March 6, 2012 6:06 pm

Talking remains Obama’s preferred solution to Iran dispute

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With the drums of war beating, and American and European sanctions biting, President Barack Obama has said he still believes that there is room for a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear dispute.

Many diplomats in western capitals, however, agree that the upcoming round of negotiations between Iran and world powers – the first in more than a year – must produce concrete and speedy results if it is to prevent another Middle East war.

On the surface, there are reasons to be more optimistic about these talks compared with (numerous) past attempts at curbing Iran’ nuclear ambitions.

Beyond the threat of war, sanctions are damaging Iran’s economy and devastating its currency. Iran’s regional standing also has taken a beating, with its main regional ally, Syria, battling a popular uprising.

World powers, too, are eager to demonstrate diplomatic progress and delay the apparent rush to war.

“There is common incentive for the west and for Iran to start some sort of process in order to get through a very sensitive political year,” says Trita Parsi, author of A Single Roll of the Dice about President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran.

“If there is ongoing diplomacy, even if there’s no immediate achievement, this in itself makes it more difficult for Israelis to take military action. But it has to be a process, not a meeting.”

Diplomats say the talks represent the best chance to test whether Iran is feeling under sufficient pressure to make concessions. It was Tehran, after all, which showed interest in talks after months of silence.

“The fact is that the Iranians have responded positively to our request and do want to talk. If there is a crack in their position then we want to see whether it can help us prise open the door,” says a western diplomat.

But if the stakes in the nuclear dispute are higher than ever, so is the level of mistrust.

Few diplomats from the nations that negotiate with Iran – the US, France, Germany, China and Russia – have much confidence that the negotiations will produce a breakthrough.

Analysts in Tehran, meanwhile, say it would be a mistake to assume that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate decision-maker, is ready for a capitulation, particularly as he believes that western strategy today is aimed at provoking regime change in Iran.

“The talks should be win-win and the Iranians need to present some victory at home after years of saying they would not bow to any pressure,” says a western diplomat in Tehran.

The negotiations are likely to first focus on interim, rather than comprehensive deals – what diplomats are calling “confidence building” measures – that effectively slow down or even halt the progress of its nuclear programme.

A similar attempt in 2009 and 2010 involved a US proposal to transfer 1200kg of low enriched uranium out of Iran, amounting to about 75 per cent of Iran’s entire stock of LEU at that time. In return, world powers were expected to halt additional sanctions.

Despite high hopes at the time, Ayatollah Khamenei rejected the deal. He later agreed to a softer version negotiated by Brazil and Turkey, which was deemed unacceptable by western powers.

Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the fuel swap idea will be on the table again at the upcoming negotiations.

“Iran needs to stop the production of 20 per cent enriched uranium and then pledge to export the stockpile out of the country. That’s do-able and would certainly see the US and the west pledging no more sanctions.”

A limited agreement would buy all sides much-needed time. But Iran and world powers would still need to move on to more comprehensive negotiations on the fate of the nuclear programme and the extent to which Iran will be willing to scale it back.

The problem, however, will not be only in Tehran.

The Obama administration will be entering the negotiations from what it considers to be a position of strength. But as Mr Parsi says, the administration, particularly during a presidential election year, might also find itself constrained by Congress in its ability to respond to Iranian concessions by freezing sanctions for example.

Moreover, while administration officials have not ruled out that a final agreement could leave Iran with some enrichment capacity, Congress would be vehemently opposed to this.

If the talks progress, moreover, Iran’s strategy will be to divide world powers, offering concessions that would satisfy Russia and China but not western powers.

“There are very different views around the table,” says a senior European diplomat. “The French and British are very clear that there needs to be a major suspension of enrichment if there are to be no more sanctions. But Russia believes that even a modest suspension of enrichment can see sanctions being lifted. Such disagreements may allow the Iranians to string out the talks for many months.”

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

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