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Iran Talks: Is New Momentum Enough?

Patrick Clawson

Diplomats from Iran and the world’s six major powers met in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26. What did the talks produce?  
 
            The talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, also known as P5+1 — produced an agreement to meet twice again soon.  Iran agreed to technical talks on March 18 — before the major Nowruz holiday starts on March 19 — and to a full diplomatic session on April 5, just after the end of the extended holiday on April 2. 
 
            The outcome does signify new momentum on process, if not substance. The first three rounds, beginning in Istanbul in April 2012 — were largely unproductive. And Iran had set the bar so low for the Almaty talks that even its modest reaction is interpreted as a positive sign.
 
            In fact, however, Western negotiators pointed out that Iran did not formally respond to the specific offer by the P5+1. Iran simply pocketed the proposal without commenting on it.  
 
Did the deal offered Iran differ from the June 2012 proposal made in Moscow? How?

Catherine Ashton & Dr Saeed Jalili      Compared with previous offers, the expanded proposal evidently requires less of Iran — and offers Iran more.

      First, the major powers asked Iran to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment at the underground Fordo facility outside Qom. They had earlier demanded that Iran shut down the controversial facility.
 
      Second, Iran would then be allowed to keep some uranium enriched to 20 percent, if it has not been converted into a form that could be used for reactor fuel. The P5+1 had earlier demanded that Iran ship all such enriched uranium out of the country.  In return, the world’s major powers offered to ease some restrictions on Iranian financial transactions. 
 
            The full proposal has not yet been released — and the devil will be in the details. The precise wording of the changes could have particularly important implications for easing Iranian financial transactions.
 
            The bottom line of the fourth talks is that the P5+1 compromised principles it originally outlined as absolute requirements for a deal.  The deal also sets aside — or at least modifies —concerns by some P5+1 governments that early relaxation of sanctions could reduce pressure on Iran to agree to a final deal.
 
What was Iran’s initial response to the proposals? What does it indicate about prospects for a diplomatic resolution?
 
            Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili was unusually positive about the P5+1 proposals, describing them as "more realistic," "closer to the Iranian position," and "a turning point." Before the meeting, Iranian officials had insisted that the meeting was primarily for the P5+1 to make a substantially different offer to Iran, which created minimal expectations for the talks — and even laid the basis for rejecting a new proposal. 
 
What happens next? 
 
            The optimistic view is that the long months and years of Iranian stalling may be over — and that Iran is willing to have serious negotiations about reaching a deal. The P5+1 have also shown flexibility, which may give Iran hope that the international community will bend further to get a deal with Tehran. Now, the hard bargaining begins in frequent sessions on specifics. 
 
            The pessimistic view is that Iran now has serious incentives to stall even longer, since the P5+1 have begun to bend. Iran’s has recently accelerated installation of new centrifuges, which will enhance Iran’s enrichment capability — at a time its stockpiles of enriched uranium are already troubling. As a result, the time Tehran needs to “break out” to produce highly enriched uranium is diminishing. Iran may have good reason to believe that time is on its side. The Islamic Republic may even be willing to agree to frequent talks to forestall more vigorous international action.
 
            Iran’s actions in the coming days will be interesting to monitor. In the past, leading politicians — most notably Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have taken hard-line positions that have severely limited the ability of Iranian negotiators to compromise.
 


Patrick Clawson is Director for Research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Photo Credit: AFP photo of Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili by Stanislav Filippov via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and European External Action Service

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 

 

Will Obama Win Jumpstart Diplomacy?

Patrick Clawson

Diplomacy has been on hold since the last round of talks in June between Iran and the world’s six major powers in Moscow. What are the diplomatic options after the U.S. presidential election?

            The talks have stalled since June. The Iranians may have been waiting to see if Obama won reelection and, now that he has, they will reengage. But Washington may also need to do something to reinvigorate the talks.
            Diplomatic efforts so far have been based on small confidence-building measures, which have had disappointing results. So the Obama administration may want to consider a bolder proposal, such as outlining a comprehensive resolution to the impasse over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. At the moment, there is a wide gap between Tehran and the P5+1 powers– the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia—so a proposal could also initially serve to marshal world opinion for tougher action if Iran does not comply.
             
What does Obama’s reelection mean for prospects of a military option? What about the timeline of dealing with Iran?

            Obama’s strong preference is to resolve the dispute through diplomacy, centered on economic and diplomatic pressures to persuade Iran to compromise. But in the second presidential debate, the president also pledged, “We're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere.” And he has vowed that the United States will prevent the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear weapon, implying the military option.
            Obama has strong-armed the Israeli leadership into accepting his approach. And his strategy was eventually endorsed by both Congress and his Republican opponents. Obama has also warned that Iranian proliferation could spark a nuclear arms race in the region. So he also has to deliver a result, one way or the other.
            But making a decision to strike Iran, if diplomacy stalls, will not be easy. The natural tendency is to keep on talking as long as the other side is willing to engage. After the Iraq war, any decision to go to war based on U.S. intelligence assessments may also be difficult for a president to sell.
            The timing is still unclear. Obama has so far refused to set a deadline or draw the kind of red lines demanded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
            The Obama administration now estimates that it could be a year or more before Iran decides whether to enrich uranium beyond 20 percent—high enough for a weapon. In the meantime, the Islamic republic could accumulate sufficient nuclear material for a small arsenal before making any breakout moves.
            The military option could include shadow warfare—such as cyber attacks –which the Obama administration has reportedly already used against Iran. The question is whether such measures will be enough to induce Iran to compromise or slow Iran’s enrichment capabilities.
 
What are the prospects for a direct U.S.-Iran dialogue, either parallel or separate from the current international framework?

            Washington will remain open to direct U.S.-Iran dialogue on a wide range of issues, but its strong preference will be for the nuclear issue to be resolved within the framework of the P5+1. But the Obama team will also not want to undermine international unity by appearing to go behind its partners’ back.
            The most fruitful form of U.S.-Iran dialogue would be secret meetings between trusted representatives of the two governments to explore whether a broader deal is possible. But a behind-the-scenes dialogue would be different from Track II meetings.
 
Since the last round of talks in June, has anything changed to increase pressure on Iran-- the economic crisis, sanctions, Syrian escalation?

            Iran has come under considerable new pressure since the June talks. The United States and European Union have enhanced sanctions. Washington is convinced that sanctions significantly contributed to the increasing sense of economic crisis in Tehran. In September, the rial plunged some 40 percent in a few days. The coming months will be a testing time for the long-held U.S. view that sufficient economic pressure would lead Iran to compromise. Iran is often intransigent, despite the hardships.
            On Syria, Washington sees the growing crisis as problematic for Iran. But Tehran is not necessarily convinced that President Bashar Assad will fall.
 

Patrick Clawson is Director for Research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

 

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 

Analyzing the Impact of European Sanctions

Patrick Clawson
 
  • What does the unprecedented new European Union oil embargo on Iran mean in practical terms?
The direct impact of the new EU oil embargo is relatively limited. Economists like to say that oil is "fungible," that is, oil not sold to the EU could be sold to other countries, and so the net impact is the small cost of redirecting ship traffic and adjusting refineries to use a different mix of oil.
 
But the indirect impact could be much greater. In part that is because the EU will also be applying pressure on EU banks to limit or end dealings with Iran’s Central Bank. Furthermore, the EU action may lead businesses, both from the EU and elsewhere, to reevaluate their presence in the Iranian market, which may be seen as becoming more problematic, that is, politically controversial and potentially subject to more and more government restrictions.
 
Perhaps the most important impact of the new EU oil embargo is that it signals a considerable toughening in the EU’s political stance towards Iran. That could suggest that the EU would consider other economic and political measures against Iran if the nuclear impasse drags on. It would appear that the EU and the United States now largely agree on Iran policy, including the desirability of pressing Iran harder. That is quite a change from a decade ago, which is not a good development from the perspective of Iran’s leaders.
 
  • How fast could it have an impact on Iran’s economy?
The direct impact of the EU oil embargo will take many months. Sales are permitted through June, and payment would continue for some months after that for oil shipped up through June.
 
But the EU oil embargo may be felt indirectly much more quickly. For one thing, many EU purchasers may scale back or end purchases well before the July 1 deadline. More importantly, Iranians may react to the EU oil embargo by anticipating that worse economic times are coming and that they should take measures to protect themselves. the Iranian currency, which is already under heavy pressure, is particularly vulnerable both because of concern about sanctions and because of Tehran’s economic policies.
 
The EU actions come at a difficult moment for Iranian economic policy. The government has a large deficit because of the cost of the cash payments to individuals introduced when subsidies ended. Many businesses are having great difficulty paying the unsubsidized cost of fuel and electricity. To cover the government deficit and help business deal with higher costs, Tehran has apparently adopted an expansionary monetary policy which is in turn feeding inflation. Inflation then contributes to worry that the rial is worth less, causing people to seek foreign currencies. This destructive cycle may get worse in the period before the March 21 Nowruz festival, a traditional time for major purchases.
 
Public perception that prices are spiraling upwards and the rial is spiraling downwards will not be welcomed by the government in the run -up to the March parliamentary elections. The risk for the authorities is that a significant part of the public blames government actions for incurring sanctions that hurt the economy. To date, the authorities try to simultaneously downplay the impact of the sanctions and to blame the foreign enemies of the Islamic Republic for the country’s economic difficulties.
 
  • What impact is it likely to have on world oil markets and the price of oil in the United States?
The price of oil depends in part on supply and demand, neither of which is likely to be much affected directly by the EU oil embargo. However, there may be indirect effects, for instance, if Iran reacts by closing the Strait of Hormuz or attacking shipping.
 
But perhaps at least as important will be the perceptions by market actors that the EU oil embargo may signal greater political tensions. Many analysts argue that world oil prices already include a "risk premium" due to concerns about potential conflict in the Gulf. That premium could rise. A contributory factor is that with world interest rates so low, the cost of holding oil stocks is not particularly high, which may make it more attractive to speculate that oil prices will go higher. Speculative or precautionary stock-building adds to demand, thereby driving prices higher in a way which confirms the speculators’ expectations about future price increases. Some commentators have argued that such self-fulfilling prophecies contributed to sharp increases in oil prices in recent years.
 
  • How is Iran likely to react?
Iran will search for other markets to which to sell oil. But that effort could be complicated by U.S. and EU pressure on banks around the world not to deal with the Central Bank of Iran, especially on oil sales. Several Asian purchasers of Iranian oil have recently had difficulties arranging for payment. Presumably accelerated use of blocked accounts (the purchaser pays in local currency, which Iranian customers then use to buy goods in that country for shipment to Iran) will provide one alternative for sale of much if not all of Iran’s oil. Another alternative is payment in currencies other than dollars or in gold. But these workarounds could impose additional costs on Iran, reducing the value of its oil exports. Furthermore, in recent weeks, Iran has not been particularly skillful at marketing its oil, insisting on tough terms with Chinese and Indian customers who had expected discounts.
 
Various Iranian officials have threatened that if Iran were not able to export its oil, then Iran would attack oil shipments from other countries as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The Islamic Republic of Iran has periodically made similar threats, notably after the April 1980 U.S. hostage rescue attempt. But Iran has never followed through on its threats.
 
On the other hand, Iran did attack shipping in the Strait and the Persian Gulf between 1984 and 1988 in the so-called "tanker war" during the Iran-Iraq war. When Iran attacked shipping, it denied responsibility for doing so until caught red-handed on video by U.S. forces. In short, when Iran threatened, it did not act; when Iran acted, it denied responsibility.
 
There are strong reasons for Iran not to attack shipping in the Strait. Many maritime powers would object strongly to such attacks, and some might react militarily, potentially against Iran’s oil shipments. But Iran has  at times acted in ways that do not seem to advance its own interests, such as in the recent ransacking of the British embassy or the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. So Iran may not calculate its interests in the same way as Western commentators do.
 

Patrick Clawson is Director for Research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

 

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Analysis of Iran-al Qaeda “Secret Deal”

Patrick Clawson

  • The Treasury department sanctioned a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator and five other members of his network. How important is this new development?
The Treasury Department is effectively accusing Iran of being an important link in al Qaeda’s financing and recruitment. The designation states that this relationship dates back six years, to 2005. Both of those are new developments. 
 
The Obama administration describes the United States as being at war with al Qaeda. The U.S. statement that Iran is providing direct and important assistance to al Qaeda can only harden the U.S. attitude about the challenge from Iran.
 
The Treasury designation of Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil states he “is an Iran-based senior al-Qa’ida facilitator currently living and operating in Iran under an agreement between al-Qa’ida and the Iranian government. Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005.” Khalil is described in the designation as “responsible for moving significant amounts of money via Iran for onward passage to al-Qa’ida’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has also facilitated the travel of extremist recruits for al-Qa’ida from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran.” 
 
  • Does the Treasury’s designation shed any new light on Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda?
There have long been credible reports of a relationship between Iran and al Qaeda, but those reports have been less explicit than the latest Treasury designation. Furthermore, the reports were about relations either before 2003 or dating from 2008, with Iran reportedly having kept a tight lid from 2003 to 2008 on al Qaeda members living in Iran. Indeed, there have been few if any reports of Iran permitting at any time movement of significant amounts of money or, post-9/11, the transit of al Qaeda recruits.
 
One of the most notable earlier statements about the Iran-al Qaeda connection was the 9/11 Commission report which devoted an entire section of Chapter 7 to “Assistance from Hizbollah and Iran to al-Qaeda.” That section concluded, “In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of those were the future 9/11 hijackers.” The report also stated, “After 9/11, Iran and Hizbollah wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al-Qaeda....We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
 
Under Executive Order 13224, the Treasury Department has designated individuals for providing financial, technological, or material support to terrorists and acts of terrorism. They referred to Iran’s material support of al-Qaeda, but not in the kind of direct terms specified in the July 2011 designation. 
 
In January 2009, Treasury issued a press release on al Qaeda operatives in Iran, which designated several people, including Sa’ad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s oldest sons. It stated, “Sa’ad made key decisions for al-Qaeda and was part of a small group of al Qaeda members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran. He was arrested by Iranian authorities in early 2003. As of September 2008, it was possible that Sa’ad bin Laden was no longer in Iranian custody.” Note that the U.S. Treasury Department is saying: (1) Sa’ad managed al-Qaeda from Iran; and (2) “it is possible” Sa’ad was released from Iranian custody. In June 2008, Treasury designated ‘Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Jaffar ‘Ali.
 
A July 9, 2011 Associated Press report suggested that the March 2010 release of an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped in Pakistan fifteen months earlier was part of a deal with al Qaeda, which was reportedly holding him. In return for the release, according to AP, Iran agreed to greater freedom for al Qaeda chief military strategist Saif al-Adel, who has been allowed to travel from his Iran home to Pakistan and to have more open contacts with al Qaeda leadership. 
 
  • What impact might this move have on attempts to engage Iran by the world’s six major powers?
The Treasury designation highlights that U.S. differences with Iran extend well beyond the nuclear impasse. Coming after a month of U.S. statements about stepped-up Iranian support for insurgents killing U.S. soldiers in southern Iraq, the designation suggests that U.S.-Iran relations would be tense or worse even if the nuclear impasse was resolved.
 
A further complication could be created by the lawsuit filed in May 2011 in New York federal court asking for damages from Iran on behalf of dozens of the 9/11 victims. The July 2011 Treasury designation strengthens the case that Iran is providing material support to al Qaeda, which under U.S. law could be sufficient to hold that Iran is liable for compensatory and possibly punitive damages for the 9/11 attack. Such a finding could create considerable political and practical difficulties for any effort to resume normal U.S.-Iranian relations.
 
In its approach to the negotiations with the six major powers, Iran at times seems to care primarily about the U.S. position.  The nuclear negotiations could be further complicated if Iran concludes that a deal on its controversial nuclear program will reduce U.S. pressure on the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, other powers may be more willing to increase pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear and missile programs given the U.S. designation that Iran has for years been supporting a widely reviled terrorist group. To the extent that Iran is seen to have been engaging in a wide range of dangerous activities, there may be broader and deeper international consensus that the source of the nuclear impasse lies in Iran rather than in the United States and Europe.
 

Patrick Clawson is Director for Research at The Washington Institute for
Near East Policy.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Escalating sanctions on Iran

Patrick Clawson

  • What do the latest U.S. and European sanctions say about international pressure on Iran?

In May, the European Union imposed sanctions on more than 100 individuals and companies tied to Iran's nuclear program, while the United States sanctioned seven foreign companies involved in supplying Iran refined oil as well as sixteen firms and individuals involved in the missile and nuclear program. In April, the European Union also sanctioned 32 Iranians for human rights abuses.

A few years ago European governments were reluctant to forego business opportunities with Iran and the State Department seemed inactive on the sanctions front-in contrast to activism by the Treasury Department. Now the United States and Europe seem to be on the same page of tougher sanctions.

The new European steps were quite harsh. The European Union's sanctions against the Europaisch Iranische Bank (EIB) in Hamburg will arguably have a more costly impact on exports to Iran than any measure Washington has imposed. EIB acted as the intermediary for most German exports to Iran, which totaled Euro 3.8 billion in 2010.  But the EU sanctions were not only tough economically, they also sent a strong diplomatic signal. Notably, the European Union did not remove earlier sanctions on Ali-Akbar Salehi, former head of Iran's nuclear program who has since been appointed Tehran's top diplomat.  It is extremely unusual to impose sanctions on a serving foreign minister, who now will presumably need an exemption for any trip to Europe.

Europe has assumed a more punitive stance against the Islamic Republic--to the point of imposing harsher sanctions than the United States. The moves reflect Europe's general readiness to impose sanctions for human rights violations, as distinct from national security issues.  Since the contested 2009 Iranian elections, European public opinion has become quite hostile towards the Islamic Republic over human rights issues.

Meanwhile, Washington is making use of a wider range of authorities to impose more sanctions on Iran.  On May 18, the Treasury Department sanctioned Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Mohsen Chizari under Executive Order 13572, which targets people for committing human rights abuses against the Syrian people.  Chizari was cited for his role in helping the Syrian government repress protests.

  • Why is there a renewed push now?

On January 21-22, Iran met in Istanbul for talks with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, a group known as the P5+1.  After that meeting failed,  U.S. and European officials expected to mobilize new U.N. sanctions on Iran as well as sanctions by individual countries.  But developments in the Middle East complicated their plans, especially after disagreements among P5+1 countries over a U.N. resolution on Libya.

Russia and China are now unlikely to agree to another tough Security Council resolution on Iran. In the wake of the Arab Spring, many Arab countries are more focused on their own domestic problems or to alleged Iranian meddling in their internal affairs than on Tehran's nuclear intentions.  Western officials are so preoccupied with the Arab Spring that they have had less time to deal with the diplomatic impasse on Iran's nuclear program.

As a result, the United States and European Union have had to take their own actions to increase pressure on Iran.  They have been consulting for some time about further measures, and additional actions can be expected over the summer.

Iran may be hurt the most, however, by the Indian-Iranian impasse over how to pay for the crude oil worth about $1 billion a month which Iran ships to India. Iran continues to ship the oil but has had trouble getting paid. Under strong pressure from the United States, the Reserve Bank of India (India's central bank) stopped transferring funds to Iran in December, though it made a single payment of $2.1 billion through EIB before that bank was sanctioned. 

India now owes Iran more than $3 billion.  The Indian cabinet is due to vote shortly on a plan to pay Iran for oil in Indian rupees, which could only in turn be used to buy Indian goods. That
arrangement would be a problem for Iran, which in the past has bought only about $1 billion a year from India.  If Iran is not able to profitably sell oil to India, Iran will assuredly be able to sell it elsewhere, but Iran will almost certainly have to accept a considerable discount.

  • What do sanctions push say about the Obama administration's Iran policy?

Washington now has low expectations about prospects for engagement or serious negotiation-in sharp contrast to President Obama's 2009 video address during the Iranian new year (Nowruz). Two years ago, he said, "I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders" and talked about diplomacy, engagement, mutual respect, and constructive ties, with no mention of human rights.

In two recent speeches, however, Obama has signaled greater U.S. focus on Iranian repression and human rights violations.  In his 2011 Nowruz video message, he focused entirely on Tehran's "campaign of intimidation and abuse" and the "rights of the Iranian people," without mentioning engagement with Iran's leaders or the nuclear standoff. And in his May 19 speech on the changing Middle East, he vowed, "We will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights and a government that does not smother their aspirations."

The Obama administration has taken some concrete actions to back up this focus on the Iranian people rather than the Iranian regime: It appointed a State Department Persian language spokesman. And it revised visa requirements to allow Iranian students multiple-entry two-year visas instead of one-time visas for only 60 days.  The administration is considering other outreach measures, another major shift after initial reluctance to undertake any steps that Tehran might view as supporting regime change.  The administration appears to have reverted to the Bush-era policy of political and financial support for democratic and human rights forces in Iran.

  • What do the new entities and sectors being targeted indicate about the new U.S. and EU sanctions?

Earlier U.S. sanctions targeted small firms from countries with which the United States has bad relations, such as Belarus.  In contrast, the new round targets firms that are more important economically and politically.  New sanctions target the world's tenth largest oil firm, Petroleos de Venezuela. They also target the Ofer Brothers Group, a politically well-connected Israeli firm, which is accused of turning a blind eye to its ships carrying refined oil to Iran under the table.  Sanctions on these two firms indicate that Washington is prepared to go after any firm, no matter how well-connected.

Washington has even convinced some foreign firms to go further than required by the new law.  In a May 24 briefing, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg revealed that "the State Department has also convinced the jet fuel suppliers in 17 cities in Europe and Asia to which IranAir flies to stop providing fuel." This action has left IranAir with only two fuel suppliers in Europe, in Belgrade and Budapest, forcing all IranAir flights to make expensive and awkward refueling stops in those cities. The fuel cutoff is not required to avoid sanctions under the 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act, which exempts sales to Iranian companies of less than $10 million a year, which provides ample room to cover fuel sales to IranAir.

  • In Istanbul, President Mahmoud Ahmadenejad said in May that Iran was prepared to go back to the negotiating table. But EU foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton said Iran had not shown enough flexibility to resume talks. How will sanctions affect nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 ?

The P5+1 viewed the last two rounds of talks-- in Geneva December 6-7, 2010 and in Istanbul January 21-22, 2011--as failures.  In February, Ashton wrote Iran offering new talks. Tehran finally answered in May, 87 days later, using rhetoric that does not augur well for meaningful diplomacy. Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili wrote, "What we witness today obviously proves that futile insistence of some governments to continue unequal relations in the world and confronting the will of nations and protecting the ruling dictators, [sic] cannot be continued in order to achieve their goals and the future management of the world would be based on the will of nations for their self-determination." Jalili proposed issues to discuss, most importantly, "the international norms and structures on different issues including the efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation as well as cooperation for peaceful uses of nuclear energy." The vague phrasing avoided the issue of U.N. resolutions and Iran's failure to meet its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

There is little prospect of new talks unless conditions change. The West hopes additional sanctions will become so costly that Iran's leaders will opt to return to the negotiating table. But the high price of oil has given Iran a financial cushion to compensate for the economic cost of sanctions.

  • Is Iran's internal political dispute affecting prospects for diplomacy?

Like politicians everywhere, Iranian politicians are usually more concerned about local issues than about foreign policy.  The Islamic Republic has a long history of disputes among politicians, with former allies becoming bitter enemies.  That has happened once again, with a sharp confrontation between President Ahmadinejad's supporters and his critics.

Each of the last three Iranian presidents ran into political crises which weakened their authority in the last two years of their second term; the conflict surrounding Ahmadinejad fits this pattern. Internal political developments, as well as maneuvering for the 2012 Majlis and 2013 presidential elections, are likely to absorb Iranian politicians.  In an environment of bitter factional disputes, any politician who proposes a compromise with the West also runs a serious risk of being accused of doing a bad deal, if not selling out Iran's interests

  • How has Iran reacted to expanded sanctions?

Iran has escalated rhetorical attacks on the West in response to new sanctions.  On May 24, the Majles National Security and Foreign Policy Committee voted to impose sanctions on 26 Americans who, it said, "have violated human rights, perpetrated crimes against humanity, and enabled drug trafficking."  It was a peculiar list, including Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson who has been Guantanamo commandant since July 2010, a period during which there have been few if any accusations of mistreatment of prisoners, and Thomas Pickard, who was the acting FBI director for 71 days in 2001 but was no longer in that role by the time of the 9-11 attacks.

Threatened Iranian sanctions on the United States were accompanied by strong words about Europe. On May 19, Ahmadinejad said, "There is equipment that can move the water contained in clouds. This is what Europeans unfortunately did this year...And we had a drought all autumn."  Two days earlier, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights and brother to both the Majles speaker and the judiciary chief, threatened, "Westerners either have to be Iran's partner in the fight against drug trafficking or we must think otherwise and, for instance, allow the transit" of drugs through Iran.  Such claims and such threats do little to persuade Europe to be more accommodating to Iran.

Read Patrick Clawson's chapter on U.S. Sanctions in "The Iran Primer"


Patrick Clawson is Director for Research at The Washington Institute for
Near East Policy.

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

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