COMMENT Nuclear talks with Iran:
prospects By Peter Jenkins
The Western members of the P5+1 (the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council and
Germany) are showing signs of serious intent, if a
re-election of President Barack Obama allows
nuclear-related talks with Iran to resume in the
next few months.
This ought to be cheering
news for all who believe that this dispute can be
resolved according to the provisions of the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), enhanced
by some well-chosen, voluntary confidence-building
Yet skepticism remains in order.
Why? Several past opportunities to resolve the
dispute through negotiation and
confidence-building have been squandered. Two
vital questions also remain imponderable: is
Iran's Supreme Leader really interested in a
nuclear settlement, and will Israeli politicians
resist the urge to exercise Israel's formidable
powers of influence in Western
capitals to close down
the political space for a negotiated outcome?
The Supreme Leader has not hidden his
distrust of the United States and his aversion to
the West's "dual-track" approach. In August 2010,
for instance, he is reported to have said: "We
have rejected negotiations with the US for clear
reasons. Engaging in negotiations under threats
and pressure is not in fact negotiating." And at
Friday Prayers on February 3 he said:
We should not fall for the smile on
the face of the enemy. We have had experience of
them over the last 30 years … We should not be
cheated by their false promises and words; they
break their promises very easily. They feel no
shame. They simply utter lies.
he, in addition, calculate that a nuclear
settlement would not be in the interest of the
Islamic Republic, even if the terms were fair and
consistent with the NPT?
I have come
across people who believe that this is the case.
They argue that Iran's leaders need the nuclear
dispute to prevent a thaw in relations with the US
which might bring about unwelcome social change;
to mobilize popular support for the Islamic
Republic; to distract attention from political
repression, human-rights abuses and the corrupt
practices of an elite; and to excuse economic
I have no evidence for
saying that this view is mistaken. If, however, I
try to look at the issue "from the other side of
the hill", it seems to me that the Supreme Leader
could afford to give up the nuclear dispute as a
domestic political instrument; he would still be
left with several other ways of arousing
indignation against the West and of avoiding a
thaw in relations with the US. And in cost/benefit
terms, the gain from a nuclear settlement - if it
results in the lifting of all nuclear-related
sanctions - looks to me enticing.
other side of the equation, we are all familiar
with the arguments Israel's leaders will deploy if
they do not want a nuclear settlement. They will
claim that an Iranian enrichment capacity, though
not outlawed by the NPT, and even if subject to
international inspection, represents a threat to
Israel's survival. They will remind us that Iran
is the world's "leading sponsor of terror", even
though many of us know that the process which
leads to a state being branded a "sponsor of
terror" is highly political and highly partial.
They will assert that continuing uranium
enrichment in Iran will compel Saudi Arabia and
Turkey to violate their NPT obligations and become
nuclear-armed. They will point to Iran's
lamentable human-rights record.
also familiar with their motives: to convince the
US that Iran remains a threat to US interests in
the Middle East, against which an indispensable
ally, Israel, is a necessity (cf Trita Parsi's
A Single Roll of the Dice); to justify an
absence of progress in the Middle East peace
process; to distract attention from their lack of
interest in a Middle East free of Israel's nuclear
weapons; and to create common ground with Gulf
monarchs who fear and loath Iran.
now Israel's political harvest from keeping the
Iran nuclear pot at simmering temperature has been
rich (I hope I can be forgiven a mixed metaphor).
So it is hard to imagine that Israeli politicians
will abstain from applying pressure on the West in
2013, if Iran fails to do their job for them by
aborting renewed negotiations, and if things
appear to be heading towards a settlement.
Yet the story could have another ending.
Perhaps this time Western politicians will recall
their primary responsibility: the welfare of those
who elect them. Safeguarded Iranian nuclear
activities pose no threat to the security of these
voters. These voters are paying a price for the
imposition on Iran of oil and other trading and
investment sanctions. And a war on Iran,
inevitable in the absence of a negotiated
settlement, would entail risks to Western living
standards, as well as to Western lives.
But enough! These musings will seem the
stuff that dreams are made of if Governor Mitt
Romney is elected and some of his neo-conservative
advisers are let loose on Iran policy.
Peter Jenkins was a British
career diplomat for 33 years. He specialized in
global economic and security issues. His last
assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to
the IAEA and UN (Vienna).
lobelog.com, Jim Lobe's blog on foreign