New nuclear talks mark Iranian victory, Western retreat

New negotiations with Tehran and the happy talk around them are the latest example of hope over experience

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The signs remain ominous
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Lawrence J. Haas
On 20 April 2012 12:38

“Iran perceives the renewal of its nuclear talks with the 5+1 as a significant victory over the West and over its Arab neighbors,” the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports this week, “both in terms of the substance of the talks and in terms of enhancing Iran’s geopolitical status – which has suffered considerably over the past year and a half.”

You can’t blame the mullahs for gloating. Nor can you blame Tehran watchers who fear a nuclear Iran from fretting.

After all, the Islamic Republic emerged from its April 13th-14th talks in Istanbul with the five permanent United Nations Security Council members (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China) and Germany over its nuclear program with lots of Western plaudits for its “serious” engagement – and with the more tangible victory of a second round of talks, scheduled for May 23rd in Baghdad.

Iran secured that second round without having to do anything different, nuclear-wise, in the intervening five weeks. So, for smiling warmly in Istanbul, it’s won a trip to Baghdad without acceding to longstanding global demands that it stop enriching uranium and come clean about its nuclear activities.

That’s five more weeks in which Tehran can make progress on its nuclear program, and five more weeks in which global leaders will be reluctant to further tighten the economic screws on Iran over it.

Worse, the negotiations are raising out-sized expectations of a breakthrough under which Tehran would agree to abandon its nuclear pursuit in exchange for enough Western concessions to give it a face-saving victory.

The higher the expectations, the longer that the 5+1 will negotiate, giving Tehran still more time on the nuclear front – raising chances that, at some point, it can declare a much bigger victory: a nuclear weapons capability.

To be sure, some Western leaders have suggested that it’s make-or-break time and that the ball’s in Tehran’s court.

“I’ve been very clear to Iran and to our negotiating partners,” President Obama said, “that we’re not going to have these talks just drag out in a stalling process.”

But, for anyone who’s monitored Iran’s nuclear progress over the last decade and the world’s on-again, off-again efforts to stop it, the new negotiations carry the unmistakable whiff of Western retreat and Iranian victory.

Consider:

Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the 5+1’s lead negotiator, called the talks “constructive” and said she was aiming for a “step-by-step” process that would lead to “compliance by Iran with all its international obligations.”

But, while Washington sought a May 10th date for the second round, reflecting Obama’s desire to avoid undue delay, Ashton felt no such urgency and concluded that her schedule “could not accommodate [a meeting] before May 23,” according to reporter Laura Rozen.

Worse, Iranian officials say that they’re now looking for further Western trust-building steps, with key figures calling for the West to lift its sanctions against Iran as a precursor to substantive Iranian action.

“In the time left until the Baghdad talks,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi reportedly told Iran’s media, “the West must work towards building confidence, and, as part of this, work towards lifting the sanctions.”

The Obama administration rejected the idea, but don’t expect it to die easily.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who has recently received broad praise for his high-level access in Washington and Tehran and his supposedly savvy insights, predicted a deal and wrote,

“The Iranians expect to be paid, in ‘step-by-step’ increments, as they move toward a deal. At a minimum, they will want a delay of the U.S. and European sanctions that take full effect June 28 and July 1, respectively. That timetable gives the West leverage, too – to keep the threatened sanctions in place until the Iranians have made the required concessions. It’s a well-prepared negotiation, in other words, and it seems likely to succeed if each side keeps to the script and doesn’t muff its lines.”

Really? Have we not been here before?

Did we not endure three years of fruitless negotiations early in the previous decade, led by the “EU-3” (Great Britain, France, and Germany) to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear pursuit?

Have we not endured, through successive administrations in Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin; through multiple Security Council sanctions that were always watered down to secure Chinese and Russian approval; and through additional U.S. and European sanctions – one constant: Iranian progress on the nuclear front?

Are these new negotiations and the happy talk around them not just the latest example of hope over experience?

Is it not time to tighten the financial screws further, rather than pretend that Tehran is suddenly interested in a deal?

Lawrence J. Haas was Communications Director and Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore. He writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs

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