Smart steps in Iran nuclear negotiations
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - As a new round of multilateral talks on Iranian nuclear standoff begins in Almaty on Tuesday, few experts hold too much hope for a major breakthrough, in light of the inconclusive past rounds - in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow, last year alone.
However, it is still possible to see the rays of light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of small baby steps that could keep the talks from collapsing.
Diplomats would do better to forget ambitious thoughts, a grand bargain, comprehensive negotiations and the like and get on with the urgent task of micro-management.
It is fine and dandy to discuss "inter-related" issues that link the
nuclear with the non-nuclear, eg, regional and security issues. At this particular stage, the best that can be realistically hoped for, however, are "smart" confidence-building steps adopted by both sides that avert the nuclear crisis's escalation on one hand and, on the other, provide a minimum justification to sustain the talks by seeding the future rounds.
And exactly what is the nature of such "smart steps?" The answer to this question should be inferred from the nuclear context and the venues for small and feasible compromises that do not alter each side's current stated positions.
On Iran's part, the smart baby steps may come in the following form: agreement to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) inspection of the Parchin military site, with or without a final modality; an implicit agreement to keep converting the uranium stockpile to fuel rods, in order to address the external concerns about Iran's threshold capability; willingness to allow greater short-notice inspections; willingness to register the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's anti-nuclear weapons edict at the UN, and so on.
Of course, with respect to Khamenei's edict, or fatwa, it is important to recall that already in April 2010,  Iran documented the leader's message to the international disarmament conference that reiterated his 2005 categorical ban on manufacturing, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons, deemed as contrary to Islam and thus forbidden in the Islamic Republic. This represents a tangible and rather significant expression of non-proliferation intention of Iran, contrary to the avalanche of Western suspicions to the contrary.
On the other hand, in response to Iran's baby steps, the "5+1" nations (ie, UN Security Council's Permanent Members plus Germany) should consider relaxing the sanctions, facilitating drugs shipment to Iran, pledging to continue the exemptions for the energy sanctions, and adding a list of financial sanctions, whereby for example India could continue use a Turkish bank to pay Iran for its receipt of oil. Another step would be a humanitarian gesture to end the sanctions on the delivery of spare parts to Iran's civil aviation.
Such initiatives on the part of US and its Western allies may require legislative approval, which in Washington is immensely difficult given the US Congress's hawkish anti-Iran mood. Thus, the White House may be able to resort to executive orders to proceed with such steps that aim to deescalate the Iran nuclear crisis. It has already been suggested that Obama can use his executive power to unblock frozen Iranian assets, without requiring congressional approval.
On the whole, the advantage of such reciprocal actions would be to prevent the unnecessary escalation of the Iran nuclear crisis into an all out trade war that would squeeze Iranian economy to a halt. In that case, Iran may well react by ending its cooperation with the IAEA and enriching beyond the current 20%. The war drums would then beat louder and that would not be good for the health of world economy.
There is no doubt that the latest US unilateral sanctions, which forbid foreign banks to provide Iran with the cash proceeds from its oil sales, are not only unlawful from the prism of UN law, since the UN Security Council has seized on the matter and chosen to refrain from such draconian measures, they also represent exaggerated responses to relatively low-level risks of proliferation inherent in Iran's civilian fuel cycle, closely monitored by the IAEA.
So, the net effect of smart small steps, which is not to say they are insignificant, would be to pretty much maintain the present status quo without altering it too much. This way the crisis continues at a moderate intensity level, instead of degenerating out of control, and at the same time the perceived threat of Iran's nuclearization remains relatively contained.
Of course, on the con side, this would mean that the biting Western sanctions would continue and the Iranian economy would continue to be hampered by them, in other words no major relief for ordinary Iranians, and the world would learn new ways of living with the Iran nuclear standoff. This could cause disincentives for a final resolution, just as it could well pave the way to more mutual confidence and reciprocal trust and respect, thus laying the groundwork for a big leap toward a comprehensive solution.
But, as stated above, at this juncture that seems unrealistic and looking for intermediate solutions may be the smartest way to handle this delicate subject that touches on rights and obligations and can easily spiral toward the red zone of a runaway crisis if prudent initiatives do not materialize as a result of these on-going talks. There may be "red lines" drawn by either side, yet few eyes are set on the internal dynamism of this crisis to auto-generate its descent to more dangerous grounds in the absence of (mini) deals that would take some of the steam from its overheating engine.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He 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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