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Small Steps Forward

Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov (R) shows the way to Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, before the talks with world powers representatives on Iran's nuclear program in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 26, 2013. Source: STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images
Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov (R) shows the way to Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, before the talks with world powers representatives on Iran’s nuclear program in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 26, 2013. Source: STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

As the jewel in a rather unpleasant dictatorship’s crown, Almaty was perhaps a strange choice of venue for the latest round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran two weeks ago. Nonetheless, reaction coming out of the talks—the first time Iran had met with the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) in eight months—is tentatively positive.

In terms of tangible results, there was nothing beyond an agreement between the two sides to meet again. Twice, in fact: once for more expanded talks to include technical consultations, and again for another round of formal negotiations in April. But a US official described the events as encouraging, while Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called them a “turning point.” That sentiment was echoed by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who said negotiations were “on the right track and moving in the right direction.”

And well he might. The P5+1 offered Iran a package of proposals that amounted to ‘more for less.’ Gone are the demands that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20%, or shut its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, and ship its enriched fuel out of the country. Instead, the P5+1 offered a package of proposals that allows Iran to produce and keep a small amount of enriched uranium for use in its Tehran Research Reactor. It now calls merely for a suspension of enrichment at the Fordow facility, with additional safeguards to ensure the demand is met.

Critically from the Iranian point of view, sanctions relief was also on the table. Specifically, the P5+1 offered to relax a ban on the trade in gold and other precious metals and to ease an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products. Sanctions designed to isolate Iran from the international banking system have been devastating and trading in gold would allow Tehran to alleviate some of their effects. Most importantly, any reduction on sanctions targeting Iranian oil—the country’s primary source of foreign exchange earnings—will be a blessing for Tehran. Logic dictates that the Iranians should come to some kind of compromise on the nuclear file.

But we have been here too many times before. False dawns are a given in the Iranian nuclear crisis, which has now rolled into its eleventh year. From Iran’s initial suspension of uranium enrichment in 2003 to the bilateral talks between the Iranians and Americans in Geneva in 2009, hopes for a resolution have been consistently dashed by diplomatic realities.

Not least is the problem of internal Iranian politics, which is endemically faction-ridden. While Jalili was trumpeting the apparent progress at Friday prayers back in Iran, senior cleric, Hojjatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi, was defending Iran’s “inalienable right” (a phrase beloved of Iranian hardliners from Ahmadinejad down) to nuclear energy. No country, he declared, had the right to dictate how much or what type of enriched uranium Iran could produce. “Any proposal,” he said “which denies the people their rights is dismissed by the nation, and no official has the right to compromise in this regard.”

In the end, what matters, as one Western diplomat remarked in the talks’ aftermath, are “concrete results.” Thus far, there are none. But a convergence of factors, namely Iran’s need to end sanctions and the willingness of the P5+1 to compromise, means that there is at least some cause for hope. History shows that the Iranians will bend when they feel weak. In 2003, Iran suspended uranium enrichment after it had just seen the US comprehensively topple Saddam; it responds to pressure.

The Iranians are hurting. Iran’s currency, the rial, has plummeted by half over the last year (but rallied 2% after the talks) while inflation—and specifically food inflation—is running at huge levels. Discord is now spilling out onto the streets in what must be an unpleasant reminder to those in power of the 2009 demonstrations following Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections.

Ending the nuclear crisis with a single, grand bargain will not happen. What the P5+1 hopes for are a series of smaller deals along the lines of Iran exporting out a percentage of its low-enriched uranium in return for a corresponding amount of nuclear fuel. Such deals buy time, and allow for more talks to take place. It may be that the Iranian government is once again stalling for time, but it is in its interests to compromise, and Iranian officials will surely know this. Western powers now have a window of opportunity, however slight; it must be made to count.

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David Patrikarakos
David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, which was shortlisted for International Affairs Book of the Year at the Political Book awards, and an Associate Fellow of the School of Iranian Studies, St Andrews University.

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