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Iran narrows gaps between two talks
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - The first round of scheduled nuclear negotiations between Iranian officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2013 ended in Tehran on January 17. At first, the results appeared inconclusive; now it is emerging that Iran has moved an important chess piece forward.
On the day after the talks, Iran's representative described the two days of intensive and technical talks between Iran and the IAEA as "progressive", while Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi took the opportunity to remind the West that no date or venue has been set for the next round of negotiations with the "P5 +1" nations (the UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany).
It's becoming clear that the fate of the IAEA talks, which revolve around reaching a new "modality for cooperation" whereby the atomic agency's inspectors would be allowed to visit suspected sites such as the one at the Parchin military complex, is now being directly linked by Tehran to broader multilateral negotiations between Iran and the P5+1.
"Imagine a situation where [Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed] Jalili tells the other side 'look, we're ready to sign a deal with the IAEA but what do you have to offer us to go through with it'," said a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on condition of anonymity. "Even the IAEA is now clear that without a deal with the P5+1 there will be no deal with them."
On Tuesday, it was confirmed that the next round of IAEA-Iran negotiations will now take place on February 13. As of writing, the venue had not yet been determined. The last round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 was held in Moscow in June 2012.
It seems Iran is making use of the IAEA card in its game of leverage with the West. However, as the United States and its allies are not offering a package that would reciprocate any concession, Tehran must also maintain the threat that it could reduce its cooperation with the IAEA, thus increasing Western fears about the nature of Iran's nuclear activities.
Playing with two hands in a delicate game of nuclear poker", Tehran is conjoining the "positive cooperation" with the negative withdrawal, even though on the whole it is still committed to its safeguard agreement with the IAEA "as long as the Western exemptions to the oil embargo continue", to paraphrase the Tehran professor.
Some 20 countries are exempted from the embargo, as a result of which Iran's oil exports continue, albeit at a reduced level, to keep the country from submitting to the "crippling sanctions". This could change almost overnight if a few months from now the Barack Obama administration decides to end the exemptions and thus tighten the screws on Iran, which would be tantamount to a declaration of economic warfare. As long as those exemptions continue and the petrodollars keeping coming to Iran to cover the government's budgetary priorities, Iran is apt to survive the sanctions indefinitely.
According to a number of Tehran policy experts, Washington is well aware that if it escalated the pressure by ending the oil exemptions, Iran may react by ending its cooperation with the IAEA, which serves as the eyes and ears of the outside world with respect to Iran's controversial nuclear fuel cycle.
In such a "nightmare scenario", the outside world would have no way of ascertaining whether Iran's uranium enrichment had exceeded the current 20% ceiling and reached the "weaponization" level of 90% or higher.
The US and its allies (including Israel) would be wise to ponder such a future scenario, which would represent a major deterioration of the Iran nuclear standoff and exponentially increase the scope of their fears of an Iranian bomb.
Given the huge regional and international costs associated with the military option, the US and its Western allies would be wise to unlock the diplomatic chest that has hitherto offered precious little to the Iranians, an issue even recognized by a growing number of Iran experts in the US.
With the US foreign policy team in transition, the next round of multilateral talks may be too soon to culminate in a real deal. That may have to wait until Obama's new secretaries of state and defense, as well as Central Intelligence Agency head, are confirmed by the US Congress and have had time to settle in their positions and formulate a sound Iran policy. Yet, the problem with any further delay in Iran nuclear deal-making is that it would need to reckon with another political transition - in Iran, in light of the upcoming June presidential elections.
The latter is not such an insurmountable problem, as the nuclear file is in the hands of the country's Supreme National Security Council, headed by Jalili, who is also the Supreme Leader's representative. In other words, the Iranian election timeline does not pose too much of a problem in terms of the ability of Iranian negotiators to strike a deal, if the conditions are right.
There is a "ripening" process already under way, reflected in the Iran-IAEA talks, which as stated above present a real opportunity to achieve a breakthrough that would, in turn, alleviate the external concerns about Iran's nuclear "intentions". This is a fragile process that has moved an inch or two forward as a result of the January 16-17 Iran-IAEA talks, to the point that it is no longer possible for the Western representatives to feign ignorance of the direct linkage between the two talks.
This was also the case at last May's talks in Baghdad between Iran and the Western powers, when the European Union officials denied that the two tracks had any relations with each other. On the contrary, Iran has now fairly clearly established the error of making such an assumption, by hurling the issue of its future cooperation with the IAEA on the agenda of the next round of multilateral talks.
It is too premature to say whether Iran's nuclear game will yield final results; for now, however, it is clear that on the tactical level it already has. The relationship between tactic and strategy is, however, always determined in part by the other side's counter-moves. So, as Obama settles in after being sworn into office for a second term on Monday, it will be interesting to see how his administration responds to Iran's chess move.