Slow But Steady Progress Seen in the Iran-P5+1 Talks

Slow But Steady Progress Seen in the Iran-P5+1 Talks

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The underlying difficulties currently surrounding the Iran-P5+1 negotiations should come as no great surprise having become publicly outlined during Yukiya Amanos surprise trip to Tehran on Monday.

However while a number of major hurdles still remain to be overcome, slow progress has at least created a foothold of common ground that could allow for significant breakthroughs down the road.  Moreover the concerned parties are, for the first time, seriously addressing the fundamental issues central to the diplomatic row, an achievement in and of its self.

While these triumphs are seemingly low key, they are in reality of tremendous importance and have come in the face of overwhelming odds.   Primarily the nuclear situation has become compounded by the clamor of election year politics in the US – leading to a diminished bargaining capacity within the Obama administration – and by Iranian forward thinking to an election year of its own in 2013.

Meanwhile fluctuating oil prices intricately tied to speculation over perceived progress of the talks has resulted in a public demand (and expectation) for a quick solution to the nuclear issue.

In lieu of the daunting tasks at hand, all parties concerned must acknowledge the reality of their current situation.

Of foremost importance it must be understood by policy makers, and explained to the public at large, that significant progress will not become a reality for some time. Instead it will require a lengthy process of diplomacy built upon escalating confidence building measures that slowly assuage the fears and concerns of all parties.

One need only turn to the START treaties as a case and point of how drawn out such diplomacy can be, and those talks consisted of two countries with diplomatic relations and a history of bilateral negations. Meanwhile history is if nothing but an impediment towards U.S.-Iran relations. 

Additionally this must be a reciprocal process, a sentiment reiterated by Catherine Ashton in her press release following the close of negotiations Thursday. 

As seen by the conclusion of the Bagdad talks, Iran appears willing to discuss its enrichment program of Uranium to 20%, one of the major causes of concern for the international community. Iran also seems poised to strike a deal with the IAEA regarding the resumption of inspections of facilities following Mondays meeting with Amano.

Such gestures must be met with equally substantial undertakings by the p5+1 powers, a sentiment Iran made clear during its talk with Amano. For Iran this would appear to include the addressing of sanctions by the international community.  However this is should be seen as a longer-term goal, and will require a degree of flexibility that may not be currently accessible within the Obama administration.

Facing a reelection battle, two important points have arisen within the Obama camp. For one, the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities prior to the November elections has receded greatly. In turn this has diminished one of the greatest constraints on the timeframe for negotiations to succeed. Secondly Obama cannot afford to undergo a foreign policy blunder in the run up to what is shaping up to be a tightly contested election. Accordingly the administration will have become risk adverse in its approach to negotiations until after the election.

 Needless to say the U.S. offer of spare airplane parts, while greatly needed in Iran, fell far short of what Iran sees as an acceptable exchange.  This in turn helps to highlight the present limitations in place on the administration as it seeks to prevent providing fodder for would be critics by seeming to be aloof in its policies towards Iran.

Subsequently what is already a long process has been further complicated and delayed due to domestic politics within both capitols, a variable that will not be alleviated until 2013. For the time being both sides should focus on smaller forms of confidence building measures that will sustain engagement until a post-election environment.   

If this is true then two pressing questions come to light.

The first is can a limited agreement come to surface during the upcoming meetings in Moscow that would allow the EU to undertake legal action to postpone oil embargos due to come into force July 1.

If not, then the second question arises of will Iran continue with the process of negotiations in spite of the implementation of this embargo.  

Experts are divided on the latter question, with some suggesting both sides have come to view the necessity of maintaining an ongoing dialogue. In contrast others suggest that given Iran’s history of ratcheting up nuclear activity in response to increased external pressure, the country will resort to just that, especially given their genuine preparedness to roll back their nuclear enrichment.

Again what is most important is that a process now exists, albeit slow, for the implementation of confidence building measures, and is set to continue in Moscow.

These measures need only be small from the outset, allowing for some form of a relationship to foster between the US and Iran where none has existed before. This can even include the joint response to piracy in the Gulf of Aiden which has resulted in rescue of commercial agents by both sides.

The key will be to maintain enough forward momentum in the coming months to propel talks into 2013 when political flexibility will allow both sides to make the concessions necessary for substantial progress on the matter.

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