Washington, DC – With a new round of nuclear negotiations involving the U.S. and Iran facing continued delays, experts analyzed the future of U.S.-Iran diplomacy at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Tuesday.
The talks, which were widely expected to restart quickly once the U.S. presidential elections were settled in November, have been plagued by miscues and logistical quarrels instigated by Iran. Most recently, Iran disputed the venues and dates for a proposed January session, and negotiations will only get underway in late February at a location in Kazakhstan.
Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, suggested that Iran’s stalling meant it would probably wait until after its own presidential elections in June to invest in serious talks. He attributed this to the Iranian government’s desire to settle its own political situation and avoid uncertainty about whose administration would represent the country during the talks.
He also offered words of caution about perceived inflexibility by the U.S. and EU on sanctions relief. “The Iranians, understandably, are reluctant to come to the table at this point, because talks like this are doomed for failure.”
Adler referred to prior fruitless talks in Baghdad and Moscow, where Iran approached with the hopes of sanctions relief only to find that the P5+1 proposal had not been altered to include any concessions for Iran. “When the talks fail, Iran is afraid that it will be blamed for the failure and this will be given as a rationale for further sanctions against them.”
Alireza Nader, senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, speculated that the delays were an intentional strategic calculation by Iran’s Supreme Leader and not results of political division, as some theories claim.
“I think that the Iranian negotiating team knows exactly what it’s doing, it’s getting its orders from the very high up, from Ayatollah Khamenei, and if Khamenei makes the decision to move forward, then Iran will move forward,” Nader said.
Bijan Khajehpour, managing partner of Atieh International, warned against an overplaying of the sanctions card by the U.S. and its partners. He explained that though the sanctions have seriously hurt the economy in Iran, many of the country’s economic woes have been self inflicted. The government has used the sanctions to cover up its own mismanagement and strengthen its hold over the country, he said.
“Ahmadinejad has been doing this, escaping confrontations with the parliament and so on, saying we have to focus on managing the situation with the sanctions, where as everyone knows that this is not just a consequence of the sanctions.”
He also noted that the sanctions had increased opportunities for some to game the system through corruption and that many government officials were actually benefitting economically under the current situation. “In this picture, the losers are the private sector and the middle class of Iran. The middle class is suffering… the sad news is that these are the only proponents of a democratized country,” Khajehpour said.
The panelists also underscored the distrust between the Iranian regime and the West as the tallest hurdle for negotiations to overcome. “I think it’s an issue of sequencing, one side wants the other to undertake measures to build confidence, and the other side expects the same,” Nader said. “That’s why we see this stalemate.”
Khajehpour said, “Some of the segments, like Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, the Basij, they completely distrust the West, so even if they feel that the economy is under a lot of stress, the distrust is going to impede negotiation.”
Khajehpour also addressed the effects of the sanctions on the people and hope for a true democracy in Iran. “The external policy is undermining the main pro-reform, pro-democracy players,” he observed, “so the outlook unfortunately remains the same, unless there is a change on the Western part of it.”
He added, “Obviously, all types of dissent and protest are being clamped down on, because they say ‘it is an emergency situation, we are being sanctioned’.”
In regard to the reformists in Iran, Nader observed, “They’re still an important component of the political system, the Islamic Republic, and society in general. They’ve been greatly weakened due to the crushing of the election, the post-election, protests, but they are still there and can affect some change.”
In spite of the grim outlook the panelists discussed, they affirmed that the negotiations will eventually occur and that the possibility of war does not look likely in the immediate future.
“This crisis has gone on for ten years. There have been red lines where people said ‘If Iran does this, there will be bombing’, and it’s amazing how each red line has gone to pink and white, and then disappeared entirely,” Adler said. “Diplomacy still looks a lot better than military action.”