
warranting Iran's war-prevention diplomatic efforts, given the economic fallout
of the current state of the crisis. This includes a stream of bad news
regarding foreign investment, particularly in the oil and gas sector, in light
of the announcement by French giant Total SA to abandon plans to develop a
liquefied natural gas project in Iran.
Such setbacks could be costly to Iran since, to give an example, Iran and Qatar
share the giant Pars Gas field in the Persian Gulf and Iran already lags far
behind Qatar in exploiting the field and will be even further behind if
international sanctions continue to retard Iran's energy sector.
Other Iranian rights, chiefly economic ones, overlap its national security
interests, and they are being trumped by the so-called nuclear rights. A
balanced pursuit of all of Iran's rights and interests is required - one set of
rights and interests should not be sacrificed for the sake of another set.
In the absence of tangible results at the conclusion of nuclear talks, it is
highly doubtful that Russia would fulfill its promise to complete the
much-delayed Bushehr power plant in Iran or provide the necessary elements for
the conversion of Iran's low-enriched uranium for use at the power plant. The
absence of progress in the country's energy plans, allied with a growing power
grid, will adversely impact Iran's near and long-term economic plans. This is
what Iran faces should Tehran and the "Iran Six" fail to reach a compromise.
Such a failure, reopening the possibility of a military threat with the
attendant negative impacts on the ailing world economy, is not in anyone's
interests, all the more reason for both sides in the delicate negotiations to
remain steadfast on the terrain of flexible diplomacy.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.