Can the United States Strike a Deal with Iran?

The latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 held in the Kazakh capital of Almati on April 5-6 is said to have been the frankest and most detailed so far. For the very first time, the talks included a direct U.S.-Iranian exchange of some 30- to 40-minutes -- between Wendy Sherman, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and Dr Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of its Supreme National Security Council. Sherman is reported to have asked Jalili a series of specific questions to which he is said to have responded in considerable detail.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who chaired the P5+1 group of delegates -- from Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States plus Germany—admitted that the two sides remained far apart “on the substance” of the negotiations. But she was by no means gloomy or dismissive. “We have talked in much greater detail than ever before,” she said, “and our efforts will continue in that direction…. For the first time that I’ve seen, [there was] a real back and forth between us, where we were able to discuss details, to pose questions, and to get answers directly.” The participants, she said, would now “go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process.” She would be in touch with Dr Jalili -- in a matter of “days, not months” -- to see if the gap could be narrowed and how to go forward.
For its part, Iran was said to be eager to schedule a new meeting, but, given the considerable differences between the two sides, the P5+1 said they wanted to avoid “talks for talks’ sake.” It therefore seems unlikely that there will be another round of negotiations before Iran’s important June 14 elections, which will bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial 8-year presidency to a close.
If one were to listen to Catherine Ashton, the outlook for a deal with Iran would seem reasonably hopeful. But is this a true picture? The major uncertainty concerns America’s intentions. It is by no means clear whether Washington truly wants a deal with Iran or whether its covert aim is to bring down the Islamic Republic. Certainly, this is Iran’s profound suspicion, which is not altogether surprising considering its long quarrel with the United States, which extends back to the birth of the Islamic republic in 1979. Just as many people in the United States suspect that Iran is spinning out the talks to gain time for its covert nuclear programme, so a great many Iranians believe the U.S. is not negotiating in good faith. They suspect the United States is using the pretext of Iran’s nuclear programme to impose ever more crippling sanctions on it with the aim of bringing down the Islamic regime. There is certainly no indication yet that the United States recognises that a deal with Iran must inevitably require a degree of compromise -- very probably one allowing the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium for industrial purposes under strict international supervision.
Catherine Ashton is patently well-intentioned. She seems to have managed to dispel some of Iran’s darkest suspicions. Whereas much American comment about Iran is hostile, she has given every indication of wanting the talks to succeed. Breaking with the U.S. tendency to portray Iran as a sinister adversary, she has made a real effort to befriend Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, to understand his concerns and break with the language of condemnation and threat too often adopted by U.S. officials and commentators. It is by no means clear, however, whether the United States government shares her positive approach. There are powerful forces in the United States which do not want a deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
For one thing, Israel, which exerts considerable influence over America’s Middle East policy, wants to close down Iran’s nuclear industry altogether and makes no secret of its readiness to use force to achieve this aim. It is totally opposed to any compromise which would allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, has been quick to dismiss the talks at Almaty as a waste of time -- indeed as a failure.
“This failure was predictable,” he declared. “Israel has already warned that the Iranians are exploiting the talks in order to play for time while making additional progress in enriching uranium for an atomic bomb. The time has come for the world to take a more assertive stand and make it unequivocally clear to the Iranians that the negotiations games have run their course.” Steinitz -- and, behind him, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu -- have pressed the United States to set a red line for Iran, insisting that it totally abandon its civilian nuclear programme. The excitable Steinitz has even said the closure must take place “in a few weeks, a month” at the most. He has warned that Iran would face immediate attack if it failed to do so!
U.S. President Barack Obama has adopted a cooler tone, arguing that it would take at least as year, if not longer, for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. But it is by no means clear how far he can depart from Israel’s more pressing agenda. In the circumstances, the negotiations behind the scenes between the United States and Israel may well be as important as those between Iran and the P5+1 -- if not more so.
Iran has always insisted on international recognition of its ‘right’ to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes on its home soil. From the start, this has been its position of principle. “What we are insisting on is our right to enrich,” Saeed Jalili told the press. “This is equally true for 5 percent or 20 percent. You know well that 20 percent enriched uranium is used for medical purposes. One million Iranian patients are using those isotopes… Today the fuel is exclusively used for humanitarian matters, medical purposes, exclusively peaceful purposes.” Jalili explained that Iran’s proposals required recognising “our right to enrich and ending behaviours which have every indication of enmity toward the Iranian people… In consideration of our new proposals, it is now up to the P5+1 to demonstrate its willingness and sincerity to take appropriate confidence-building steps in the future.”
Nevertheless, at Almaty, the Iranian delegation showed some flexibility in suggesting that, as a “confidence-building” measure, Iran might be prepared to freeze production of some of its enriched uranium if, in return, the West were to lift its economic sanctions. Iran, however, seems unlikely to agree to close its enrichment plant at Fordo, buried deep in a mountain, unless its legal right to nuclear power under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is acknowledged.
Does this indicate that Iran and the P5+1 are at a dangerous stalemate? It is to be hoped that the departure from office next June of Iran’s pugnacious President Ahmadinejad will ease the way to an international agreement, which will spare the region the horrors of war. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global