February 21, 2013

Low Expectations for Quick Progress on Iranian Nuclear Issue Ahead of Negotiations

Washington, DC – With a new round of negotiations scheduled between Iran and the P5+1 next week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack examined strategies for resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran at a discussion hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy on Tuesday. 

Dr. Pollack stated that the U.S. government, as a whole, has to address whether or not it would be willing to accept an “end-state” to negotiations in which Iran – bound by stringent inspections that are backed by the threat of renewed sanctions – would be allowed to have some level of enrichment capability. If the U.S. instead insists Iran must stop all enrichment, Dr. Pollack warned, “it would be making perfect the enemy of good enough.” 

Both experts expressed great skepticism about the possibility of any deal being achieved at the upcoming talks, citing the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstandings on both sides. They were critical of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ruling out of direct talks with the U.S., but Pickering urged that an “incremental approach” would be the best path forward. The best expectation for next week’s meeting, they said, is that it would yield an agreement on a later date and venue for continued negotiations, which Pickering said should be seen “as progress, in diplomatic terms.” 

Ambassador Pickering described such an approach as one that “moves in steps and stages, where Iran moves to lock in its nuclear program into a civil program” in return for easing of sanctions by the international community. Pollack also supported this approach as a feasible one by stating that Iran has “broadly been hinting at striking a deal with the West,” evidenced by their willingness to stop enrichment at the 19.75 percent level, as well as indications that they would adopt the IAEA’s Additional Protocol for inspections and regulations of their nuclear facilities.

When asked about the role of sanctions, Ambassador Pickering stated the importance of exploring all possible measures to ensure that the Iranian people are not punished for the actions of their government. He also expressed concerns that sanctions have “browbeaten the banking community” to the point where they are hesitant to provide financing for essential goods such as food and medicines, which have always been regarded as items that should not be targeted in sanctions against a country. As a first step to undoing some of the unintended consequences, Pickering suggested finding banks inside Iran with which the international community feels comfortable working, and licensing those banks to finance food and medicines for the Iranian people. 

Throughout the discussion, both men were also in agreement that pursuing a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities would not provide any desirable outcomes. While a military strike may be able to set Iran’s nuclear program back by a couple of years, the former ambassador said, “no military action, short of a permanent occupation of Iran, will have the ability of stopping the nuclear program in Iran forever.”




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