May 14, 2012

World Politics Review: Reading the Tea Leaves Ahead of Iran Nuclear Talks

 There has been a flurry of decidedly unpublicized diplomatic activity ahead of the next round of Iran nuclear talks in Baghdad on May 23, much of it taking place in the shadows.

The European Union’s Helga Schmid and Iran’s Ali Bagheri — the no. 2 nuclear negotiators for the P5+1 and Iran, respectively — met quietly this past week to begin preparing the agenda for the Baghdad meeting. In keeping with the conviction that progress can be more easily achieved outside the glare of the spotlights, European diplomatic sources who confirmed the meeting would only say that it did not take place in Brussels. 

“Schmid and Bagheri are in regular contact to prepare for the next round of talks to be held on May 23 in Baghdad, as agreed in Istanbul,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told me last week. 

Western negotiators have made clear that when it comes to the exceedingly sensitive Iran nuclear negotiations process, they believe more can be accomplished in such quiet meetings. 

But notable as well is the fact that no scuttlebutt from the first known face-to-face talks between Schmid and Bagheri since Istanbul has leaked from the Iranian side, as has occurred in many similar past cases. That may be a sign of Tehran’s efforts to maintain the positive atmosphere and a modicum of trust and goodwill that was established at the last round of talks in Istanbul last month.

The lead U.S. negotiator with the P5+1 group, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, did not participate in the Schmid-Bagheri discussions this past week, I was told. But American officials have made clear that she is open to do so — and that they have zero plans to advertise it if and when she does. 

“We are not going to get into details of the ongoing preparatory talks in advance of Baghdad,” a Western official told me Friday. “But as you are aware, there are preparatory meetings taking place.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland recently told journalists that Ashton’s staff has been talking to the Iranians. “So I think if lower-level technical meetings at the P5+1 and Iran level would be helpful in preparing the Baghdad round, we’re not closed to that idea,” she added. “But we’re not at the point of making any decisions yet.” 

Sherman, who was in Berlin May 3-4 for the Daimler U.S.-European Forum on Global Issues, did hold an unannounced meeting on Iran with her counterparts from France, the U.K. and Germany, I learned, but Schmid did not attend. 

Sources briefed on recent U.S. deliberations say that the Obama administration’s current thinking is to present Iran with what they describe as a “Chinese menu” of options. In other words, if Iran would agree to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent levels, send out its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and stop operations at Fordo, for instance, then it would get, hypothetically, fuel for the Tehran research reactor, suspension of E.U. oil sanctions and perhaps spare parts for its U.S.-made civilian aircraft. If Iran agrees to just one or two of the concessions, it might get just fuel for the reactor, medical isotopes or both.

Sherman has been given discretion to negotiate based on such a menu of options, whose exact nature is being closely held. 

“The Obama administration is keeping its cards close to the vest,” former State Department Iran desk officer Reza Marashi told me Sunday. “But the devil is in the details,” he added. “I think for the first time we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

In the meantime, a series of stories in the Iranian press have suggested that a turf war is simmering in Tehran between factions aligned with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning the nuclear talks. But unlike past cases of infighting, one of which sank an earlier nuclear fuel swap deal, the current Iranian factional fight seems to pit ultra-conservative hardliners against conservative nationalists over who gets credit for a deal. Significantly, the prospective potential nuclear deal at hand has not been portrayed as contrary to Iran’s interests.

News of the heightened rivalry among Iran’s ruling factions over the nuclear talks emerged with the publication of a front-page article in an Iranian newspaper May 2, the American Iranian council’s Hooshang Amirahmadi wrote at the group’s website, noting that the paper in question is close to Ahmadinejad.

The article criticizes officials aligned with Khamenei’s camp “for repeatedly asking the West, directly or indirectly, to remove the sanctions,” Amirahmadi added. “The article posits that the approach has already weakened Iran’s position in the upcoming negotiations on May 23 in Baghdad. It states that by insistently asking for the removal of Western sanctions, they have indeed revealed that pressures have worked on the government and that the country has become vulnerable to the sanctions.”   

The article goes on to cite a report by me, which it notes has not been denied by Tehran, that Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, repeatedly asked for a delay in EU oil sanctions during his bilateral talks with Ashton in Istanbul. 

The upshot of the Iranian domestic debate is some uncertainty about how much Iran is counting on a delay in new sanctions to be part of any first-step confidence-building measures that would include removal of its higher-enriched fissile material. Some former American officials who have met with Iranian counterparts are under the impression that Iran would agree to short-term reciprocal measures that do not involve any sort of sanctions relief, thereby buying time for a longer-term negotiating process.    Western and Iranian negotiators are trying to devise a first-step confidence-building measure that could buy time for a longer-term nuclear negotiating process. Some former American officials who have met with Iranian counterparts are under the impression that Iran would agree to such a short-term confidence-building measure that in essence does not involve any sort of sanctions relief. 

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius outlined a version of that envisioned prospective deal Friday. “What’s likely to be on the table at the next meeting in Baghdad on May 23 is a plan for Iran to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent and ship its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (currently estimated at more than 100 kilograms) out of the country, in return for medical isotopes and fuel rods for a civilian research reactor,” he wrote this weekend. “U.S. officials hope that this would mean that the Iranians would halt work at Fordow, near Qom, a facility that has been used for enrichment above 5 percent.”

But Iranian negotiators aligned with Khamenei’s camp have indicated to Ashton and her team that they are desperately seeking a delay in EU oil sanctions set to come online in July as part of any first-step confidence-building measure that would involve halting their 20 percent enrichment and sending existing stockpiles out of the country.    Many diplomatic observers fear that the expectations gap could sink a deal. 

“I do not get a sense that people [in Europe] fully realize what a sensitive moment it is,” Trita Parsi, author of a recent book on the Obama administration’s flawed diplomacy with Iran, “A Single Role of the Dice,” told me Sunday. The flip side of the imperative to maintain the international community’s consensus on Iran, he added, is that “almost all the thinking gets done by the United States, which knows the least about Iran.”




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