Can Iranian nuclear talks progress at Baghdad?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the press following of a P5+1 meeting at the UN headquarters during the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, New York September 23, 2009. [State Department photo / Public Domain]

By Dina Esfandiary, Research Analyst and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The positive atmosphere  surrounding the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul this month will be tested just over three weeks from now in a further meeting in Baghdad. Both sides seem to have embarked on an intensive PR campaign to lighten the mood, dampen the calls for war and demonstrate the willingness to compromise in the upcoming talks over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme and uranium enrichment.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi recently said the Istanbul talks had produced ‘results that satisfied both sides’. ‘At the Baghdad meeting, I see more progress,’ he predicted.

But success at Baghdad would take tremendous political strength from both sides. The first thing needed will be a genuine willingness to haggle the finer details of an agreement. For that to happen, the agenda needs to address each side’s concerns. This will be agreed in meetings between EU and Iranian representatives in the next few weeks.

How much both sides are actually prepared to give up is a more delicate matter. It’s always hard to tell whether the Iranian side is genuine or just looking to buy time. Even if they are, often the negotiators’ ability to agree to anything depends on politics back home. This was part of the reason why the 2009 deal for Iran to ship enriched uranium out of the country in return for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor never saw the light of day.

In addition, some Iranians today believe they have the upper hand: although Iran is weakened by sanctions and economic turmoil, it has shown tremendous resilience. What’s more, Iran’s position has not changed: it will not give up enrichment. The question is whether Iran feels it stands to gain from suspending enrichment or scaling back enrichment to 3–3.5%.

The success of any talks will therefore depend on the P5+1’s willingness to accept some form of Iranian enrichment. Iranians will continue to claim enrichment is their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that they cannot backtrack on it because of popular support.

But Iran will also have to take steps to prove the peacefulness of its programme and restore what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as ‘the confidence of the international community, to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich’. This might include closing down the facility near Qom and subjecting themselves to more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Despite the provisional success of talks in Istanbul, and Obama’s much-vaunted willingness for dialogue with Iran, the president will likely be politically unable to make significant concessions in an election year.

Iran will also want something in return for any concessions it makes. Discussions over the possible step-by-step removal of sanctions must be on the table as an incentive. Although the West has in principle committed itself to rewarding Iran for transparency, it is unclear whether it is willing to go as far as modifying the sanctions regime. The Iranians have asked for a sign of the P5+1’s goodwill by pushing back the timetable for additional EU and US sanctions, which are to come into effect this summer. However, the US quickly replied: ‘The burden of action falls on the Iranians to demonstrate their seriousness and we are going to keep the sanctions in place and the pressure on Iran.’

So the tremendous political will required to achieve some success in the upcoming Baghdad talks frankly hasn’t been seen yet from either side.


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