The Middle East Channel
No hope for Moscow talks without reciprocity
This week, a European diplomat exuberantly told The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius that Iran had "backed down" from its threat to pull out of talks scheduled to be held in Moscow if lower level talks did not take place first. The diplomat added, "the formula we have agreed [upon] is that they [Iran] will engage ...
This week, a European diplomat exuberantly told The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius that Iran had "backed down" from its threat to pull out of talks scheduled to be held in Moscow if lower level talks did not take place first. The diplomat added, "the formula we have agreed [upon] is that they [Iran] will engage in the substance of our proposal. In turn we will think a bit about their ideas."
While it is unclear exactly how avoiding preparatory talks before Moscow represents a "diplomatic victory," as the diplomat said, it is natural for the West to strike a confident posture before the negotiations. However, if this show of confidence is really just arrogance — as suggested by the notion that Western powers need only think "a bit" about Iran’s objectives — then the negotiations are very unlikely to succeed.
Recently, Iran’s top negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said he is ready to engage with a proposal for Iran to ship out its stockpile of 20 percent uranium. Exporting this uranium would be a major concession that would eliminate Iran’s potential shortcut for building a nuclear bomb. Substantially reducing Iran’s capability to rapidly develop nuclear weapons in this way would also help diminish the risk of war, lower oil prices, and create time and space for a larger diplomatic agreement after the U.S. elections.
However, to win such a major concession, Western powers must be ready to offer something of strategic value in return. Iran has little incentive to offer concessions if they will only be met by more sanctions and economic hardship.
Any sanctions relief would almost certainly have to come from Europe, since election year politics and Congressional legislation severely curtail President Obama’s ability to provide sanctions relief as part of any diplomatic agreement. Therefore, the European Union should be prepared to offer to delay its impending sanctions, at least on its shipping insurers, and the United States must be prepared to tacitly support this move in return for Iranian concessions. Without such reciprocity, the talks in Moscow will not succeed.
A delay in the impending sanctions in no way removes the economic pressure on Iran. The mere threat of future sanctions has already reduced Iran’s oil exports by 25 percent — delaying their implementation is not going to undo this effect. In addition, there are serious concerns that European sanctions on shipping companies insuring Iranian oil will take too much oil off the world market and cause global energy prices to spike. For this reason alone, the UK has already pushed for the shipping sanctions to be delayed.
The European Union has not given any indication yet that it is willing to halt or delay the oil sanctions that are scheduled to take effect at the end of the month. If Europe maintains this position and does not give Iran a face-saving avenue to relieve the pressure of sanctions, Iran will not agree to major concessions — further escalating an already dangerous situation in an attempt to force the United States and the EU to adopt a more accommodating stance.
Iran is already signaling what that escalation could look like with the recent announcement that it is planning to develop nuclear-powered submarines. Normally, such an oversized claim would not merit much attention, but such plans could provide Iran a pretext to enrich its uranium to the level needed to make nuclear weapons, since many nuclear-power submarines use such fuel. In doing so, Iran’s leaders could dramatically increase pressure on Western powers to accept a diplomatic deal that gives the West what it needs (more intrusive inspections by international monitors and caps on its enrichment activities), but not everything it wants (no enrichment in Iran). As risky as that would be, Iran’s supreme leader would likely find it preferable to the alternatives of a humiliating capitulation or slow strangulation by international sanctions.
Iran’s leaders may even consider escalation to be the safe bet. They surely know that the United States is reluctant to initiate a conflict that would make gas prices skyrocket, and unwilling to rally support behind the Iranian regime or endanger U.S. troops in the region. In addition, an attack would give Iran justification to kick out international inspectors and covertly develop a nuclear deterrent in such a way that would be extremely difficult to detect and stop without a ground invasion of a country three times larger than Iraq.
The United States and Europe have two options: they can simultaneously reduce the odds of war and of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons; buy time for diplomacy; help the global economy by relieving pressure on oil prices; and maintain leverage for future negotiations. Or they can further put the screws to Iran, and face the uncertain consequences of an escalating crisis that could end in a devastating war. Their choice will soon be clear.
David Elliott is Assistant Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council. Roshan Alemi is an intern at the National Iranian American Council.