Low Expectations and Bad Arithmetic

Iran's Natanz facility guarded by anti-aircraft guns

Iran will once again sit down with the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) on Saturday in Istanbul. There negotiators will try again to resolve outstanding issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in fifteen months. Prospects are dim and with good reason. Years of diplomacy have achieved zero progress and Iran continues to enrich uranium at an alarming rate.

Optimists hope—though few believe—that new sanctions adopted by the United States and Europe could make a difference this time. However, while Iran is certainly under pressure, and sanctions are producing ripple effects even before the EU’s July 1 deadline, it may be too soon to expect any change in behavior. The toughest sanctions were only adopted in December; the EU ban on Iranian crude and the possible total loss of tanker reinsurance begins this summer; newer, more draconian measures await implementation.

Expectations are limited further by the fact that Iran was first sanctioned by the U.S. more than thirty years ago and the UN adopted sanctions in 2006 (followed by three more rounds). Whether or not new measures make a difference depends on how sensitive the regime is to cost—a subject of serious debate. While Iran’s leaders are rational and prioritize their own survival above all, the question of cost sensitivity is very different, and may be impossible to answer. Objectively speaking, it is very, very hard to justify the costs of the nuclear program so far.

Iran’s insistence on domestic enrichment makes little sense given the international response and multiple UN resolutions backed by Russia and China. To be sure, the country is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which affords all nations access to peaceful nuclear power—but Iran could have purchased enriched uranium on the open market for far less. National pride certainly warps these types of calculations. The past six years, however, suggest that Iran’s progress has come at a terrible cost which can only get worse without a settlement.

If “all options are on the table,” as the Israelis and Obama administration insists, Iran’s nuclear program may still cost it more in destroyed infrastructure and lost lives. The wisdom of such a strike is debatable but the potential for devastation is not. Sanctions will force the country to lose out on opportunities and prosperous business relations amounting to billions with or without foreign intervention. Later this summer, the EU ban on Iranian crude imports will likely be matched by cuts from non-EU member states, thus costing Iran even more, as refiners limit purchases to avoid U.S. sanctions. A nuclear program worth only millions is thus costing the Islamic Republic billions. Even clerics can do that kind of math.

Iran’s record at the negotiation table is also discouraging. The country’s top nuclear negotiator is Said Jalili, who took the post in October 2007. Jalili, unlike his predecessor Ali Larijani, is apparently not equipped for the sensitive diplomacy demanded by today’s predicament. Whether or not he was selected by Iran’s leaders because he is incapable of reaching a deal is hard to say. But we know for sure that his performance until now has been poor.

Jalili held his first meeting with EU diplomats in December 2007. After lecturing attendees about culture, theology, and his doctoral dissertation, he announced that the meeting represented a total break with previous commitments. “Jalili essentially said, ‘Everything that Larijani has proposed is a dead letter and we have to start from zero,” diplomats later reported. Jalili also declared, “There is no longer an Iranian nuclear problem.” That last statement must have surprised everyone in the room.

When U.S. representatives attended a Geneva meeting in July 2008, Jalili produced a two-page “non-paper” made worse by spelling errors. Sergei Kisliak, the Russian deputy foreign minister in attendance, supposedly laughed aloud while reading it. Jalili then proposed three consultative meetings be held before six weeks of preliminary talks led to any serious negotiation. Negotiators quickly realized Jalili aimed to draw out the process.

Jalili met next with the P5+1 in October 2009, where negotiators considered a fuel swap deal. The plan would ship out most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Russia; in return, Iran would have received 20 percent enriched uranium fuel plates to power Tehran’s reactor for medical research. The U.S. ultimately rejected the deal after Iran asked that shipments be made gradually instead of all at once. Working meetings in Vienna followed but by the end of the month diplomats were once again complaining. “It’s like playing chess with a monkey. You get them to checkmate, and then they swallow the king,” one diplomat told the Daily Telegraph.

In May 2010, Turkey and Brazil revived the swap deal but it was again rejected by the U.S. because of progress made by Iran’s enrichment program in the meantime. Jalili met with the P5+1 again in January 2011. But last year’s Istanbul meeting broke down after participants could not even agree on an agenda, even though UN resolutions have made clear that Iran must first suspend enrichment if it wants to satisfy the international community.

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