Room for optimism in Iran and the P5-plus-1 talks

By Farhang Jahanpour*

Iran and the P5-plus-1, which includes the United States, will meet again on 26 February in Kazakhstan. This is the first time that the two sides will meet in an atmosphere of continuing mutual suspicion since the third round of talks held in Moscow on 18-19 June 2012 ended in stalemate.

Iran believes that the West, particularly the United States, is using the talks as a pretext to increase the sanctions until Tehran bends to its will; whereas Washington holds that Iran is prolonging the talks in order to continue its uranium enrichment with the aim of producing a nuclear weapon. The fact of the matter is that neither side is sincere in their remarks and both sides are engaged in a cat and mouse game trying to use the talks for domestic purposes and for pursuing other goals, rather than finding a mutually acceptable solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

Based on the recent remarks by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, many pundits have expressed doubt about a positive outcome from the talks. Some have argued that there have been differences of views between the Supreme Leader and President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the advisability of talks with the United States.

Speaking at Munich Security Conference at the beginning of February, Vice President Joe Biden said:
“As President Obama has made clear to Iranian leaders, our policy is not containment — it is not containment. It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But we’ve also made clear that Iran’s leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation. There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court, and it’s well past time for Tehran to adopt a serious, good-faith approach to negotiations with the P5-plus-1.”

Answering a question about the possibility of direct US-Iranian negotiations and when they might happen, Biden said: “When the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader, is serious. We have made it clear at the outset that we would not — we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership. We would not make it a secret that we were doing that. We would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself. That offer stands, but it must be real and tangible, and there has to be an agenda that they’re prepared to speak to. We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise.”1

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi who spoke later at the same conference welcomed Vice President Biden’s remarks concerning direct talks and said: “We take these statements with positive consideration. I think this is a step forward but … each time we have come and negotiated it was the other side unfortunately who did not heed … its commitment.”2 He also told Iran’s English-language Press TV: “I would like to say that these are good signs … We are a rational government and we look into resolving outstanding international issues through negotiations. This is not a forbidden zone. This is not a red line when it comes to holding bilateral talks on particular subjects. Here, I mean the nuclear issue. This is not a red line.”

In Washington, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said that the United States had the capability to stop any Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons, but Iranian “intentions have to be influenced through other means.” The former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking alongside Dempsey, said that current U.S. intelligence indicated that Iranian leaders have not made a decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. He continued: “But every indication is they want to continue to increase their nuclear capability, and that’s a concern. And that’s what we’re asking them to stop doing.”3

Speaking after the reports about North Korea’s third nuclear tests, Secretary of State John Kerry made Iran the focus of his comments on North Korea, saying that the international moves against North Korea were important because they would “send a message” to Iran and prove to them that their own civilian program won’t be tolerated.4

Speaking alongside the Canadian foreign minister, Kerry said: “The president has made it clear that his preference is to have a diplomatic solution, but if he cannot get there, he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make certain that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.” He stressed that President Obama wants a diplomatic solution in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, but is ready to take other steps to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapon.5

Responding to Biden’s remarks about the possibility of conditional direct talks with Iran, in a meeting with Iranian Air Force Commanders during the 34th anniversary celebrations of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “Negotiations with America will not solve any problems.” In a direct response to Biden’s comments, the ayatollah said: “The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats.”6

Some commentators have interpreted his remarks as the rejection of America’s extended hand, but in reality a careful analysis of his remarks shows that there has been no contradiction between his remarks and the stance adopted by President Ahmadinezhad and Foreign Minister Salehi. Speaking at the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the revolution, President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad welcomed the prospect of direct talks with the United States, but he started his remarks by referring to Khamene’i’s remarks: “As the Supreme Leader said, you hold a gun on top of the nation … You pull away the gun from the face of the Iranian nation, I myself will enter the talks with you.”7

Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi who had welcomed Vice President Biden’s tentative offer of talks during the Munich conference had also complained of “other contradictory signals” by America including the rhetoric “keeping all options on the table.” Speaking to Iranian Press TV, Salehi pointed out: “This does not go along with this gesture (of talks) so we will have to wait a little bit longer and see if they are really faithful this time.”

The combination of all these statements show that while Iranian leaders are open to genuine progress at the P5-plus-1 talks and even to the possibility of direct bilateral talks with the United States, they do not trust the sincerity of the other side, and believe that the offer of talks does not accord with constant threats, the mantra of “all options are on the table”, and intensified sanctions.

In fact, just prior to Biden’s offer of talks, the Obama Administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, which even the New York Times said was economic war against Iran. The treasury said that it would pressurize various countries to withhold payment for Iranian oil. The treasury also widened the sanctions list to include Iranian state media. Iranian foreign language Press TV was dropped from the satellite platform that enabled it to broadcast to the US and Canada.

The United States and Israel have waged cyberwarfare directed against Iran. The sophisticated malware called “Flame” has been identified as having infected computers in Iran. The virus — which Iran said was linked to the Stuxnet worm that knocked out hundreds of its uranium enrichment centrifuges in 2010 — was designed for spying, according to specialist cybersecurity outfits. It had modules allowing it to steal files, capture screens, log keystrokes, record audio through computer microphones and scan nearby Bluetooth-enable devices such as mobile phones, and it could be tweaked and controlled remotely.

The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, cyber attacks, acts of sabotage, and unprecedented crippling sanctions have been part of the Israeli and Western campaigns waged against Iran. Iran also feels that that the US and its allies are misusing the IAEA to issue trumped up reports about Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, in a statement read during an IAEA board of governors meeting, representatives of the 120 nation strong Non-Aligned Movement noted “with concern, the possible implications of the continued departure from standard verification language in the summary of the report of the director general [Yukio Amano].”8

Therefore, Iran’s skepticism about Western intentions is not the result of paranoia and has some basis in fact. At the same time, it should be pointed out that Iranian leaders are not entering the talks with complete transparency either. Clearly, the intensified pace of uranium enrichment is not due to a pressing need for fuel, because at the moment Iran has only one nuclear reactor in Bushehr whose fuel is provided by Russia.

Speaking on 16 February, Ayatollah Khamenei once again stressed that the Islamic Republic was not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, adding: “”We believe that nuclear weapons must be eliminated. We don’t want to build atomic weapons. But if we didn’t believe so and intended to possess nuclear weapons, no power could stop us.”9 He went on: “We do not want to build nuclear weapons. Not because America would be upset if we do so. It is rather what we have decided. We believe that nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and should not be built; and whatever weapons there are in the world should be destroyed.”

Various IAEA reports and even NIE reports have indicated that Iranian leaders have not decided to move towards the building of nuclear weapons. However, the reason behind Iran’s insistence to continue with its nuclear program is due to Iran’s desire to have nuclear latency or “the Japan option”.

At the same time, the West is really using the excuse of Iran’s nuclear weapons to impose tougher and tougher sanctions on Iran, in order to bring about a regime change or at least to force it to give in to Western demands on other issues. These include her stance towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s support for HAMAS and Hizbullah that Israel and America have designated as terrorist organizations, and above all America’s strategic interests in the Persian Gulf.

It is wrong and counterproductive to link the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to the issue of regime change. The two issues are completely separate and have to be delinked in order to achieve progress on the nuclear issue. The other problem is the West’s habit of linking the desire for regime change to pressure from abroad. Any true and lasting regime change is one that is home-grown and carried out by the people, rather than imposed from abroad in pursuit of other goals.

The best way to empower the Iranian people to rise against the regime and demand greater freedom and democracy is to persuade them that their uprising would not harm the country, in the way that the uprisings in Libya and Syria have done, and that it would not lead to foreign invasion as was witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Isolating the Iranians and putting them under crippling sanctions will push them into the arms of the regime and will antagonize them against the West in the long term.

On the eve of the P5-plus-1 talks, it is time for the West to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium according to the NPT regulations, and to make a serious offer to break the deadlock. This will require the lifting of sanctions that were imposed on the basis of the bogus claim that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

In return, Iran should provide much greater transparency by joining the Additional Protocol and opening up all her sites for inspection by the IAEA, because if Ayatollah Khamenei is to be believed Iran has nothing to hide. There is still a realistic possibility of reaching a grand bargain with Iran and putting an end to this unnecessary divergence, because the alternative could be quite devastating for both sides.

* Farhang Jahanpour is a tutor at the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, Oxford, and a TFF Associate.

1. The White House: Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to the Munich Security Conference, February 02, 2013.

2. Reuters report, 3 February 2013.

3. ibid.

4. “Kerry: Response to N. Korea will send Iran a message”, Associated Press, 02.13.13.

5. Kerry: Obama Wants Diplomatic Solution to Iran, Kerry: Obama Wants Diplomatic Solution to Iran, Voice of America, February 09, 2013.

6. “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejects chance of direct talks with US”, The Guardian, 7 February 2013.

7. “Mahmud Ahmadinejad says Iran ready for nuclear talks with US”, The Guardian, 10 February 2013.

8. Non-Aligned Movement backs Iran in Asia Times Online, September 17, 2010.

9. “Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei denies wanting to develop nuclear weapons”, The Guardian 16 February 2013.

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