Iran nuclear talks reach a turning point
By Kaveh Afrasiabi
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - After two intense days of nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tehran issued a statement that described negotiations as a positive step forward due to a "more realistic" position adopted by the "Iran six" nations that compromise the UN Security Council's permanent five members plus Germany.
Iran's February 27 statement is worth quoting at length:
"Six months ago, I.R. [the Islamic Republic] of Iran in Moscow presented a comprehensive proposal for the talks. The proposal included five pillars for
cooperation and set principals and objectives for the talks.
They were supposed to consider and review the plan and provide a response to Iran. Yesterday, the other side in response to Iran, offered some suggestions that include some of the items proposed by Iran in Moscow.
Some of the points raised in their respond were more realistic compared to what they said in the past, and they tried to bring proximity in some points between the viewpoints of Iran and their own, which we believe is positive, despite the fact that we have a long way to reach to the optimum point.
The 5+1 [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany] suggested to take tangible steps for the next six months in order to build confidence and some suggestions were offered in this regard.
The Islamic Republic of Iran stressed on the steps to be balanced and simultaneous and that suggestions should not be neglect [its] rights.
Therefore it was agreed to convene the expert meeting in Istanbul on March 18th which would be followed by the 5+1 meeting with Iran on April 5th and 6th in Almaty.
We consider these talks a positive step which could be completed by taking a positive and constructive approach and taking reciprocal steps."
Similarly, in an interview with CNN, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, clarified that the issue of the complete suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment activities had not been raised by the other side and that both sides were studying each other's proposals - with the help of the technical experts who are due to meet in Istanbul in March. 
Still, both Jalili and other members of the Iranian delegation pointed out that there is a problem of disproportionality and lack of fit between the other side's offers, for example for gradual easing the sanctions, and their demands.
Irrespective of such anticipated problems, the Almaty meeting was a mini-victory for Iran's long battle to defend its nuclear rights, the US and its allies opted to ease their onerous demands on Iran and concentrated their efforts to getting Tehran's compliance with a number of "confidence-building" steps such as with respect to Iran's 20% uranium enrichment.
Describing the talks as "constructive," "upbeat" and "useful," the representatives of "5 + 1" nations also confirmed Iran's assessment of a positive meeting that by all accounts was a major improvement over the last rounds in Baghdad and Moscow. The mere fact that an early date for the next meeting, in Almaty in early April, was set is considered a big plus, reflecting the talks moving in the right direction. Still, there is a long road ahead and it may prove bumpier than expected.
Questioning American intentions
No sooner had the Almaty talks ended than the US government announced that it has adopted a new policy of aiding and training the Syrian rebels. In turn, this raises question of whether or not the US is play-acting in its engagement with Iran while it charts an interventionist role in Syria in hope of regime change in Damascus.
Another question concerns whether the Obama administration is really capable of delivering a major sanctions relief as part of a quid pro quo with Iran that would fall short of a complete suspension of Iran's nuclear program, as requested by Israel and its supporters in the US Congress. The latter have prepared yet another Iran sanctions bill, and 36 US senators have sent a letter to the European Union urging tougher sanctions.
Since the Moscow talks eight months ago, Obama has signed several executive orders against Iran and there is simply no sign of that Iran-bashing behavior easing in Washington. Obama and his foreign policy team talk soft while carrying a long stick, their offer of new engagement with Iran still is mired in a thick air of ambiguity. Could it be that it is simply a clever veneer for a "Syria first, then Iran" strategy? Time will tell.
What is beyond doubt however is a history of contradictory US approaches, which have seen the country torpedo its own initiatives and nip in the bud some decent chances to end the Iran nuclear standoff. It remains to be seen if the White House will be able to resist the influence of anti-Iran hawks who dread the thought that Israel would be put under pressure if Iran is somehow let off the hook.
Meanwhile, John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, has already started sounding like a carbon copy of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, by constantly reminding Tehran that the window of diplomacy will not remain open forever and Tehran better take advantage of it while it is open. This unattractive language of implicit threat is second nature to US policy-makers and requires a healthy dose of post-hegemonic inspiration to jettison. It may be easier to wait for the Godot!
So here's the bottom line: The US and its allies have an excellent chance of putting an end to the Iran nuclear standoff by remaining consistent and showing the necessary prerequisite of good-faith negotiation, instead of half-hearted or contradictory positions and initiatives that in the past have proved poisonous. While there should be a moratorium on any new sanctions legislation in congress in light of the progress made in Almaty, a rule of reason is unlikely to usurp the stereotypical Iranophobia in Washington's halls of power.
Indeed, the trouble with the Obama administration is that it has a history of Iran policy directed from congress, with absolutely no instance of successfully resisting the anti-Iran march. This legislative-driven foreign policy has a built-in incapacity to achieve a breakthrough in the stalemated US-Iran relations and, yet, the White House has not yet made any real effort to set the stage for such a breakthrough, save selecting Chuck Hagel as the secretary of defense, given Hagel's track record in favor of dialogue with Iran.
Unfortunately, Hagel's Congressional confirmation has come about by exacting a firm commitment from him to stand tough against Iran, which essentially means one should not vest too much hope on him making a big difference in the drift of Iran-bashing that currently dominates Washington.
With Obama due in Israel in three weeks, the White House may be contemplating making pledges of even greater concessions to the right-wing Israeli government, which has prioritized the Iran threat and a plan of attack. What this will mean for the fate of the ongoing multilateral talks, which have now shown real signs of progress, remains to be seen. Hopeful signs have come from Almaty for sure, but in a dark sky full of ominous signs of new US militarism and interventionism in the Middle East they are suspended in a thick air of uncertainty while the US tries to choke Iran and its economy.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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