Addressing the Asymmetry in Negotiations between Iran and P5+1: a critical review of Oxford Research Group’s briefing

by Mehrnaz Shahabi (source: CASMII)
Friday, June 22, 2012

The Oxford Research Group’s briefing, Iran’s Nuclear Impasse:  Breaking the Deadlock (1 May 2012) [1], published before the second round of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 (permanent Security Council and Germany) in Baghdad on 23 May, whilst proposing some positive principles for a successful outcome of the negotiations - such as Iran’s right to enrichment,  “reciprocity”, “defining endgame”, and “taking regime change off the table” - suffers serious drawbacks, which have become even more glaringly  clear with the result of the recent Moscow negotiations.

At the conclusion of the third round of talks between Iran and P5+1, the initial optimism about the resolution of the stand-off between Iran and the US over Iran’s nuclear programme has been replaced for many keen observers by a sober appreciation of the nature of the conflict and the obstacles to reaching anything approaching a workable deal.  The events preceding and concurrent with the negotiations will have further disabused the international community of the illusion of “good will” on the part of the Obama administration.  Following the first round of negotiations in Baghdad in April 2012, the US Congress passed a near unanimous bill moving the US’s “red line”, from weaponisation by Iran to that of Israel’s redline of “Nuclear capability”.  The bill also made the termination of US sanctions conditional upon such demands on Iranian domestic politics which, in the context of the raging covert war by the US and Israel inside Iran, is tantamount to a demand for  regime change [2].  So even a surrender of Iran’s right to enrichment would fail to guarantee the removal of the draconian unilateral economic sanctions by the US, designed admittedly to hurt the population!  The bill therefore increased substantially the risk of war – as and when it becomes ‘feasible’ - and scuppered the chances of a successful deal. 

Ahead of the second round of the negotiations in Baghdad, Iran made a provisional agreement with the IAEA Chief Inspector, Amano, to provide access to the Parchin military site, where it is claimed nuclear weaponisation related tests might have taken place.  According to Iran’s agreed guidelines with the IAEA, Iran is not obliged to open any non-nuclear site to inspection.  This important move by Iran, at great risk to its security, was played down by the US’s negotiating team as “irrelevant” to the negotiations.  

As detailed in New York Times on 1 June [3], there have also been revelations about the Flame virus attack on the Iranian government computer network and oil and nuclear installations, and the Obama administration’s illegal, dangerous, and accelarating cyber war, in collaboration with Israel, against Iran’s nuclear and other infrastructural facilities as soon as Obama took office and as he was stretching out his much publicised “open hand” towards Iran. 

In Istanbul, as announced by the EU Foreign Policy head and the representative of the P5+1, Catherine Ashton, the NPT and step-by-step reciprocity had been established as the key basis for the negotiations.  The US’s failure to honour this agreement by demanding Iran surrender its right to enrichment enshrined in the NPT and by refusing a reciprocal reduction of sanctions in return for Iranian concession to limit the level of enrichment to below 5 percent and to transfer its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium out of Iran, highlights the US’s absence of good will in resolving the stand-off with Iran.  This renders the ORG’s analysis redundant and in need of revision.   The analysis is framed in error and is factually uninformed.

Contrary to the ORG’s stated principle of neutrality, the analysis is framed within the dominant western discourse.  It takes at face value the US/Israeli led accusations about Iran’s nuclear programme - despite the intelligence verdict from both countries of an absence of a nuclear weaponisation programme in Iran  - and legitimises the singling out and demands on Iran to forfeit its rights under the NPT.  Due to domestic political constraints as well as Iran’s inadequate levels of cooperation in the past, the pendulum may have swung too far in favour of punitive measures, with a resultant dearth of proposals and lack of appetite for constructive engagement”.  It thus attributes the current punitive measures against Iran and the ‘deadlock’ to Iran’s “inadequate cooperation” rather than a continued US/Israeli policy of coercion in a scenario of manufactured ‘crisis’.  All the references in the IAEA reports to Iran’s inadequate level of co-operation relate to the access provisions under the Additional Protocol, which Iran, based on its Safeguard Agreements with the IAEA, is not obliged to provide.   However,  as a confidence building measure during the negotiations with EU3 between 2003 and 2005, Iran voluntarily accepted the Additional Protocol and halted enrichment of uranium.  Iran has maintained its readiness since to implement the Additional Protocol on the condition that its right to enrich uranium as a member of the NPT is recognised and respected.  

Notably the ORG does not shy away from blaming Iran even for the US’s backtracking from the uranium swap deal of 2010: “Nine months later because of extensive investment in the sanctions route and suspicions that Tehran was simply buying time, the US did not entertain the May 2010 Tehran Declaration”.   On 20 April 2010 following meeting with the Brazilian President Lula and the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, in the Nuclear Security Summit in New York, President Obama wrote [4] to President Lula that “Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions … This element is of fundamental importance for the United States. … Iran would begin to demonstrate peaceful nuclear intent”.  Less than a month later on 18th May 2010, Iran signed the Tehran Declaration of the uranium swap deal. This was promptly discarded and reciprocated with yet another sanctions resolution from the Obama Adminsitration. 

The analysis proposes a re-adjustment of the Dual Track approach, but legitimises the strengthening of  economic war on a nation of 76 million by stipulating, when and if Iran offers meaningful concessions to allay IAEA concerns over proliferation and weaponisation”, describing the Dual Track as “not without its merits”. In fact all the proposed concessions from Iran, - implementing the Additional Protocol, limiting the level of enrichment and transferring the uranium stockpile out of the country - had already been on the table as bargaining chips in return for Iran’s right to enrich, prior to the introduction of the US/UE sanctions.  But even if sanctions wrenched concessions, it would not justify their legitimacy; it merely demonstrates the supremacy of gangster politics in international relations and the moral bankruptcy of the west in its criminal disregard for international law and the UN Charter. 

The ORG’s absence of neutrality and its advocacy for ‘coercive diplomacy’ against Iran is further demonstrated in its concern about the “weakening [of] the resolve on the part of key members of the international community, notably Russia and China”.  This presumably refers to Russia and China’s refusal to impose further unjustified Security Council sanctions or not to accept the US/EU’s illegal and inhuman sanctions on the lifeline of the Iranian economy.

Although the ORG has in the past laudably warned against the consequences of military attack on Iran, it does not propose the removal of the military option by western powers.  Even worse, the ORG envisions an alternate scenario should diplomacy fail, of the use of force on the one hand or Iran’s acquision of nuclear weapons on the other.  “This briefing is based on the conviction that opportunities exist for a comprehensive settlement, avoiding the inevitably destabilizing use of force or the development by Iran of a nuclear arsenal”. It is not surprising then that the ORG quoting the hawkish British Foreign Minister, William Hauge, promising “serious consequences” and that “Iran could be responsible for a new “Cold War” if it insisted on pursuing nuclear weapons”, does not warn against the FM’s warmongering and dangerous lies, of the sort that led to the illegal and immoral invasion and war in Iraq, and does not propose  the removal of the military option.

The ORG’s theoretical framing of the US-Iran stand- off and the understanding of the nuclear issue erroneously applies group relations theories and conflict resolution principles in a geopolitical context of wars of dominance and balance of power.  “The absence of diplomatic relations has created a profound sense of misunderstanding about the motivations and intentions of each side”.  Thus it disregards the power imbalance and the actual history of the stand off rooted in the geopolitical ambitions of the US - from the overthrow of the popular nationalist government of Mosaddegh and the installment of the Shah, to the US’ active participation in the Iran-Iraq war, to the imposition of sanctions by Clinton when Iran was trying to open up to the West after the devastation of Iran-Iraq war, to the Axis of Evil designation in 2002 following Iran’s cooperation in the overthrow of Taliban, to the rejection of President Khatami’s ‘Grand Bargain’ of 2003 and the “total war” and “full spectrum dominance” policies  of the Neo-Conservatives which have guided the US foreign policy [5] since the mid-1990s.  The reshaping of the map of the Middle East which began with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, has continued under Obama with the invasion of Libya, intervention in Syria, and with the eyes on Iran as the “ultimate prize” [6] long before the manufacture of the nuclear stand-off.

In relation to the uranium swap deal, the ORG proposes that if Iran agrees “to a single shipment, this would demonstrate to the E3+3 that Iran was negotiating in good faith and had confidence in the commitment of the other parties”. Again there seems to be a problem with wrong framing of the issue, as if Iran’s absence of trust in the good faith and commitment of the other parties, is a matter of Iran’s perception rather than a justified concern based on historical precedence of the West’s disregard for international law and its total impunity.  The US’s three decades of violation of Article IV of the NPT, sabotaging Iran’s lawful contracts with other countries, such as Germany and China, to develop a civilian nuclear technology, with total impunity, is an example amongst numerous serious violations of international law with total impunity. The US’s covert war of destabilisation and its cyber war against Iran are the running examples of such violations, not to mention the illegal invasion of Iraq based on fabricated evidence, and without the UN Security Council authorisation, which destroyed that country’s infrastructure and slaughtered and displaced millions of defenceless civilians.

The suggestion that “The deal should also be seen by all parties as “equitable” and “just””, is again framed in error.  This is not a dispute between two equal adversaries with legitimate rights.  Rather, it is a geopolitical strategy by the superpowers for balance of power and hegemony.  What is an “equitable and just” outcome to this crisis for Israel or the US?!

Finally in recognition of a possible “asymmetry in negotiations”, the authors comment that “the negotiating table is structured in such a way that the E3+3 outnumber the Iranians”. To resolve this “unequal power relationship around the table”, the ORG proposes that “A smaller group could sit around the table in order to create a more symmetrical relationship”!  It is an interesting slip that the denial of the unequal power relationship at the root of the larger conflict in the analysis, manifests itself in the concrete and absurd  attempt to put right the sitting arrangement of the adversaries!

Neo-conservative think tanks played a crucial role in manufacturing consent about Iraq’s WMD and politicians’ consent for  war.   The apathy towards sanctions that killed over a million people and destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure before the 2003 invasion, could not have existed without the insidious influence of pro-war think tanks.   It is in this context that the Oxford Research Group, as a reputable and trusted think tank for its neutrality and expertise, must revisit this analysis for unwitting errors and shortcomings, particularly so in the light of the developments and revelations since the negotiations between P5+1 and Iran began. 

Mehrnaz Shahabi is an anti-war activist and independent researcher.  She lives in the UK.  She can be reached on mshahabi@blueyonder.co.uk

1.http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers_and_reports/iran's_nuclear_impasse_breaking_deadlock

2. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:HR02194:@@@D&summ2=m&.

3.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/world/middleeast/obama-ordered-wave-of-cyberattacks-against-iran.html?pagewanted=all

4.http://www.politicaexterna.com/11023/brazil-iran-turkey-nuclear-negotiations-obamas-letter-to-lula

5.http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20454950?uid=3738032&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=47699095496497

6. http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/01/17/real-men-go-to-tehran/