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