The Multilateralist

Iran diplomacy isn’t working. Keep at it!

In the wake of recent meetings in Istanbul, the Arms Control Association is out with a detailed assessment of the long-running negotiations betweeen the permanent five Security Council members (plus Germany) and Iran. The bottom line? The process isn’t yielding much, and Iran has showed few signs of flexibility: [T]ehran was not willing to hold ...

In the wake of recent meetings in Istanbul, the Arms Control Association is out with a detailed assessment of the long-running negotiations betweeen the permanent five Security Council members (plus Germany) and Iran. The bottom line? The process isn’t yielding much, and Iran has showed few signs of flexibility:

[T]ehran was not willing to hold bilateral meetings with the Western members of the P5+1. This suggests not only that Iran was engaging in its once-successful strategy of finding and exploiting fissures among the P5+1, but also that the negotiators were not given the leeway to engage in a meaningful exchange with the West.

Iran’s unwillingness to seriously negotiate in Istanbul was clearly evident by the substance of its position as well. Tehran put forward two preconditions for negotiations that effectively put the brakes on any possible forward movement: the lifting of UN sanctions, and an acknowledgement of Iran’s claimed "right" to enrichment.

The condition that UN sanctions be lifted in order for negotiations to proceed not only contradicts Iran’s claims that the sanctions are meaningless, but it was also entirely unrealistic.

However, the report’s author cautions that the lack of progress is not cause for despair. The multilateral route may not be producing fruit at the moment, but there is still time to make it work.

Fortunately, there is time to keep talking. Washington and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom) can and should continue to pursue diplomacy with patient persistence to ensure that Tehran does not proceed to build the bomb.

Recent Israeli and U.S. assessments of Iran’s nuclear program suggest there is still time before Iran could have a viable nuclear weapons capability.  A new report from the independent International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released today provides a detailed technical analysis to support these assessments. The IISS researchers conclude that "it would take Iran at least two years to produce a single nuclear device," noting that "the timescale is significant because the likelihood of detection allows time for a negotiated solution."

There may still be time, but as always the question is whether that time ultimately favors Tehran or those opposing its ambitions. And that in turns seems to hinge on a couple of questions not fully addressed in the report:

1) Has the trajectory of Iran’s progress toward the bomb changed significantly?

2) Is tighter political coordination between the P5+1 resulting in a significant tightening of sanctions?

3) Is there any evidence that sanctions are leading Iran’s leaders to reconsider their strategic objective of developing nuclear weapons?

And the most critical question of all may be one that has little to do with the frenzied work of international negotiators or complicated questions of nuclear swap deals and medical isotopes: how much time does the current Iranian regime have left in power? If its days are numbered, playing out the multilateral string and slowing down the process incrementally makes a lot of sense. But if the regime has secured its grip on power, it may be willing and able to negotiate until the day it goes nuclear.

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