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All eyes now on Moscow talks
Although it was a net victory for the host nation Iraq, to add to its regional prestige and showcase its ability to provide a safe and secure environment for a major international gathering, the two-day talks in Baghdad between Iran and the world powers produced few tangible results, save an agreement to continue for another round set in Moscow two weeks from now.
According to Catherine Ashton, the European Union's High Representative, the talks showed progress even though important differences remain, obviously enough to prevent a timely breakthrough in the Iran nuclear standoff that has resulted in tough sanctions on Iran and the constant military threats by Israel.
At this juncture, the mere agreement to continue the dialogue is considered a step forward, but obviously the big question is whether or not these rounds will eventually culminate in an agreement, given the approaching European embargo on Iranian oil is due to commence on July 1.
In his press conference, Iran's top negotiator, Saeed Jalili, clarified that the "package" by the P5 +1 nations that was orally submitted to Iran on the first day of the multilateral talks actually consisted of "a single proposal" that focused on Iran's uranium enrichment program. (The P5+1 - Iran Six - consists of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany.)
Jaili's deputies accompanying him to the meeting have expressed their disappointment that there was no offer to bargain an Iranian nuclear concession for lifting any aspects of the sanctions.
Small step forward, giant leap backward
Indeed, if the Baghdad talks (which followed an earlier round in Istanbul) revealed anything, it was on the one hand Tehran's determination to defend its "inalienable rights" and, on the other, the West's equally steadfast determination to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program, beginning with the most sensitive 20% enrichment.
In other words, all the pretensions, ie of Western consent to allow Iran's low-grade enrichment by giving up on the "zero centrifuges" option, have now been clearly exposed, thus raising the question of what is the real US-led strategy toward Iran?
"Moving the goal posts is one thing but reintroducing the 'red line' on zero enrichment under the guise of honest and sincere diplomacy is another thing and really shows their [Western] duplicity," says an Iranian source close to the negotiation team who wishes to remain anonymous.
He adds that in his "personal opinion", the West has "hardened its position since the Istanbul talks in April" and that "is definitely not a good sign".
Countering the other side's "single idea" with a "comprehensive and step-by-step" proposal that focused on both nuclear and non-nuclear issues, including regional security issues, Iran's hope at the Baghdad talks was to move the process along the Russian "step-by-step" proposal that had been reflected in the Group of Eight communique at Camp David one week earlier. Yet, somehow, it was replaced at the last minute with a new and abbreviated proposal that simply demanded that Iran forfeit 20% enrichment without presenting Iran with any viable incentives or mentioning any "endgame".
Instead of making any substantive suggestions that could end the Iran nuclear crisis, the Western delegates headed by Ashton put the focus on "near-term" solutions while insisting that any lifting of Western sanctions was unthinkable, thus in effect precluding a successful breakthrough in Baghdad.
Henceforth, unless there is a shift of approach by the Western powers between now and June 8, the date set for the Moscow round, it is difficult to foresee a different, and more hopeful, result then that would distinguish itself from the Baghdad meet.
"We are at a deadlock at this moment on two fronts: sanctions and Iran's low enrichment, and on both fronts either they will show new flexibility or the talks are doomed," says the Tehran source.
In effect, then, the US and its allies could be blamed for the absence of a breakthrough in Baghdad by refusing to present Iran with even a minimal concession on sanctions that would enable the Iranian negotiation team to strike an agreement on the issue of 20% enrichment, within the overall context of Iran's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) right to a civilian enrichment program.
Clearly, the US's negotiation strategy of obfuscation was to appease Israel, whose leaders have insisted on a complete halt of all enrichment activities in Iran. But, is this is a wise strategy?
The real US strategy is centered on crippling sanctions that have been legislated into comprehensive laws and are difficult to reverse by the executive branch, even in the absence of sinister motives to keep the furnace of the Iran nuclear crisis burning.
Simultaneously, this is a crisis that gives the US certain leverage over both China and Russia, by adding to China's strategic energy insecurity and also pressuring Russia on its southern flank, not to mention the crisis' functional utility to contain Iranian power and to perpetuate US hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
As for Israel, this is a crisis of opportunity to continue to receive generous Western assistance and to portray itself as an aggrieved nation that must prioritize the Iran threat instead of the Palestinian problem. For Europe, on the other hand, there is comparatively little to gain from the continuation of a crisis that affects its economic well-being.
Signs of US-EU divergence
Despite reverting to a more hawkish line against Iran prior to the Baghdad meeting, Ashton in her post-talk press conference sounded guardedly upbeat and again reiterated the NPT framework of the talks, which is considered a major plus by Iran since it is tantamount to acknowledging Iran's right to civilian enrichment.
Yet, as of this date, no one in the US administration, including the US envoy to the talks, Wendy Sherman, has ever echoed Ashton on this delicate yet crucial subject matter.
In turn, this has put the Barack Obama administration at a critical fork in the road: either continue with the hardline, yet unrealistic, zero enrichment approach, presently nuanced by select-focusing on 20% enrichment, and thus see the talks end in failure, or shift gears to a new policy that respects Iran's rights even though it may unacceptable to Israel.
Indeed, the US's policy incoherence and built-in ambiguities, reflected in its behavior at both rounds in Istanbul and Baghdad, clearly shows that the US is caught at the crossroads of a dilemma between Iran and Israel. (See US caught between Israel and Iran Asia Times Online, April 28.)
It is possible that the US has no real fear of an impending Iranian proliferation risk and if it did it would have put itself in a bargaining position.
The non-bargaining posture in Baghdad was geared to prevent a breakthrough, and thus appease Israel. This revealed much about the US's non-changing red line on zero enrichment.
Prospects for Moscow talks
One key advantage of the coming Moscow round is that it will inevitably renew interest in the Russian "step-by-step" proposal that calls for the gradual lifting of Iran sanctions in return for Iran's satisfaction of certain nuclear demands.
Spotlighting the Russian proposal after it was temporarily set aside in Baghdad will undoubtedly present a viable option to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis, again depending on the US's willingness to revise its script vis-a-vis Iran.
At the moment, in terms of atmospherics, Iran has the upper hand, having improved its standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is about to sign an new modality for cooperation with Iran after last week's Tehran visit by the IAEA general director, Yukiya Amano, and stating its preparedness to make significant concessions as long as the other side reciprocates with regards to sanctions.
This means that it will be doubly hard for the US to maintain its present course and to rally world public opinion against Iran, no matter what the Iranphobic noise from the halls of the US Congress.
For sure, one thing US policymakers could think about is how their uncompromising stance is fueling a closer Iran-China relationship, in the light of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's planned trip to Beijing to attend a security summit in June, as well as cordial bilateral talks between Jalili and Chinese officials at the Baghdad talks.
In essence, Washington is hurling Iran into the bosom of China, hardly the sign of a prudent Western diplomacy.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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