Primer on Dec. 6-7 talks between Iran and the world’s major powers

Ellen Laipson

  • Why are the upcoming talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers important?
The talks are the most important opportunity in more than one year for the international community to vet differences with Iran over its nuclear activities.  The mere resumption of talks--which include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France) plus Germany--is significant.  The long diplomatic stand-off had created tensions and uncertainty. It had also strengthened the hand of parties who believe that only tough action, including the military option, will force Iran to curtail its nuclear program.  The stand-off was caused by Iran’s unwillingness to accept a package of incentives and limitations proposed by the international community in October 2009.  
  • What does Iran want to achieve? And what leverage does it have?
Iran wants to relieve the pressure from an array of new sanctions over the past year and demonstrate that it is willing to engage with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Its refusal to fully cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has produced new U.N., U.S., and European Union sanctions as well as international financial restrictions on doing business with Iran.
But the talks are unlikely to reveal much about Iran's nuclear weapons intentions and activities, and Iran will certainly deny that its nuclear work has a military purpose. Tehran will also take a narrower and more legalistic view of the scope of the talks than the major powers. Iran is already insisting that it will not discuss its uranium enrichment activities, which it claims as a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The talks could falter over this basic agenda item.  Iran’s leverage is its ability to walk away. 
The last package offered in October 2009 involved confidence-building measures centered around the Tehran research reactor, which produces radioisotopes for medical purposes.  The U.S.-backed plan called for Iran to ship a large quantity of enriched fuel from its Natanz facility out of the country to ensure it was not used for a weapons program. In turn, one or more international partners (most likely Russia) would provide the fuel needed for the separate research reactor—under strict international supervision.  This process was designed to build trust and to allow both sides to clarify what Iran will and will not do as it builds its nuclear energy program. 
Iran originally accepted the deal, then rejected it a few days later. In May 2010, Tehran accepted a variation of the package mediated by Turkey and Brazil. But the deal fell short of the major powers’ goals.
  • What do the United States and the European Union want to achieve? And what leverage do they have?
For the United States, the talks are part of a larger diplomatic strategy to engage Iran on a wider range of issues. The nuclear controversy is the most compelling from a security point of view, but terrorism, human rights, maritime security, and other regional topics are also important for U.S.-Iran relations over time.
The major powers generally want to see what is achievable with Iran. In varying degrees, they want to reduce tensions and gain more understanding about Iran’s nuclear activities. The long-term goal is to persuade Tehran to prove convincingly that its intentions are peaceful and to accept more robust international monitoring. 
The major powers’ leverage derives from financial and trade sanctions that are causing increasing economic and banking dislocations for Iran.  Also looming in the background of the talks will be the distinct possibility that pressure for military action will rise if they fail.


  • Will the Wikileaks cables affect the diplomacy? 
The release of the documents does not make the diplomats’ task any easier. They could cause some ill-will in relations between allies over the U.S. ability to protect sensitive information.  The impact of the leaks, in the short run, will help analysts track the debate over Iran in the Middle East. But in the long run, they are likely to have a chilling effect on information-sharing that will almost certainly hurt the U.S. ability to “read” Iran. 

Read Ellen Laipson's chapter on reading Iran in “The Iran Primer” 

Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.