Para-diplomacy with Iran and RussiaPosted: 10/09/2012
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
At a non-proliferation conference in Moscow on Friday, I questioned Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov about his interview with Interfax the previous day in which he claimed that Russia saw ‘no signs’ of a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme. Was this a misinterpretation, I asked. In English, ‘signs’ mean ‘indications’. Maybe he meant there was no proof?
There are plenty of indications, I added. The report by the IAEA last November included a 65-paragraph annex detailing the information the agency has assembled about Iranian nuclear activities of a ‘possible military dimension’. Most of the evidence concerned activities prior to 2004, but some suspicious activity took place after that time and possibly continues today. As I have put it elsewhere, surely the Russians are not blind to that evidence.
Answering in perfect English, Ryabkov doubled down on his insistence of ‘no signs, full stop’. Afterwards, two of my Russian friends privately shook their heads at this feigned ignorance. To put the best spin on it, I surmise that Ryabkov’s purpose was to dampen the heat that has been generated of late over the Iranian nuclear issue. But how far backwards is it seemly to bend in order to give Iran the benefit of the doubt?
The Iranian nuclear issue is assessed in detail in the newly published IISS Strategic Survey 2012. At the book launch this Thursday, I will be ready to offer an update on the latest diplomatic peregrinations, the state of Iran’s programme and the guessing game over Israel’s intentions. Will they or won’t they prematurely – and fatally – take military action? Sneak preview: probably not this year, but don’t bet the farm on peace prevailing next year. As we note at the end of the Iran section of Strategic Survey 2012: ‘No matter who won the US presidential election, the Iranian nuclear issue looked likely to reach a crisis stage in the coming year.’
At the Moscow conference, Ryabkov said Iran needs to cooperate more with the IAEA to remove doubt about their actions. He added that as difficult as the talks with Iran may be, ‘some talks are better than no talks’ and that for the first time Iran was discussing core issues. Russia had proposed a step-by-step plan that in the end would meet Iran’s demand for the lifting of sanctions and recognition of an Iranian right to enrichment. The sequencing is important, he added, and is one of the areas of disagreement with Iran.
In a luncheon address at the conference, Mustafa Dolatyar, Director General of Iran’s Institute for Political and International Studies, confirmed that Iran wanted these concessions up front. The soft-spoken diplomat/professor couched these demands in honeyed terms of good faith, respect for each other’s choices and transparency on the desired end game. As I see it though, agreement on the outcome should be the result of negotiations, not a precondition for meaningful talks.
Dolatyar also spoke about what he claimed to be America’s missed opportunities over the years at responding in kind to Iran’s offers of flexibility. Goodness knows there were too many such missed opportunities on all sides. His focus on America, though, was irritating to the representatives of other countries that share Washington’s concerns.
During the ensuing Q & A, rather than offer a point-by-point rebuttal of his accusations about past US actions, I asked a simple question about the present: Why does Iran refuse to meet bilaterally with the US and to respond to President Barack Obama’s offer of engagement? Since Iran is so focused on America’s position, would it not be good to sit down together? His answer – that talking together is not useful without a set agenda – left me unsatisfied. I have to agree with Ryabkov on this one, that talking is better than not talking.