Saturday, January 22, 2011

Iran-P-5+1 nuclear talks conclude in Istanbul; what led to the failure?

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, and EU  foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton ,at the recent Istanbul meeting, Photo by Reuters

The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P-5+1 countries, comprising the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, concluded today Jan 22, in Istanbul, Turkey, without any specific agreement. As usual , the mainstream Western media are busy attributing the failure of the recent talks to Iran’s alleged intransigence while turning a blind eye to the inflexible and unreasonable position of Western powers in regard to Iran’s nuclear issue.

To see what led to this failure, let’s examine what brought each party to the negotiating table in the first place . Western officials were interested in discussing two main issues with their Iranian counterparts at the Istanbul meeting , namely Iran’s uranium enrichment program and nuclear fuel swap. The first item was a non-starter for negotiations as Iran had agreed in the previous round in Geneva, to continue the talks on only common grounds. As Western officials could well anticipate, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was not a matter of common grounds and thus not up for negotiations, as Iranian officials had publicly warned about weeks before the Istanbul meeting.

Iran’s position that it has the right under the NPT to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and that it is not ready to negotiate over its obvious rights has become a cornerstone of its nuclear policy over the past several years. Iran has also actualized its goal of developing nuclear fuel cycle technology by developing industrial-scale enrichment facilities over the past decade. In light of these realities, various Western political think tanks and prominent American Iran specialists had warned the American officials in recent months that it would be unrealistic for the Western powers to expect Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program .

As in contrast to its Western interlocutors, Iran tried to focus discussions on common grounds, which included items such as nuclear disarmament, scientific nuclear cooperation, Israel’s nuclear arsenal and so forth. Not surprisingly, the Western officials were lackluster about discussing these issues, as they perceived them as tangential to their main agenda. Iran was also ready to resume talks on its nuclear fuel swap proposal at the Istanbul meeting, taking into account the new realities that have emerged since it initially tabled its proposal.

The nuclear fuel swap issue had the potential to salvage the recent nuclear talks in Istanbul. Iran had initially offered to exchange most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile in return for ready fuel rods for its research reactor in Tehran back in October 2009 and later again in May 2010 (as part of a deal negotiated between Turkey and Brazil on the one side and Iran on the other). Western powers had rejected both of these offers by Iran and had pressed ahead with further Security Council sanctions against it. Iran had meant its nuclear fuel swap offers to be confidence-building measures in part in order to allay Western powers’ concern that it might be pursuing nuclear weapons and also to prevent further sanctions against it .

Despite some hopes for a rudimentary agreement on the issue of nuclear fuel swap, Western powers proved in the recent talks in Istanbul that they were not prepared to adjust their calculations and have realistic expectations about a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran either. Western negotiators still wanted to finalize the deal with Iran on the same terms that was proposed in October 2009, not taking into account the new realities, including further multilateral and bilateral sanctions imposed on Iran. Put differently, Western powers wished to strip Iran of most, if not all, of its LEU stockpile and at the same time maintain the sanctions that they have imposed on it since then and even threaten it with more sanctions.

Given the original purpose of the nuclear fuel swap proposal by Iran and the fact that Iran has produced more LEU since then, it is reasonable for Iranian negotiators to have expected the Western powers to recognize Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear fuel cycle under the NPT and ease sanctions on it in return for giving up most of its LEU stockpile. Any deal that would not meet these minimum requirements, could not be sold by Iranian nuclear negotiators to their constituency back in Iran.

The failure of the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and Western powers is yet another evidence that Western politicians are not yet willing to adjust their expectations in light of the realities on the ground. This has made the Western position with regard to Iran’s nuclear program seem even more unreasonable and unrealistic. Western officials had hoped in vain to reap the fruits of their intensified sanctions against Iran in the recent nuclear talks in Istanbul. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had even attributed the very fact of Iran coming to the negotiating table to her policy of tightening sanctions. But as I had argued earlier in my previous works, these hopes were not to see the light of day and that the Western confrontational policy towards Iran was only likely to further toughen Iran’s position on its nuclear issue and thus bring about a lose-lose outcome.


Anonymous said...

The fuel swap is a moot point now since Iran expects to be able to produce the 20% enriched rods and plates for the Tehran Research Reactor itself by this September. So, the Western powers have really nothing to offer to Iran.

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