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    Middle East
     Jul 23, 2008
A small step in Iran's nuclear talks
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Contrasting interpretations of the talks between Iran and the "Iran Six" on Tehran's nuclear program in Geneva at the weekend paint different pictures of the meeting's outcome.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad described them as a "step forward", a sentiment somewhat echoed by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who said "the meeting was constructive". China's official media, meanwhile, reported "insufficient progress", as opposed to much of the Western media's widespread reports of "stalemate" or "failure to produce any progress".

The latter interpretation has been fueled by the negative

 

assessment of US officials, such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was quick in raising the specter of "punitive measures", in light of Iran's apparent "small talk" and lack of "serious answers" at the meeting, at which the US representative, William Burns, reiterated the US's commitment to a "negotiated agreement".

Along with the Burns, representatives from Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany met to discuss Iran's nuclear activities, in particular uranium enrichment, which have already attracted two rounds of United Nations sanctions and US-imposed sanctions over fears Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, something it vigorously denies.

"We can move forward toward an agreement with understanding," Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator, stated on returning to Tehran, adding that the main purpose of the meeting was to set up a "timetable for future talks".

Unfortunately, in light of a two-week deadline given to Iran by the "Iran Six", to answer "yes" or "no" to the key issue of whether it will suspend, even temporarily, its enrichment program, the Western diplomacy now appears borderline impatient and in danger of undercutting its own efforts.

That would be a pity because all the vital signs suggest that the Geneva talks were positive and constructive and, barring any surprises or unforeseen developments, should lead to further progress in the coming weeks.

What has been overlooked is the fact that precisely because of Burns' presence, Tehran was steered away from announcing a compromise, which would have been interpreted as a sign of weakness in Iran vis-a-vis the US. Iran has welcomed the policy shift by the Bush administration in for the first time sending a representative to talks, and a Tehran Times editorial has expressed hope that the US "will continue this trend". But the US State Department has described Burns' presence as a "one-time" deal, without providing any firm commitment for the US's direct participation in the next rounds of nuclear talks with Iran.

Already, with various Washington hawks accusing the George W Bush administration of "appeasing Iran" and Israeli hawks going as far as openly contemplating a nuclear strike against Iran that would turn Iran "into a nuclear wasteland", per an op-ed article in the Sunday New York Times, the Rice-led Iran diplomacy is already on thin ground. This is not so much because of Iran's actions or reactions, but rather because of the intricacies of US domestic politics and Israeli lobbying (put in higher gear this week by the Washington visit of some high-level Israeli officials).

But, assuming that the Bush administration can withstand the torpedo effect of such internal and external heat on its new Iran approach, then the chances are that this approach will yield tangible results, particularly if the White House heeds the recommendation of Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and formally submits a proposal to Iran regarding the opening of a US diplomatic Interest Section in Tehran.

What keeps Washington from taking this necessary step, that would be tantamount to breaking significant ice in the chilly US-Iran relations? Instead of impatient diplomacy, reflected in the immediate post-Geneva announcement by Washington of "fine-tuning financial penalties" against Iran, the White House must stay the new course and add new depths to it, such as by agreeing to hold a new round of talks with Iran on the subject of Iraq's security.

Again, realistic US diplomacy would have recognized the paradoxical effect of precedence-setting US participation in the Iran nuclear talks, the fact that while it made those talks more serious and meaningful as far as Tehran is concerned, by the same token, it forced Iran into a more rigid stance in light of the negative repercussions for the country's image if Jalili had suddenly sounded conciliatory.

Yet, the mere fact that Jalili evaded the question of "freeze-for-freeze" and, on returning to Iran, sounded upbeat about the prospects for reaching an agreement, should be interpreted as positive signals that, indeed, reinforce Ahmadinejad's interpretation of the Geneva talks.

The "freeze-for-freeze" formula envisages that while Iran temporarily suspend enrichment activities, no more sanctions are leveled against it as long as talks progress.

Solana and Jalili are reportedly to hold further telephone conferences during the next two weeks, so the ground is being prepared for real, and serious, progress in the nuclear standoff. In turn, this necessitates a firm US hand with respect to the pro-Israel pressure groups seeking to derail the Rice-led diplomacy by stigmatizing it and prematurely declaring it a failure. This has been smart new diplomacy that has already made small progress and, in all likelihood, can yield a mutually acceptable agreement if the trend continues.

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 of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his Wikipedia entry, click here.

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