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July 23, 2008

Will Iran Freeze?

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Washington DC – Upon his return to Iran from Geneva Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was quite clear in only one respect. Responding to a question from the Iranian press, he stated that in Geneva there was no discussion of Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment. Jalili is right. The Geneva talks were not supposed to be about suspension.

They were intended to help launch an intermediary step based on a freeze for freeze formula  freezing the Iranian program at its current level in exchange for the freezing of UN sanctions at the current level in order to engage in what has been deemed as a “pre-negotiation” dialogue over how to move to the next stage of actually negotiating over the package of incentives Tehran has been offered if it suspends its uranium enrichment activities.

This kind of clarity was, however, something rare in a press conference that can be better described as an exercise in obfuscation or vagueness. According to Jalili, “what was discussed in the Geneva talks was merely focused on dialogue about the approaches of the sides regarding the continuation of the path of negotiations and specified structures and timelines in the direction of reaching a comprehensive agreement.”

In all likelihood, Jalili’s verbal acrobatics here is intended to signal Tehran’s desire to continue the talks with the six countries present at Geneva (including the United States) and the representative of the European Union, Javier Solana, without telling the Iranian public that in order to do this Iran has to accept the freeze for freeze formula.

Hence, in his news conference, he states flatly that there was no discussion of suspension in Geneva, which is true. But in the process he gives the impression that the negotiations will continue without Iran taking the step of agreeing to a freeze of its nuclear program at the current level.

So why the skittishness in accepting the formula in public? The formula looks pretty reasonable and opportune for Tehran’s purposes. After all, enriching at the current level, and not beyond, for only six weeks, give or take, is not suspension and should not harm Iran’s nuclear program.

In addition, considering that the major domestic criticism of the incentives package has always been that the package is full of immediate demands on Iran and lots of future and non-specified promises by the Europeans and the U.S, the six-week negotiation period, made possible by the freeze, has potential benefits if the Iranian negotiators are able to pin down the elements of the incentives package and turn them into immediate and concrete commitments.

Finally, if there is any chance of convincing Iran’s interlocutors to accept some sort of enrichment facilities in the Iranian territory (intrusively inspected and/or multinational), it has to come through negotiations that include the U.S. and the six-week period will allow Iran to assess the possibility.

One possible reason for skittishness may be the inexperience or incompetence of Jalili as a diplomat or negotiator. But the more likely reason for his verbal acrobatics (which does not necessarily exclude the first possibility) is that Ahmadinejad’s administration has turned stridence on the right to enrichment into such a national spectacle that Jalili has to worry about his moves being perceived by his hard-line audience or base as a retreat rather than a mere sensible or even shrewd compromise at a time of great opportunity.

It is the need to prove that stridence has paid off that is causing almost all the newspapers, news agencies, and websites close to Ahmadinejad to trumpet the Bush Administration’s “retreat” on negotiating with Iran, ironically approvingly quoting the neoconservative criticism of the latter for changing its position and agreeing to send Undersecretary of State William Burns to Geneva as a definite source for the fact that such a retreat has actually occurred.

The concern about how the negotiations will be perceived at home is even evident in the “Non-Paper on the Modality of Comprehensive Negotiations” presented by Iran in Geneva. To be sure, Tehran’s desire for the continuation of talks is affirmed in the non-paper, which envisions three intricate and interrelated stages: the first preparatory stage involving three for four meetings between Jalili and Solana, paving the ground for the second six-week pre-negotiation stage which will also include foreign ministers, and leading to the third negotiation stage over Iran’s nuclear program. But in the same non-paper, there is no mention of the freeze of Iran’s enrichment program, only secession of escalating threats and moves against Iran, during the pre-negotiation phase.

The worry about the hard-line base is so overwhelming that it prevents Jalili to state, as Iran’s previous nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani has plainly suggested, that “the shift in U.S. diplomacy has created a very good opportunity for Iran and we should do our best to make use of it.” Instead Jalili says, “We welcome the fact that the atmosphere of talks in Geneva was constructive and forward looking.” And this is the only comprehensible part of an otherwise very long sentence about Iran’s presence in and view of the talks being “strategic and long-term.”

In all likelihood, Jalili’s hope is that Solana can convince the six countries involved in the negotiations that a verbal commitment on the part of Tehran about what amounts to an effective freeze would be sufficient for Iran’s interlocutors to continue the talks. It is of course for Solana and the other six countries to decide whether to cover for Jalili.

Depending on their interest in the continuation of the talks, they might do so. Or as a sign of Iran’s commitment to the negotiation process, they might choose to insist on a public commitment on Iran’s part that may, as it did in the summer of 2006 when Ali Larijani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, end up being a deal breaker in the initiation of talks.

Dr. Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i




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