What to Expect From Iran Negotiations

April 11, 2012

On April 13, Iran will begin talks about its nuclear program with the U.S. and five other major powers. Those negotiations are high stakes, but expectations for a quick solution are low, even as the contours of a possible deal are becoming clear.  Experts expect this meeting to begin a long process that will take time to play out – time experts say we have. The successful sanctions regime put in place under the Obama administration – whose early diplomacy created the international consensus needed for sanctions to be effective – is delivering results. David Ignatius of the Washington Post says the sanctions’ “bite may actually be worse than the bark.” In other words, the sanctions are working better than advertised. The public supports the administration’s pressure-and-talk approach over an ill-advised military strike.

Negotiations involve “high stakes and low expectations,” although the contours of a possible deal are becoming clear. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress and Mark Schlakman of Florida State University explain that,The best-case scenario for the upcoming round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — is the start of a diplomatic process in which Iran signals it is ready to take serious steps toward living up to its international responsibilities and offering complete transparency about its nuclear program. What are the contours of a possible deal? Iran’s full cooperation with IAEA inspections and cessation of certain questionable nuclear activities in exchange for no further sanctions is a start. Longer term, Iran would have to agree to some sort of fuel swap arrangement that would ship enough of its nuclear stockpiles out of the country to prevent it from producing a weapon. This deal might include Iran receiving the fuel it needs for a peaceful nuclear program.” Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the negotiations are characterized by “high stakes and low expectations.” She explained, “I think I would keep the expectations incredibly low that we are likely to see any sort of even this kind of confidence building measure in the short term, simply because it’s clear that the Iranians haven’t come to a determination that they must resolve this problem.” [Brian Katulis and Mark Schlakman, 4/10/12. Suzanne Maloney, 4/10/12]

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]

Obama’s strategy is “delivering results”; sanctions’ “bite may actually be worse than the bark.”  Katulis and Schlakman further write, “These talks are not likely to produce immediate breakthroughs. But they are an important part of an overall strategy that has strengthened our nation’s position, isolated Iran, and built an international consensus for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. And make no mistake, this strategy is delivering results.”

David Ignatius lays out Iran’s international isolation as a result of this strategy:  “Iranian oil exports fell by about 300,000 barrels per day in March, according to Foreign Reports, a leading industry newsletter. The reason for this export decline is the refusal of some longtime customers to purchase as much Iranian crude, due to U.S.-led sanctions, and Iran’s inability to find alternate buyers. Countries that are cutting back imports of Iranian crude include Turkey, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, India and Turkey, according to Foreign Reports. Additional reductions are likely this summer, as new European Union sanctions take effect. Another potential chokepoint for Iran is the insurance market. The EU will decide next month whether to ban its financial companies from offering reinsurance on Iranian cargoes after July 1. This insurance cutoff would be ‘the most draconian feature’ of European sanctions, according to Nat Kern, editor of Foreign Reports, because international tankers would probably refuse Iranian cargoes unless the risk could be pooled through reinsurance syndicates, nearly all of which are in Europe. Adding to the insurance squeeze, a major Chinese insurance provider, known as China P & I Club, said last week that it, too, would stop indemnifying tankers carrying Iranian oil, according to a Reuters report from Singapore… Economic sanctions are often regarded as an ineffective weapon, because they are usually evaded by producers and consumers alike, and rarely have the ‘crippling’ effect that has been advertised. But with the Iranian sanctions, the bite may actually be worse than the bark. That’s because in a globalized economy, decisions taken at the financial hubs in America, Europe and Japan can move instantaneously along the world’s financial nervous system to the most distant nodes.” [Brian Katulis and Mark Schlakman, 4/10/12. David Ignatius, 4/10/12]

The public supports talks and a diplomatic solution, not war.  ThinkProgress summarizes the findings of recent polling, saying: “[A] new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that the American public is largely in support of Obama’s diplomacy-first strategy towards Tehran and, by a sizable margin, opposes military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The poll finds that while 84 percent of Americans believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon — a conclusion that neither U.S. intelligence nor the IAEA have yet made — 53 percent of poll respondents oppose bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities ‘to try to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.’ Only 41 percent of respondents supported taking military action. When asked about Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, respondents offered nearly identical responses with 51 percent opposing Israeli military action and 42 percent supporting.” [ThinkProgress, 4/10/12]

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