by Laicie Olson [contact information]
P5+1 talks with Iran are a first step in long process
Laicie Olson wrote an oped on the possible outcomes of the P5+1 talks with Iran that will begin April 13, 2012. This piece entitled "P5+1 talks with Iran are first step in a long process" was originally published for The Hill's "Congress Blog" on April 12, 2012.
The U.S. and its European allies are set to begin a new round of negotiations with Iran this weekend, but while the U.S. enters the discussion in a position of strength, it is unclear whether real progress can be achieved in the near term. The talks, which will take place in Istanbul, mark the first direct negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program since previous talks collapsed more than 14 months ago. But though the reopening of dialogue is a clear first step, and may present a unique opportunity on the road to a final solution, the U.S. and its allies will need to pursue further diplomatic efforts in order to achieve a breakthrough.
There is some reason to believe that these talks may hold more promise than those of the past. Burdened by ever-tightening sanctions and the increasing threat of attack,Tehran may be more willing to negotiate. Early this week, Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, indicated that Iran might stop its production of 20 percent enriched uranium, but would prefer to continue to enrich uranium to lower levels for power generation. The enrichment issue lies at the heart of the dispute, since weapons-grade enrichment can be achieved more easily from 20 percent, fueling Western concerns that Tehran may be seeking an atomic weapon.
The U.S., also, has shown some willingness to compromise in recent weeks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on April 3 that "it's our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone's interest for them to take unilateral action. It is in everyone's interest for us to seriously pursue at this time the diplomatic path," and on April 5 David Ignatius reported the president’s willingness to “accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation ‘will never pursue nuclear weapons.’”
But these possibilities are still clouded by threats and mistrust on both sides. On Sunday, the New York Times laid out the negotiating position of the U.S. and its allies, including the demand that Iran shut down and eventually dismantle its underground enrichment facility at Fordow. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted on the Iranian parliament’s website as saying that while he hopes for some progress in the upcoming talks, the attempt to impose any preconditions would be “meaningless.” While both countries have laid out early positions, the likelihood of a final solution any time soon is doubtful.
Each side enters these negotiations with a long list of grievances. The only way to overcome these hurdles will be through a sustained diplomatic process, on both the bi-lateral and multi-lateral level, that has not yet been given an opportunity. With just two attempts at dialogue in as many years, this weekend’s discussion will be successful if it can simply set the stage for ongoing negotiations.
Regardless of the failure of past attempts, an opportunity exists today that has not before, with limited political space seemingly open in both the U.S. and Iran for compromise. Under the strongest sanctions ever, Iran’s currency has lost more than 40% of its value, forcing the country to postpone billions in new energy projects because of the impact on their economy. Dozens of Iran’s banks have been cut off from the international finance system.
Meanwhile, the American public, war-weary and worried about economic conditions, continues to oppose military action against Iran, favoring sanctions and diplomacy by a large margin, and the Pentagon appears skeptical of the use of force. The Obama Administration has reason to avoid escalation and seek diplomatic progress, particularly in an election year.
This meeting is a clear first step in what will be a long process, but a process that provides an opportunity to deliver real change. While there is no clear solution in sight, each side has more reason than ever to come to the table, and remain until a solution has been reached.
Laicie Olson is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues.