The news from Baghdad is good. The nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries paused somewhat amicably, with signs of progress and a schedule to meet in a month in Moscow. The question is, as always, how many ways can this progress be derailed?
Details of what transpired in Baghdad will leak out over the coming days, but chief negotiator Catherine Ashton's official statement at the end of talks Thursday made it clear that both sides regard the negotiations as promising and will return to the bargaining table very quickly.
The U.S. and its negotiating partners (China, Russia, U.K., France, and Germany) seek to rein in Iran's enrichment program, by which uranium is brought closer to weapons grade. Iran's position is to link any concessions on enrichment to the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, which have become very damaging to Iran's economy. There are many more details, of course, but that is the essence of any deal.
Critics of the talks, which include Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, insist that Iran is only delaying to build a nuclear weapon, but that old dog won't hunt. Negotiations on complex technical issues, where suspicion and national pride are in play, take some time. There are reasonable proposals on the table, and an agreement could be within reach.
The question is, who will try to be the spoiler? Israel is the top candidate for that role. It uses the Iran issue for domestic politics and to manipulate the United States. It distracts from their 45-year occupation of Palestine and their unwillingness to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Fortunately, a number of high-level Israelis have decried Netanyahu's Iran gambit. And Israel does not have the military prowess to eliminate Iran's nuclear program by its oft-repeated threat to bomb.
Often forgotten in the hoopla about Iran's program is that U.S. intelligence agencies have declared twice, in 2007 under President Bush and again 12 weeks ago, that Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons program. Israel, by contrast, is said to have as many as 200 nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan's move to nuclear-weapons status in the 1990s was punished with a slap on the wrist compared with Iran's non-program.
Even more vexing is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligates all nuclear powers to move toward disarmament, a legal obligation that the five nuclear powers represented in the Iran negotiations (all but Germany) have quite obviously ignored. (There is an even more taboo topic, however -- which is what would happen if Iran did get a bomb or two or three, which is almost certainly not much at all; they would be completely deterred by the U.S. and Israel from ever using them. But as my friend Hugh Gusterson has argued, we are in the grip of "nuclear orientalism," imputing to Iranians a savagery and irrationality that is baseless but convenient.)
Hypocrisy will not stop the spoilers, however. And politics in the United States could trump a common sense accord with Iran. President Obama will feel pressure not only from an overheated Israel Lobby, but from a Republican Party intent on defeating him at all costs. What this means for the negotiations is that he will nix any deal that is not a clear-cut win, although what that means precisely is muddled. The U.S. worked itself into a corner by insisting that no uranium enrichment would be permissible, an untenable position not only in light of facts on the ground -- Iran's extensive enrichment program -- but Iran's asserted right, under the NPT, to enrich.
The sensible position now is to allow enrichment to 3 percent under strict safeguards, and reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which, under worst case scenarios, could be upgraded to weapons-ready uranium in a matter of months. But allowing any enrichment will invite a vicious attack from Obama's right.
Then there is the matter of sanctions. The Iranians will insist that any deal constraining their enrichment program must be reciprocated with a lowering, or elimination, of the sanctions that have so beset their economy under Obama. (Iranian pessimists insist that the Baghdad talks are a failure because so little was offered on reducing sanctions.) Some sanctions are imposed by the U.N. Security Council, and could be rescinded by that body, since the negotiations are led by its five permanent members (hence the "P5" in "P5+1").
But there are many U.S. sanctions that would require a vote of Congress to rescind, and in an election year, that may be a tussle Obama does not want to engage. It is the perfect grandstanding issue for the Republican leadership and for Romney, who has already demonstrated his complete servility to Netanyahu's extremism on this issue.
So in this dynamic -- election-year politics in America, darkened by the Israel Lobby's grip on the Republicans and indeed many Democrats -- we see the likelihood that a far-reaching deal with Iran, one that would perforce lower sanctions, is not in the cards before November 6th. Any agreement that can be forged in Moscow will have this shadow over it, and will, sadly, be much less than it could be.
But perhaps it can be the first step. My colleague Abbas Maleki, who was deputy foreign minister of Iran, wrote recently: "To open the path to an accord, the parties must combine the realism of small initial steps with a vision of a long-term rapprochement. Early steps should be designed to build confidence on both sides that it is worth continuing the process, and to buy time for further talks." One can only pray this might happen.
John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist of the MIT Center for International Studies, and coauthor of Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War.
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