By Gary Sick
The United States, Iran, and five other countries—Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany—are set to engage in a new round of talks in Istanbul, Turkey beginning on Friday and continuing into Saturday. The goal of these negotiations—at least for the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany—is to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program, making it more difficult to build a nuclear weapon. Iran, of course, has publicly stated a bomb is not their goal.
In this case, both sides are posturing. The leaks from the U.S. government to The New York Times and The Washington Post were obviously deliberate. The New York Times article identified a set of requirements for the talks—what the United States would like Iran to do. The other leak was a survey of American intelligence, suggesting that the United States knows a great deal about what is going on in Iran’s nuclear program and therefore can have confidence going into the talks, knowing what’s really happening on the Iranian side.
The proposal that Iran would cease enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and transport that uranium out of the country is entirely feasible. Iran has indicated that it was enriching to 20 percent only to support the research reactor in Tehran, which produces medical isotopes. So giving that up in return for a supply of fuel plates for the reactor is something quite doable. However, the demand that Iran close the Fordo site—built outside of Qom under a mountain—is going to be extremely difficult and, I think, quite problematic. I am not at all sure Iran would agree to that. They might agree to some restrictions on operations at Fordo, but I suspect that they will not give it up, or at least only in return for major U.S. concessions.
There’s a hint that the United States, at least going in, would demand a complete end to Iran’s enrichment program. That’s a non-starter. The United States has tried that now for 10 years. It hasn’t worked in the past, and it will not work in this case. So if there were going to be some compromise, it would be that Iran would retain some of its capability for enrichment and would accept stringent monitoring and inspections on the remaining nuclear program. That is a potential bargain that has been available for years, and this could potentially be the moment to make it happen. The subject of discussion would be how much enrichment capability Iran would retain, and how much inspection it would accept.
The one thing that is missing completely from these newspaper accounts is: what would be in it for Iran in return? What would Iran get for the concessions that are being requested of it? That’s left completely blank.
I think the timing of this is very delicate from the point of view of the Obama administration. It’s an election year and this is an issue that engages Israel, which is important since there are many Israel supporters in the American political process, so this is going to be watched very closely. And there’s another story that Mitt Romney, almost certainly the Republican nominee, is personally very close to Mr. Netanyahu in Israel. Consequently, he’s taking a very divergent position on the issue and will probably continue to do so. So the Obama administration is going to deal with Iran and the five other negotiators on one side, while dealing with a contentious political campaign on the other—a difficult balancing act. Still, I think his administration is serious about going into negotiations, and I believe the so called leaks, really planted stories, are intended essentially as the opening shots to genuine negotiations.
Sanctions are another issue. A series of oil sanctions against Iran are scheduled to go into effect in June or July this year. On the European side these would cut off nearly a quarter of Iran’s present oil exports, which will create real economic hardships for Iran. Moreover, the sanctions on Iranian bank activities by the United States and its allies (not the UN Security Council) are obviously hurting Iran. If the United States is ready to lift or terminate those sanctions that would certainly be an attractive proposition for Iran. In fact, the United States will have to do something like that if Iran is going to be willing to make some concessions. Iran is going to have to get something in return, and removing some of those sanctions would have to be part of the package.
It’s not entirely clear, however, that the Obama administration is free to remove these sanctions. A lot of this is done by Congress, and getting Congress to do anything—especially anything dealing with Iran in an election year—is going to be enormously difficult. The other thing that should be remembered is that those sanctions—if they go into effect this year against Iran—will drive up oil prices just as we are approaching the election, and that means the price of gasoline in the United States will go up. So the administration has a whole series of balls in the air that they have to juggle, and it is going to be very complicated.
In a sense it will be a race to see who is hurt the most by sanctions. They are aimed at Iran of course, but they will also have a direct impact on the price of oil—which means the price of gasoline and its ripple effects on economies that are already vulnerable as they struggle to recover from the recent recession.
President Obama is gambling that Iran will be hit first and hardest by the sanctions, leading to concessions. But the damage of higher oil prices to Western economies could have equal or even greater negative impact on our own economies at a very delicate moment.
This contest is not for the faint hearted.
Gary Sick is an adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Columbia's School of International & Public Affairs. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis.
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