Watch: Experts Assess Baghdad Talks at NIAC Panel

As nuclear negotiations between Iran, the U.S., and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council concluded in Baghdad on Thursday, top experts and former U.S. officials convened at a panel hosted by the National Iranian American Council to assess the outcomes.


Washington, DC – As nuclear negotiations between Iran, the U.S., and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council concluded in Baghdad on Thursday, top experts and former U.S. officials convened at a panel hosted by the National Iranian American Council to assess the outcomes.

“Iran and the United States, with over 30 years of frozen relations, do not know how to do business. So, there is a history here that has to be overcome,” said former State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. He emphasized the positive—that a diplomatic process had finally been established, with a next round of negations agreed to take place in Moscow in June.

But Bijan Khajehpour, managing partner of Atieh International, said that the lack of deliverable results in Baghdad was due to “trust deficit” between the parties and a “mismatch between expectations from Tehran and what was feasible here from Washington and also in the EU,” regarding the easing of sanctions.

Panel on Baghdad Talks
Left to Right: PJ Crowley, Bijan Khajehpour, Aaron David Miller, George Perkovich, and Trita Parsi


George Perkovich, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Carnegie Institute for Peace, warned that, without a U.S. or European willingness to ease sanctions—particularly with stringent oil export sanctions set to go online in July—there was little hope for a deal and the conflict could escalate.

“One thing we know from looking at Iranian decision making and actions since 2005 is, when there is a big disappointment or the next turn of the ratchet, they increase the activity that we are most concerned about,” he said.

“So here they’ve paused and, in various ways that are relatively unprecedented for the last seven years, suggested that they want to negotiate. If, in response to that, what they get is the implementation of new sanctions, then I think the reaction to that would be an increase in capability that would be further to alarm.”

The pending oil sanctions are expected to again be a major topic of negotiations in Moscow. Khajehpour said that the sanctions were already mostly in effect due to U.S. pressure on banks and other institutions to isolate Iran. He suggested that the U.S. could turn such pressure down to ease sanctions in an informal manner.

However, Khajehpour said that the declining trajectory of Iran’s oil production—not only due to sanctions but other factors over the past decade—was motivating Iran to consider redefining its relationship with the U.S. and the international community. He said that confidence-building measures focused on this reality—such as providing Iran with carbon sequestration technology—or aimed at addressing areas such as environment and health care where Iran has been blocked from accessing technology, could help fill the trust deficit.

Domestic Politics

Aaron David Miller, a long-time top State Department advisor on the Middle East now based at the Woodrow Wilson Center, suggested domestic political factors were the ultimate drivers of the diplomatic process. “I would argue that failure – however grim and catastrophic it may appear – is not the most important concern right now of either the President of the United States or the Supreme leader. It is each, in their own way, regime preservation and survival. For the President of the United States, there is one major priority between now and November and that is clear to everyone.”

The panelists discussed how the U.S. political situation affected the Administration’s ability to ease sanctions at this stage, with Perkovich suggesting that Congress was the major stumbling block in Baghdad and going forward.

“Let yourself imagine some success, some traction with Iranians. What can the US deliver? And how much of the deliverable requires cooperation from the US Congress?” He said that this was a major concern of the Iranians. “That to me is a much bigger and more difficult question than what the President is willing to say ‘Yes’ to.”

Crowley suggested major steps would not be possible until presidential elections in the U.S. and Iran had concluded in the summer of 2013. “The question will be: Will the White House in a second term become a little more creative than it is now—a little less process-oriented and…take some real risks in the hopes of some returns that could represent an enormous legacy for the President?”

Commenting on recent Congressional action pressing for harsher measures against Iran, Perkovich said they were “certainly not helpful,” while Khajehpour said such acts were indeed harmful to the diplomatic process. Crowley argued that Congressional pressure “can be useful, but there is an inflection point.” He said that “building flexibility into these instruments is vitally important,” and without flexibility, they “will in fact become an obstacle course.”

George Perkovich
George PerkovichDirector of the Nuclear Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Diplomatic End Goals

Miller wondered where the diplomatic process could satisfactorily end given that “ultimately, there is only one country that can stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and that’s the Iranians themselves.”

He argued, “if the Shah had not been displaced in 1979, Iran would likely be a nuclear power already. So we are not talking about the mullacracy’s need for nuclear weapons as hedging against regime change and prospective cover, [or] as a prestige weapon to mask or validate regional ambition. It’s an Iranian need which grows from its own self image in a hostile world.”

But Khajehpour cautioned against defining the regime in binary terms. “It’s not a monolithic decision-making structure and you will find a full range within the Iranian stake holders—from those who wish to have the nuclear deterrent to those who say [Iran] shouldn’t even have any nuclear program because of all the costs – whether it is economic, strategic or security-wise.”

He argued that “key stake holders in Iran didn’t want to get this far in the nuclear program, but once you put pressure on them, they react.”

Khajehpour called for engagement and easing of sanctions to change Iran’s behavior, saying the pressure-focused approach to Iran “has compelled Iran to do things that were not in the Iranian strategy to start with.”

For example, he noted that “in 2005, Iran was begging the Europeans to have 174 centrifuges, a research and development facility to be able to say to say to their own public that ‘we have an enrichment program.’ The European reaction? ‘You can’t even have one centrifuge.’ Today, Iran operates more than 10,000 centrifuges.”

Perkovich noted that Iran already has nuclear know-how that cannot be eliminated militarily, and said Iran would not surrender the right to civilian nuclear enrichment. He argued that the only workable end-goal was an inspections-based solution in which Iran did retain what could be considered a latent nuclear weapons capability, but with at least a two-year breakout window.

He maintained there must be an effort to “define in concrete terms what it means to not acquire nuclear weapons,” in greater specificity.

“They will have to satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency [and] intrusive inspections, but at the end of the day, we have to understand that where that gets you is Iran within two years of nuke.”

He also said such a solution is the most desirable because it would ensure accountability on both sides. “They have to keep leverage or they will say ‘these guys will screw us in the end.’ We should want them to have leverage because if we’re asking them for something that, if they accepted, they would get no leverage, we know they would cheat. This is what we’ve done with North Korea…with the Iranians we ought to be smarter.”

Perkovich concluded, “The sweet spot has to be leverage for both sides—a big enough margin of time, enough transparency that Israel and others will say, ‘ok, we’ll see [any development of a nuclear weapon] coming.’”

Miller similarly pointed out that there needed to be a “balance of interest” and ownership for all parties in the process in order for it to work. “No one has washed a rental car,” he remarked.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David MillerDistinguished Scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Military Strikes and the Nuclear Fatwa

Miller surmised that an Israeli strike—which he said would be considered a war of choice—was unlikely in the near term. “You can’t even argue it is preventative because the standards by which to measure success are impossible and the consequences…are potentially catastrophic and completely unpredictable.”

“The Israelis—many Israelis…believe this is a war of necessity, but nobody else believes it,” he said. “There will be no Israeli attack this year. Iran doesn’t have enough fissile material to produce a weapon, it hasn’t weaponized, it hasn’t tested a weapon, it doesn’t even have a weapon.”

He suggested that the U.S. invasion of Iraq provided a cautionary tale regarding the need for a “proper and compelling explanation” for war. “The Israelis do not have one and will not be able to have one any time soon.”

Crowley spoke in stark terms against military action. “If prevention is now the policy of the United States, than a prospective strike on Iran—either by Israel or the United States, in my judgment, makes an Iranian nuclear weapon inevitable,” he said. “If the Ayatollah has said it is haram to have a nuclear weapon, as a religious leader, he needs a reason to change that calculation. And a strike gives him an opportunity to make that kind of shift.”

“It has a very high value,” Khajehpour said of the fatwa against nuclear weapons. “Don’t forget, Ayatollah Khamenei is a political authority, he is a religious authority in the Iranian context, and he is also the Supreme Commander of the Army.” The fatwa against weapons of mass destruction had been tested previously during the Iraq-Iran war, Khajehpour said, and prevented Iran retaliating in kind to Iraqi chemical weapon attacks.

“It would be extremely difficult for Ayatollah Khomeini, even in a military confrontation, to go back on this fatwa,” Khajehpour said. “It would make him lose credibility within the religious context, within the political context.”

But, Khajehpour warned, “we have to obviously watch the dynamics of domestics composition of power in Iran, and what can happen is that, because of actions outside of Iran, the internal composition changes. If the international community does something that empowers the more hardline forces in Iran, the calculations will change, the arguments will change.”

Panel Audience 3
Audience members

Human Rights

On the topic of human rights, NIAC President Trita Parsi questioned Crowley about the apparent lack of a human rights agenda in the current talks. “Many of those opposed to the regime are concerned that the negotiation process is going to end up in a situation in which the United States will develop a stake in the survival of the current regime,” Parsi said. “And seeing that there has been a relative silence on the human rights issue feeds that fear.”

Crowley said “the nuclear issue is a manifestation of something larger, and you solve all of the issues, around the nuclear issue, by beginning to attack the issues surrounding Iran’s insecurity. That can only come with a larger, longer conversation.”

Crowley was clear, “Will [the U.S.] ever be invested in this regime? No. But I think there’s a recognition that if this regime is in political peril its because of its relationship with its own people.”

Khajehpour argued that Iran’s domestic actors were indeed limited by the “securitization of politics” that escalated in the early 2000s in reaction to heightened confrontation with the U.S. “Part of the problem inside of Iran, part of the human rights situation, the approach of the regime toward society, dissent, et cetra, is related to the sense of insecurity and to what we call the securitization of politics,” he said. For there to be progress on human rights, he said, it is a matter of ratcheting down tensions and “freeing up space so that domestic forces can push for different debate and different interaction in Iran.”




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