Iran Update No. 167

The E3+3, Iran, and the Almaty talks

Last week's talks were deemed by many commentators as a failure. Rather than responding directly to the E3+3’s (P5+1's) agenda around initial small confidence-building steps, the Iranian delegation appears to have looked for reassurances that the end-state would include lifting the sanctions and recognition of Iran’s right to enrich, and that the group of six was serious in recognizing objectives of the Iranian delegation. Even though no date was set for future (formal) negotiations, the sides agreed to consult soon at the deputy chief negotiator level. As limited as the outcome seems, does this now justify the swinging new sanctions bill being drafted for the U.S. Senate to step up pressure on Iran? This new bill would penalize foreign countries with dealings with any entity related to the Iranian government and requires Iran to release all political prisoners and adopt a western-style democracy before any sanctions can be lifted. Where is it all going to end?

If the E3+3 group of six expected a breakthrough based upon their proposal tabled at Almaty in February, their hopes would have been heroic. Given the domestic uncertainties and political risk in Iran at present, with a looming Presidential election in which there are an unprecedented number of candidates with no clear favorites, and a Supreme Leader who is clearly unready to invest the necessary political will in explicitly backing the talks, it really would be extremely surprising for the negotiators to be given a clear steer from Tehran. Rather, it would be more realistic to see these meetings as opportunities to lay the ground-work for future agreement by developing clear dialogue beyond simply articulating positions, so that both sides gain a better understanding of each other’s priorities and of the room for compromise, once the Iranians are in a position to deal after June.

An international diplomatic effort aimed at engaging Iran over the real purpose of its nuclear activities has continued for nearly a decade now with a largely unsatisfactory result. There have been a series of E3 and E3+3 proposals tabled to curb the most sensitive aspects of the nuclear program, and in particular the enrichment program, as a result of Iran’s historic incomplete compliance with its safeguards responsibilities and its resistance to UN Security Council resolutions. Original proposals extended to Iran in recent years focused on the complete abandonment of enrichment, shipment of all 20% enriched fuel out of the country and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility, but these were clearly not going to form the basis of any agreement. The February 2013 round of Alamaty talks involved a relatively more conciliatory approach, explicitly appreciated by Iranian negotiators. This could facilitate a less confrontational atmosphere at the 2013 PrepCom later this month, at least on this particular issue. The atmospherics this year are likely to be dominated by Arab anger at the failure to hold a conference on a Middle East nuclear weapon and other WMD-free zone.

The parties last week expressed their readiness to consult again in the near future once they had a chance to consult further in capitals. It is important that the enhanced commitment to keep the dialogue alive is not lost in the sanctions fever of Washington and the election fever in Iran.

Further reading:

Analysis by Anna Sliwon


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