An Enduring Stalemate

World powers and Iran's representatives sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 26, 2013. Source: STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images World powers and Iran's representatives sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 26, 2013. Source: STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

World powers and Iran's representatives sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 26, 2013. Source: STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

This week, the attention of governments, diplomats, journalists and senior military officers the world over has been turned to the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan. The reason is that the city is hosting the latest round of meetings between negotiators seeking a resolution to the international dispute over the Iranian nuclear program.

Although the stakes are high and both sides are eager to find a solution, the dispute has dragged on through several rounds of negotiations and has seen more than one agreement proposed and then shot down. This week's meeting proved to be no different—though an Iranian spokesmen described it as a "positive step," it ended only with a commitment to further talks in Istanbul in March and another meeting in Almaty in April. To find the reasons for this, we have to look to the origins of the dispute and the obstacles dogging attempts to find a solution

The heart of the matter

Although the Almaty meeting is officially between representatives of Iran and the group of states known as the P5+1, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, there are really only two sides to the dispute: the US and Iran. The opinions of the other five states are largely inconsequential, despite any claims they may make otherwise. Their role in the negotiations between the Americans and Iranians is purely that of facilitators and messengers. To date, neither side has been able to talk directly to the other, like a divorced couple who can only stand to communicate via their lawyers. As part of this bitter enmity, the US and its ally Israel is deeply worried by Iran’s progress in the development of nuclear technology.

Rightly or wrongly, the US fears the implications of a nuclear Iran for its interests in the Gulf and the Middle East more widely, making it loath to accept Iranian ambitions to become a nuclear state. America's allies on the Arabian Peninsula are also concerned by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, raising fears in the West and elsewhere of runaway regional proliferation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already begun upgrading their ballistic missile defenses in co-operation with the US, in a move widely-held to be aimed at deterring an Iranian assault.

Although the dispute is driven by American concerns, it does have an important international, multilateral dimension. This is not just because the US has attempted to enlist other states and the UN in its campaign to persuade—or coerce, depending on your point of view—Iran against pushing ahead with its nuclear program. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and under the treaty it is entitled to the peaceful pursuit of nuclear technology on the condition that it does not direct its efforts towards the production of nuclear weapons.

In many ways, Iran’s ability to legally pursue non-military nuclear technology lies at the heart of the problem. Much of the same infrastructure and technology that allow a state to turn uranium ore into electricity is also necessary for the production of a nuclear weapon. Simply put, the Americans do not seem to trust Iran with it.

Bitterness, suspicion and defiance

As it is the concerns of these two states that are driving the dispute, the positions and politics of each of them define what kind of agreement can be reached. Unfortunately, this means that all the signs are negative: the need for a resolution of this issue is matched only by the size of the obstacles to one.

Chief amongst these obstacles is the unusual relationship between the US and Iran, a bitter and strangely vitriolic enmity that goes back to the months after the 1979 revolution and the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran. Iran and the US each hold a special place in the imagination of the other, with both sides viewing each other as a uniquely malevolent and sinister foe. Aside from the genuine ill feeling and mistrust, neither side is willing to bear the political cost of being seen to do anything that could be portrayed as a capitulation to, or an appeasement of, the other. This is particularly true in Iran, where the issue of uranium enrichment is bound up in national pride, and the development of nuclear technology enjoys the support of both reformist and conservative politicians despite their deep divisions on other issues.

Previous American demands on the Iranians have centered around three objectives, a formula Western diplomats call ‘stop, shut and ship.’ First, American negotiators have insisted that Iran stop all of its enrichment of uranium above the level needed for the generation of electricity. Second, fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor would be shipped abroad to be enriched and returned in a form that is difficult to convert to weapons-grade, instead of being enriched domestically.

Finally, the US would like Iran to shut down its uranium enrichment facility at Fordo, near the city of Qom. The Iranians probably see this request as deeply suspicious. Iran’s primary uranium enrichment facility at Natanz is buried underground and highly fortified; Fordo is built even deeper, reportedly 60 to 90 meters below the surface. Even for the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced air force the facility would be extremely difficult to destroy outright with an airstrike. While the US would no doubt argue that the closure of the Fordo facility would be a confidence-building measure, the Iranians would argue that it shows that the US wants to reserve a military option, something unacceptable from their perspective.

Given the sensitivity of the nuclear issue, the Iranian government is unlikely to offer any concessions without a serious gesture from the United States, such as the easing of the comprehensive American sanctions on Iran’s financial sector and oil exports. A presidential election is only a few months away in Iran, and no serious candidate would be willing to jeopardize their chances of success by proposing an agreement with the American government that the Iranian public would think unfair. As much as many ordinary Iranians are fascinated by the US, they are not willing to allow it to dictate orders to their country. As long as Iran remains within the letter of the law of the NPT, many will see any external interference in their national nuclear activities as an outrageous violation of their national sovereignty.

Some correctly argue that those hoping for a change in Iranian nuclear policy after the presidential elections ignore the fact that it is Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say on matters of foreign, defense and nuclear policy, rather than the president. This is true, but there is a great deal of evidence that Khamenei feels the same way as the Iranian public.

A ray of hope?

Recent hints from Iranian officials about Iran’s willingness to negotiate should be seen in this context, as should other statements about its refusal to compromise on its rights to nuclear technology and its refusal to bow to international pressure. This includes the recent statements of Ayatollah Khamenei, although many analysts in the media speculated that they represented an outright refusal to negotiate. The ayatollah said, “You [Americans] point a gun at Iran and say, ‘Either negotiate or we will pull the trigger!’ You should know that pressure and negotiations don’t go together, and the [Iranian] nation will not be intimidated by such tactics.”

This followed statements from Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, welcoming an overture from US Vice President Joe Biden that proposed direct negotiations between the two states, as long as the Iranians are “serious.” The Ayatollah’s statements can be seen as part of the Iranian response to Biden’s overture, and establish the preconditions the Iranians see as necessary to begin negotiations.

Khamenei was saying, in other words, that the US should put away the “gun” he spoke of, and then Iran would be willing to talk. In other words, Iran wants the US to either rule out the use of force or offer to remove some of the economic sanctions in return for a serious concession on Iran’s part, or both.

The most obvious candidate for a concession from Iran is the suspension of uranium enrichment to the level of 20% Uranium-235, a process which is of particular concern to the US and its allies. Uranium for reactors designed to produce electricity typically only needs to be enriched to 3 to 5%, while uranium enriched to 20% is used to fuel research reactors that produce radioactive isotopes for use in various medical treatments. Enriching uranium to the 20% level makes it much simpler to convert this material to the 80 to 90% U-235 needed for a warhead, substantially shortening the time needed for a nuclear ‘breakout.’

According to some press reports, Iran already offered to suspend enrichment to this level in negotiations between the EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in September 2012. No agreement could be reached on that occasion, but Iran has been careful to keep this option open by converting more than half of its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% into fuel plates for its research reactor, which makes it far less suitable for use in a weapon. In doing so, Iran has trodden a precarious tightrope between making progress in its nuclear program and avoiding dramatic developments that would trigger a Western or Israeli attack, all while keeping the door to negotiations ajar.

A struggle on two fronts

Would a concession on uranium enrichment levels be enough to get the ball rolling with the US, and persuade the Americans to lift some sanctions? American relations with Iran are at least as controversial in Washington as Iranian relations with the US are in Tehran. One only needs to look at last month’s confirmation hearings for President Obama’s nominee for secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel. One of the senators on the panel declared that Iran poses an “existential threat” to the US, while another suggested that a nuclear Iran could not contained or deterred because its leaders are not sane.

Whatever the failings or crimes of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, neither of these claims can be taken seriously. Compared to the United States, Iran is a military pygmy. It poses no conventional military threat at all. It is also worth remembering that the US intelligence services have concluded that Iran stopped research into producing a functioning nuclear weapon a decade ago. In other words, they do not believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.

In regards to the mental state of its leaders, whatever dubious statements some Iranian politicians (including the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) have made about subjects like the Holocaust, Iran’s foreign policy has been pragmatic for the most part, and geared towards securing Iranian interests.

Nonetheless, views like this have an impact, especially in the US Congress. While the president is a powerful figure, the Senate and the House of Representatives can use their constitutional powers to impose some broad limits on American foreign policy. The American sanctions on Iran represent a massive bargaining chip in any agreement between the two countries, but many are the products of laws passed by Congress and not presidential orders. They can only be undone by Congress, through more legislation. The cards are therefore in the hands of Congress, and it is Congress that will have a major say in when and how this game is played.

President Obama faces a struggle on two fronts. To make meaningful progress, he must persuade Congress to honor any deal he makes with Iran if it involves sanctions relief. Although many of the laws imposing sanctions give the president the authority to waive them, a wavier is unlikely to satisfy the Iranians, who would likely insist on the abolition of the sanctions altogether. If Congress was feeling particularly belligerent, it could use its own ‘nuclear option’: legislation to restrict the president’s waiver powers.

All of this makes it far less likely that Obama will offer any major concessions to Iran, or follow any course of action that has the potential to trigger a round of congressional activism. If any progress is made, it is more likely to be via a step-by-step process, in which Obama tries to extract concessions from the Iranians he could then take to Congress and use as leverage to push legislators to facilitate more American concessions.

It is not clear that any concessions Obama is able to offer upfront without congressional approval will be appealing enough to Iran’s leaders to motivate them negotiate. It almost goes without saying and the whole process would be derailed if either Congress or the Iranians dig their heels in at any point.

No end in sight?

It is not yet public what concessions the P5+1 offered Iran in Kazakhstan. In the past few weeks, reports have surfaced in the press that the P5+1 were prepared to offer Iran some sanctions relief in this week’s negotiations. In particular, it was reported that the sanctions on the trade in precious metals could be eased. Previously, Iran had been buying gold in Turkey with the profits from the bilateral trade in natural gas, gold which was then sold abroad to raise hard currency or shipped back to Iran. Additional American sanctions recently choked off the trade.

In return, the P5+1 are reported to have pushed for the suspension of uranium enrichment to 20%, especially at Fordo, at the meeting in Almaty. Given all the factors discussed above, this was unlikely to succeed. From the Iranian perspective, closing Fordo would render their nuclear program vulnerable to an American assault, thereby opening them to even more international pressure. A small adjustment to the existing comprehensive sanctions on Iran hardly seems worth it.

While the economic sanctions imposed by the US have damaged the Iranian economy, in political terms the current deadlock between the two sides is a more comfortable position for the Iranians to be in than it is for the Americans. Until now, the attention focused on their nuclear program has not prevented the Iranians from making progress. If the past is any indication, as long as it does nothing to breach an obvious ‘red line,’ Iran will be able to continue to make incremental steps towards the development of the full gamut of nuclear technologies short of the construction of a bomb. Where Iran will go from there is something known only to its leaders.

While there is always hope that an agreement can be reached between the US and Iran, the obstacles to one are formidable. Bearing this in mind, it is no wonder that the talks between the P5+1 and Iran have dragged on through so many rounds of negotiations, and for as long as they have. The overall picture is of a dispute too urgent and too important to walk away from, but too difficult to truly resolve. Aside from the tensions and the fear of the consequences of confrontation engendered by the dispute, neither side has the incentive or the power to take decisive action to break the deadlock. This week’s talks were always unlikely to change that.

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