Why the Istanbul talks failed

Michael Adler in Istanbul

  • Why did talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers in Istanbul January 21-22 fail to produce any agreement or significant movement toward a compromise?
The talks deadlocked after Iran imposed two preconditions on any deal designed to assuage fears that the Islamic Republic seeks nuclear weapons. The Iranian delegation demanded that:
  • the world first recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium,
  • and the United Nations drop its punitive economic sanctions on Tehran. 
The world's six major powers--Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States –were united in opposing these preconditions. They insisted that Iran must first show its goodwill by taking "confidence-building measures." These might be:
  • agreeing to ship out most of its enriched uranium. This strategic material can be used to power civilian nuclear power reactors but also to make a bomb.
  • giving more information to U.N. inspectors about its controversial nuclear program.
The world’s major powers are concerned about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work, which Tehran claims is just for peaceful energy. These issues have been sticking points since revelations about secret Iranian nuclear sites in 2002. Once Iran cooperates, the six powers said, they are willing to consider lightening the international pressure on Iran.
Since 2006, the United Nations has passed four sanctions resolutions against Iran for failing to halt uranium enrichment and to cooperate fully with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Individual nations have also unilaterally imposed their own embargos and trade penalties. More than 100 international financial institutions and dozens of businesses have also cut off or cut back on business with Iran.
These wide-ranging measures have disrupted Iran's ability to finance its international trade through banks and to get the insurance needed to guarantee shipments of basic commodities, such as oil, and other import and export goods.
  • What was the reaction from the six major powers to the Istanbul meetings?
The European Union, which has organized the diplomatic effort, admitted disappointment. “This is not the conclusion I had hoped for,” European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the two-day talks. “We had hoped to have a detailed and constructive discussion of those ideas,” she said. “But it became clear that the Iranian side was not ready for this unless we agreed to preconditions relating to enrichment and sanctions. Both these preconditions are not a way to proceed.”
The European Union, as well as the six negotiating nations, indicated that the ball is in Iran’s court. “Our proposals remain on the table. Our door remains open. Our telephone lines remain open,” Ashton said.
A senior US administration official said Washington never expected the talks to be easy and that it did not feel they had broken down.
  • What was the reaction from Iran?
Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator, also expressed disappointment at the outcome. He criticized the six major powers for demanding that the Islamic Republic curtail its nuclear program while sitting on their own nuclear weapon stockpiles.
Jalili also said Iran resents that the six powers are trying to pressure Iran, which he said does not seek nuclear weapons and is being unfairly singled out from the more than 130 countries which signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But he, too, said Iran “always remains open to diplomacy.”
In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also said Iran was open to holding further talks. "They have talked for a few rounds, but we never expected that issues would be resolved during these few sessions because of the record and mentality of the other parties," he said in a speech on state television from the northern city of Rasht.  He said conditions for "good agreements in future sessions" had been created as both sides have met and become acquainted with each other's views.
But Ahmadinejad reiterated Iran's hardline position. "The uncultured Zionists [Israel] and some power-hungry people in Europe and the U.S. are not interested in a good resolution of the issues,” he said. “The world should know that this nation stands up to bullying and will put the bullies in their place. You cannot make Iran back down an inch from its course as it is now a nuclear state."
  • What does it mean for diplomatic efforts?
The clear failure in Istanbul signifies a serious setback for the U.S.-led effort to engage Iran in diplomacy. No new talks have been scheduled. Western officials insisted that the two-track approach—seeking engagement while still putting pressure on Iran through sanctions and other punitive financial actions—will continue until an agreement is reached. The goal of the six powers now is to drive Iran back to the negotiating table.
The officials refused to say how much time they would give Iran to change its mind about cooperation or how quickly they would move towards sanctions. They said, however, that reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions remained an urgent matter.
The Istanbul talks were a sequel to negotiations in Geneva last December, which re-launched international diplomacy but also failed to produce an agreement.
The talks in Geneva and Istanbul represent the second diplomatic effort by the Obama administration. Negotiations had previously broken off when Iran reneged on an agreement in October 2009 to ship most of the enriched uranium it had made out of the country in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to make isotopes for medical diagnosis.   


Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse