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    Middle East
     May 22, 2012


Iran nuclear talks gaining traction
By M K Bhadrakumar

When Iran proposed and the P5+1 accepted at the Istanbul meet last month that their next round of talks could be scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad, Western observers - not even the vigilant Israelis, ironically - didn't notice the significance of the date.

May 23 is a memorable day in the folklore of the Iranian revolution. That was the day the tide of the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq turned exactly 30 years ago in 1982 when Iran's

 
revolutionary forces "liberated" the port city of Khorramshahr and registered their first victory on the battlefield.

Khorramshahr is etched deep in the Iranian people's psyche. Therefore, when a prominent Iranian legislator pointed this out during an open session of the Iranian parliament on Sunday, he was invoking the archetypal symbol of resistance, honor and victory.

In the present-day context, it serves a useful purpose. The regime is assuring the domestic audience that Iran is emerging "victorious" in resistance to the Western pressure on its nuclear program.

Clearly, the Iranian regime is reassuring the public that Iran's vital interests will be robustly defended in any nuclear deal with the West. In a spate of statements through Sunday by key figures in the political establishment, Tehran insisted that its willingness to negotiate and compromise by no means suggested that its stance had weakened.

In an extraordinary press conference in Tehran, the influential chairman of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alae'ddin Broujerdi, went to great lengths to stress this while at the same time signaling to the West that the regime was unified as the talks enter a constructive phase. Among the key points he made were:
  • An understanding can be reached with P5+1 ("Iran Six" comprising the US, Britain, China, Russia and France plus Germany). "The parliament, government and the Supreme National Security Council are committed to the country's national interests, while they also believe in reaching an understanding with the group [P5+1].
  • P5+1 is under compulsion to reach an understanding with Iran, especially "given the recent developments in France and the [approaching] presidential election in the United States" - although, Israel's preponderant influence over the White House continues to pose a hurdle.
  • The Baghdad talks "could serve as a beginning to an end".
  • Tehran hopes that the P5+1 will be pragmatic, "given the ground realities and the fact that Iran has mastered this [nuclear] science and owns this technology".
  • A final understanding is possible if the other side appreciates Iran's "goodwill".
  • Despite renewed rhetoric, the possibility of a US or Israeli military strike has "faded away and is more used in political discourse and as part of psychological warfare".

    It is a message of cautious optimism regarding the Baghdad talks. Other key figures in the regime have also spoken on similar lines, notably, the advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on foreign affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, who was Iran's foreign minister for nearly a decade (during the presidency of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani).

    "There is hope for the Baghdad talks" if the West's intentions are sincere and they abide by international law and do not try to dictate solutions, said Velayati. Essentially, he was calling on the US to be cooperative.

    Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi conveyed the same sentiment, saying that the P5+1 would adopt a "positive and constructive approach" at the talks so that optimal use could be made of the opportunity. Salehi said this during a phone conversation with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle on Saturday even as Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at Camp David in the US for the Group of Eight (G-8) summit meeting

    Salehi and Westerwelle appear to have discussed the agenda of the Baghdad talks and they "expressed the hope that the talks would result in positive achievements and lead to a step forward in the settlement of the Iran-West nuclear impasse". Obama later held a bilateral meeting with Merkel.

    Approach based on reciprocity
    Meanwhile, a sudden visit by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano to Tehran on Sunday will complicate the dynamics of the negotiations in Baghdad - even raising the hopes of a deal on closer cooperation between the IAEA and Iran. If a deal is clinched, Tehran may accede to the request by the IAEA inspectors to visit its military installations at Parchin.

    Amano was accompanied by IAEA chief inspector Hermann Nackaerts and deputy director general Rafael Grossi, which makes it a "working visit" with a dense agenda. Amano would be expected to wrap up the three rounds of talks held this year between Iranian negotiators and the IAEA (in January and February in Tehran and in May in Vienna) and to formalize the common decisions in a document. Tehran's calculation would be to leverage a deal with the IAEA on the scope and principles of cooperation at the Baghdad talks.

    As another senior advisor to the Supreme Leader, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel (who was a former speaker of the Majlis, parliament ) put it recently, "Our [Iran's] minimum expectation is the annulment of the sanctions." Media reports quoted senior US administration officials as saying that Washington was prepared to offer an "incentives package" to Iran, which could include easing restrictions on things like airplane parts and technical assistance to Iran's energy industry, but short of scrapping the sweeping sanctions on Iran's oil exports that are to go into effect in July. European officials hinted that the EU could suspend a ban on insuring oil tankers carrying Iranian oil.

    Tehran knows circumstances are working in its favor. The change of leadership in Paris bodes well for Tehran insofar as even at the very least, newly elected President Francois Hollande lacks the preachiness or the zeal shown by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy to punish Iran and drive it to a corner. (Michel Rocard, former French prime minister in the socialist government of Francois Mitterrand visited Tehran last week.)

    Second, the political mood in Europe as a whole has dramatically changed in the weeks since the Istanbul meet on April 14. No European capital is threatening Tehran anymore - especially London - and the European summit due this week in Brussels is totally inundated by the angst over how to shift the terms of the eurozone crisis debate. Without doubt, oil imports from Iran against outstanding payments due from Tehran are of more pressing interest to countries such as Italy today than ever before.

    For President Barack Obama, too, the stakes are high. A breakdown of the Baghdad talks is highly disagreeable since there is no viable Plan B. The imperative need is to keep oil prices under control in a crucial election year in the US. The easing of tensions with Iran has already helped.

    Simply put, low oil prices would help the economic recovery in the US while skyrocketing prices would upset the US consumer and might trigger negative political consequences at the keenly fought election in November. On the other hand, a breakthrough at the Baghdad talks helps Obama ward off the criticism by the pro-Israel lobby regarding his decision to engage Iran in negotiations.

    From this perspective, the Camp David Declaration adopted by the G-8 summit on Saturday will be viewed with satisfaction in Tehran. Interestingly, the spate of Iranian statements voicing hope and optimism followed the release of the G-8 declaration. The "operative part" of the G-8 declaration says:
    We [the G-8] call on Iran to seize the opportunity that began in Istanbul, and sustain this opening in Baghdad by engaging in detailed discussions about near-term, concrete steps that can, through a step-by-step approach based on reciprocity, lead towards a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.
    The key portion relates to the need for Iran to take "near-term, concrete steps" within the ambit of a "step-by-step approach based on reciprocity".

    This is based on the original Russian formula, namely, that Iran should be "incentivized" to move forward, which takes the form of the West steadily, incrementally dismantling the sanctions regime, and the final goal being a "comprehensive negotiated solution" that is verifiable by the IAEA.

    Equally, the Camp David Declaration refrains from making any demands on Iran's nuclear program as such. It also affirms that the negotiations will be held within the framework of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    The G-8 took into account the agenda for the meeting in Baghdad, which has ben drawn up by Ali Bagheri, Iran's ace negotiator, and Helga Schmid, deputy to the EU foreign policy chief, in under-the-radar confidential discussions held at Geneva through last week - which also forms the basis of the optimism in Tehran that tangible results can be expected at Wednesday's meeting.

    Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

    (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) 





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