Talks with Iran Move Forward, No ‘Freebies’

April 16, 2012

The talks between Iran and six major powers that wrapped up on April 14 in Istanbul, Turkey, represent a modest first step toward a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Next comes diplomatic “grunt work” at the expert level to set the stage for another round of talks in Baghdad at the end of May. The pressure that brought Iran to the table will continue to build, with even stronger sanctions set to take effect this summer. In other words, Iran won no “freebies” from the Istanbul round. Experts say the talks will need time to play out, and the U.S. and our allies have time to allow them to do so.

Talks are a successful, if modest, first step; next round in Baghdad at the end of May, with deputies’ meeting in the meantime. Laura Rozen writes in World Politics Review, “International negotiators declared the talks with Iran, the first held in 15 months, a success, noting the more serious and constructive stance adopted by the Iranian delegation compared to previous meetings.” The next set of talks of is scheduled to take place in Baghdad on May 23. Tony Karon of TIME explains how the outcome of talks stacks up against what was expected: “[European Union foreign policy chief Catherine] Ashton, representing the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, certainly didn’t enter the talks expecting that Iran would immediately halt all enrichment of uranium, or even agree to do so in the future. Instead, at least initially, they’re seeking the more modest goal of concrete, verifiable Iranian steps to demonstrate that its nuclear activities are limited to those of a peaceful nature.”

The space in-between the Istanbul and Baghdad talks will not be lost time. Much diplomatic grunt work will take place in the interim. Michael Adler of the U.S. Institute of Peace explains, “Before the meeting in Baghdad, experts from the two sides are to work on an agenda of concrete measures to be considered at this new round. Outstanding issues are Iran’s enriching uranium, which can be fuel for power reactors but also the raw material for nuclear bombs, to 20 percent, closer to weapon-grade and so worrying to the United States and other nations. The goal is to get Iran to agree to confidence-building measures, such as stopping 20 percent enrichment, and for the P5 plus 1 to figure out how to reward such behavior, perhaps by pledging not to increase sanctions or by lifting some of them.” Today, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi suggested that a modified version of a 2009 deal that would have Iran export some of its lower enriched uranium in return for fuel for its medical reactor remains on the table. [Laura Rozen, 4/16/12. AP, 4/15/12. Tony Karon, 4/16/12. Michael Adler, 4/15/12. Reuters, 4/16/12]

Iran got no “freebies” — the pressure that brought Iran to the table in the first place remains. As President Obama said yesterday, “We’re going to keep on seeing if we make progress. Now, the clocking is ticking and I’ve been very clear to Iran and to our negotiating partners that we’re not going to have these talks just drag out in a stalling process… But so far at least we haven’t given away anything.” The sanctions and economic pressure that brought Iran to the table in the first place remain. As Michael Adler of the U.S. Institute of Peace explains, the outcome from Istanbul “means that the two sides are talking again. This is probably the result of pressure on Iran from sanctions, which now target its ability to sell oil, the lifebood of its economy. These sanctions by both the United States and the European Union are to take effect this summer but they are already being felt as countries such as Turkey and Japan are also cutting back on buying Iranian oil.” [Barack Obama via Reuters, 4/15/12. Michael Adler, 4/15/12]

Experts say talks need time to play out — and we have time. As Colin Kahl, associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes, “[F]acing the prospect of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s central bank and European actions to halt Iranian oil imports, Tehran signaled in early January some willingness to return to the negotiating table. Washington must test this willingness and, in so doing, provide Iran with a clear strategic choice: address the concerns of the international community regarding its nuclear program and see its isolation lifted or stay on its current path and face substantially higher costs.”

We have the time, Kahl explains: “According to 2010 Senate testimony by James Cartwright, then vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and recent statements by the former heads of Israel’s national intelligence and defense intelligence agencies, even if Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in six months, it would take it at least a year to produce a testable nuclear device and considerably longer to make a deliverable weapon. And David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (and the source of [Matthew] Kroenig’s six-month estimate), recently told Agence France-Presse that there is a ‘low probability’ that the Iranians would actually develop a bomb over the next year even if they had the capability to do so. Because there is no evidence that Iran has built additional covert enrichment plants since the Natanz and Qom sites were outed in 2002 and 2009, respectively, any near-term move by Tehran to produce weapons-grade uranium would have to rely on its declared facilities. The IAEA would thus detect such activity with sufficient time for the international community to mount a forceful response. As a result, the Iranians are unlikely to commit to building nuclear weapons until they can do so much more quickly or out of sight, which could be years off.” [Colin Kahl, March/April 2012]

What We’re Reading

Ten candidates, including Hosni Mubarak’s former spy chief, have been declared ineligible to compete in Egypt’s presidential election.

The first members of a UN observer team were expected to begin their work in Syria to monitor a cease-fire that is showing signs of failing as reports of bloodshed rise.

Military leaders and a group of political parties in Guinea-Bissau have announced the formation of a Transitional National Council following a coup.

Analysts claim Sunday’s attacks by insurgents against four embassies and other key sites in Afghanistan’s capital were aimed more at humiliating the government and its foreign allies than at inflicting casualties.

Taliban fighters stormed a prison in the northwestern Pakistani town of Bannu, freeing almost 400 prisoners.

North Korea’s new leader gave his first televised address, vowing to place top priority on the military.

The United States and some Latin American nations remained sharply divided over Cuba following a summit meeting of Western Hemisphere nations.

A small portion of Haiti’s population began getting vaccinated against cholera.

Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik admitted to killing 77 people but claimed he acted in self-defense.

European countries contend with a rise in suicide rates due to the economic downturn.

Commentary of the Day

John Brennan urges Congress to act swiftly to pass legislation on cybersecurity.

Peggy Noonan warns that the GOP candidates are allowing the Republican party to be painted as the War Party.

Ai Weiwei argues that China’s censorship can never defeat the internet.

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