Tehran’s hardliners effectively declare nuclear talks dead

By Farideh Farhi

Few observers of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program anticipated a breakthrough from the Istanbul meeting between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the six major powers known as the P5+1 (five members of the Security Council plus Germany). Yet a swift breakdown was not expected either. The assumption was that a difficult negotiating path was possible and perhaps even desired by both sides.

The United States officials continue to insist that the two-track approach — seeking engagement while still putting pressure on Iran through sanctions and other punitive financial actions — will continue until an agreement is reached.

Yet Tehran’s hardliners, currently in charge, effectively declared the structure of negotiations over the country’s nuclear program obsolete.  If Tehran’s Istanbul posture does not change,  P5+1 may – and only may – maintain its utility as a vehicle for yet another round of American-led efforts to impose new UN sanctions on Iran but it will not be useful for negotiations with Iran.

Tehran’s insistence that talks should center on issues of “mutual” or “global” concerns and away from the country’s nuclear program is not new. This approach was initiated when the Bush administration relented in its final year and agreed to U.S. diplomatic presence in the talks. The novelty of Istanbul talks lied in the assertiveness with which Iran’s negotiating team, headed by the Supreme National Security Council’s Secretary Saeed Jalili, challenged the Western two-track approach of engagement and pressure.

By demanding suspension of sanctions and acceptance of Iran’s treaty rights to enrichment, which Jalili called “prerequisites” for further talks, Tehran effectively declared that it is no longer interested in talks in which only Iran stands accused of violations of international norms and rules. This declaration of lack of interest has been fed by both the history of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s domestic politics. Its intent is to overhaul or reverse the P5+1 process whose framework was set in Iran’s negotiations with the representatives of the European Union (France, UK, and Germany) during the presidency of reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

Elements of this new approach and critique of Iran’s past approach was laid out in detail in an editorial in Iran’s most prominent hard-line daily, Kayhan, at the onset of Istanbul talks.

Pointing out that any entry into a long negotiating process depends on expectations of both “results and outlook,” the editorial identified the negotiating process during the reformist era – “that resulted in significant harm to the country” – as problematic because there was no agreement on either. For instance, both sides said that there should be confidence-building, both sides agreed that Iran’s program should be peaceful, both sides agreed that suspension was voluntary, and both sides agreed that Iran should give guarantees regarding the peacefulness of its program. All of these are great expressions, the editorial insists, but because the sides understood them in opposing ways the talks never went anywhere and “turned into a concessionary path for the Iranian side.”

Kayhan does have a point. The European/US definition of Iran’s peaceful program was suspension of uranium enrichment, while the Iranian team believed enrichment will eventually be allowed on Iranian soil as a result of a long confidence building process. The West thought voluntary suspension should become permanent but the Iranian side thought that “objective guarantees” lied at the heart of improved relations in political, security and economic arenas.

While Iran’s reformists and centrists still think that less bombastic rhetoric and more adept diplomacy can lead to results within the P5+1 format, as far as Kayhan is concerned, “this sad and admonitory tale will undoubtedly not be repeated again.” If Iran is to enter an extensive negotiating process “there has to be clarity about the purpose of these talks.”

It is here that the implied meaning of talks based on “mutual concerns” becomes explicit:

It is not as though Iran will sit in front of a cooperative table while still under pressure and while every day there is subversion against it. Even more important is the fact that no cooperation is free. Just in the past few months Iran has clearly shown how strong it is in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and the oil market. Surely Iran’s resources can untangle knots Westerners have for long not been able to approach correctly and solve even less so….For years many revolutionaries have been waiting for such talks…. in which Iran does not see itself as accused and speaks with those who consider themselves the lord of the world from an equal or even superior position.

In short, if the West, led by Washington, wants to talk to Tehran because it makes strategic sense to improve relations, then it should do so in the proper way strategic talks take place. What is significant, though, is that despite the confidence and bluster, there is very little in the hard-liners’ political discourse that hints at the next practical step since, by now, it should be evident even to them that no one in Washington is willing or capable of engaging in strategic talks with Iran on an “equal” basis; at least not until there is some sort of agreement on the nuclear issue.

It is said in Iran that it was Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, constitutionally and effectively in charge of setting the general direction of foreign policy, who initially gave the nod to negotiations over the country’s nuclear program because he thought this issue was Iran’s strongest suit in the attempt to elevate the country’s strategic position in the region. In fact, reformist era nuclear negotiators continue to remind their hard-line critics of the Leader’s assent.

The Istanbul talks hint at the possibility that, after a couple of years of interacting with the Obama Administration, Khamenei has finally given up on that idea based on lack of success and an assessment that time is on Tehran’s side and Washington’s needs for a calmer region will eventually lead to a change in its overall policy towards Iran.

This approach is not without its critics or skeptics. However, the criticism comes in a muted fashion these days , given the ease with which the charge of abetting the enemy is thrown in the post-2009 election environment, even against former high ranking officials.

For instance, in criticizing Jalili for not having a good understanding of his mission, a former high ranking Foreign Ministry official pointed out in the reformist website irdiplomacy that Jalili’s mission as the head of the nuclear negotiating team is to resolve the nuclear issue and not to solve global or regional problems. “Does Ms. Ashton [The European Union’s top foreign policy official] have the responsibility to, or can, resolve the global problems that we want to talk to her? If we want to talk about problems of the world, its place is not 5+1.”

The problem hardliners in Iran have is not that they object to this criticism. They agree that the P5+1 format is no longer useful. But they offer no alternative path or venue for the strategic conversation they would like to have with the United States. In fact, Jalili even refused to meet with the US undersecretary of state Bill Burns on a one to one basis in Istanbul.

It is for this reason that the assertion that “time” and “American needs” will eventually lead to change of direction in US foreign policy is received with quite a bit of skepticism in a society concerned about more economic and financial sanctions to come. The skeptics are probably worried that Iran’s hard-line stance will have as much chance of success in changing US behavior as US-led sanctions and pressures have had in changing the current Iranian leadership’s behavior.

This commentary was published as a Sigur Center Policy Brief.


About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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