May 10, 2008

NIAC Memo: Can P5+1 Offer Break the Nuclear Stalemate?

The P5+1 — the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — will present Tehran with a secret incentive package in the next few days to convince Iran to suspend its enrichment program and enter negotiations. There is little doubt that Tehran will reject the offer since it crosses its red line — suspension of enrichment — but the question is why such an offer is being made at this time, even though reinvigorating talks is in and of itself much needed.

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The nuclear offer coincides with an escalation of rhetoric between Washington and Tehran over allegations of Iranian meddling in Iraq. Following several stark comments by high-ranking U.S. military officials, the new buzz in the beltway is that Iran “is killing American soldiers” — a clear casus belli if proven true.

From Senate staffers to think tank pundits, fear of a military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. is quickly rising once more.

General David Petreus, the new head of CENTCOM, is reportedly preparing a presentation of evidence showcasing Iran’s direct involvement in the violence in Iraq. Well aware of their lack of credibility, George W. Bush administration officials are keeping a low profile and letting military officials take the rhetorical lead against Tehran.

Whether Petraeus’ evidence is strong enough to convince Republicans, Democrats and Washington’s European allies of Tehran’s complicity in the rising death toll in Iraq remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Tehran seems to be escalating the situation by retracting its previous assertion that an explosion in a mosque in Shiraz earlier in April was an accident. The new Iranian position reads that the explosion indeed was a bombing, conducted by exiled opposition groups supposedly supported by Washington and London.

The offer of a secret nuclear package to Tehran at the same time as a new case for war with Iran is presented may not be coincidental. But the calculation that the threat of war will compel Tehran to amend its red line on suspension has failed before and ignores the lessons Tehran drew from its earlier negotiations with Europe.

Tehran sees two key problems with the suspension precondition. First, Iran has taken away from earlier negotiations with the EU that suspension becomes a trap unless the West at the outset commits to solutions that recognize Iran’s right to enrichment, i.e. that won’t cause the suspension to become permanent.

Iran entered talks with Europe in 2003 under the impression that the parties would identify “objective criteria” that would enable Tehran to exercise its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while providing the international community with guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program would remain strictly civilian. During the course of the talks, however, Europe shifted its position. The only acceptable criteria would be for Iran not to engage in uranium enrichment in the first place, the EU began to argue.

Consequently, Tehran felt trapped since the objective had shifted from seeking a peaceful Iranian enrichment program to seeking the elimination of Iran’s enrichment capabilities.

Second, the modalities of the suspension are crucial. When the EU first demanded that Iran suspend enrichment, the discussions centered on what the suspension would be linked to.

Tehran sought to link the voluntary suspension to progress in the negotiations. The argument read that the suspension should not be an open-ended commitment that could become hostage to the negotiations. For the suspension to remain in place, the EU-Iran talks needed to make progress towards the goal of finding objective criteria to guarantee the solely civilian nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

The European position, however, read that the suspension should be linked to the continuation of the negotiations rather than to their progress. Since Europe’s key objective was to put a stop to Iran’s enrichment program, the mere continuation of talks would ensure the attainment of that goal — even if no progress was made in the talks themselves.

Not surprisingly, once Tehran accepted the European position and agreed to an essentially open-ended suspension, the ensuing negotiations produced very little movement. In the spring of 2005, Tehran presented a compromise proposal developed by Iranian diplomats and U.S. nuclear scientists through various Track-II meetings. The gist of the proposal was that Iran would limit its enrichment program to no more than 3,000 centrifuges — a number that Tehran today has moved beyond.

Feeling little pressure to make progress in the talks, the EU never responded to that proposal. Instead, the EU states presented Tehran with a counter-proposal in August 2005 that called for no Iranian enrichment. Tehran rejected that offer and restarted its nuclear program.

The new package that will be presented to Tehran reportedly demands of Iran a suspension of enrichment as a goodwill gesture for the duration of the talks — a formula not very different from the one that failed in the earlier negotiations.

Why such an offer will be made at this time remains unclear. Western diplomats admit privately that they do not expect a positive response from Iran. Indeed, Tehran will in the next 12 months be in a relatively comfortable position, according to Sir John Thomson, Britain’s former U.N. ambassador, who together with Dr. Geoff Forden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed an alternative strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

President Bush will be too weak to make a new strong push in the nuclear field in the seven remaining months of his administration, Sir Thomson contends. As the country’s new president takes office in January 2009, he or she will need several months to put together an effective Iran strategy. To complicate matters further, the Iranians will be entering their own election season in early 2009.

These political factors provide Iran with at least another 12 months in which it essentially can continue to expand its nuclear program with impunity. This makes the recycling of a failed negotiation formula by the P5+1 all the more peculiar — there are few reasons to expect an increasingly confident Tehran to suddenly accept the open-ended suspension precondition under these circumstances.

If the aim is to break the nuclear deadlock with Iran, and not to prepare the ground for a new U.N. Security Council resolution or strengthen the case for military action, then a softening of the suspension demand would be useful. As former Under-Secretary of State Tom Pickering pointed out at a Senate conference organized by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in April, a suspension can be demanded of Iran once the talks have commenced — rather than as a precondition.

Many analysts argue that the insistence on this precondition has come at the expense of other valuable non-proliferation strategies. Indeed, rather than becoming cornered or contained, Tehran has utilized the absence of talks to expand its capabilities and create new facts on the ground.

“Time is not on our side,” Pickering argued at the NIAC conference. If a new formula is not pursued, he said, paraphrasing Voltaire, “The perfect may become the enemy of the good on this particular issue” — meaning the insistence on an “ideal” resolution may end up achieving nothing at all.

And if the latest P5+1 package is accompanied by earlier preconditions, the perfect may set the stage for a disaster. (IPS)

Trita Parsi, author of the newly released “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.” (Yale), is president of the National Iranian American Council, niacouncil.org.




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