06/06/2012 05:36 pm ET

Nuclear Iran: The Baghdad-Moscow Round of the Political Game

The Players

After Istanbul, on the eve of the nuclear talks in Baghdad between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., France, China, and Russia, plus Germany), the U.N. Nuclear Monitor announced that a deal with Iran was near. Optimism ruled the headlines. The U.S. -- Iran's real counterparty -- perceived in the talks particularly "hopeful signs." Even Israel seemed to inch closer to a compromise with Iran on uranium enrichment.

Yet the talks hit a snag, and in the end the parties were only able to agree to another round of meetings, to be held three weeks later in Moscow (June 18 and 19). In Baghdad, de facto, Iran had been asked to halt enrichment at 5 percent and then deliver it to another country for further enrichment above that threshold. According to the P5+1 position, Iran must dismantle some plants and also accept more intrusive international inspections. What would Iran get in return? Perhaps attenuation of the harsh international sanctions that have been severely punishing the entire Iranian population.

The basic point? Iran maintains that its nuclear project is for peaceful purposes (energy production), but the U.S. and its allies consider that the project could too easily acquire a military aspect. Even if nobody has yet been able to find the smoking gun, it is generally assumed that nuclear enrichment for military purposes is the natural continuation of enrichment for civilian purposes.

The Rules

All the players (Iran, the P5+1, and Israel) have for years been using the Iranian nuclear question for their own political purposes. Although most informed experts believe there is no imminent danger from the Iranian nuclear project, there is a dangerous, ongoing, global political game. Iran is leveraging the controversy to increase its geopolitical weight to achieve security in the turbulent Middle East, repository of so much of the world's energy resources. Thus, in Baghdad, Iran presented a five-point package, asking for an end to sanctions as well as security guarantees.

Meanwhile, the P5+1 states, despite a common negotiating posture on a formal level, themselves have differing geopolitical interests. This is why the talks collapsed just a few hours before the chief international negotiator announced that the parties had agreed to hold a third meeting in Moscow next month.

Vali Nasr, the authoritative commentator, stated that for an Iran "breakthrough," the coalition cannot break down. Perhaps this is precisely the point. The members of P5+1, with their different geopolitical interests, can exert uniform pressure only up to a certain threshold. The recent international sanctions regime locks Iranian banks out of the international banking circuit and bans purchases of Iranian oil. The European allies of the U.S. stated they would apply the U.N. sanctions and ban Iranian oil.

It remains to be seen if the nations of Europe, in the throes of recession or sinking into what looks like a second recession, could renounce Iranian oil, which would result in higher oil prices exactly at the wrong time. Even the threat of a cut-off of oil from Iran provoked a spike in the price of petroleum products worldwide. At the same time, there are doubts about the capability of Saudi Arabia to replace Iranian oil and stabilize prices by flooding the market as it has occasionally done in the past. Meanwhile, Russia, an important exporter of energy products, can only benefit from higher oil prices. Unsold Iranian oil will be bought by China, but at lower prices. Given the constant thirst of China for energy within the framework of its nascent ambitions and its global competition with the U.S., and given the iron will of Vladimir Putin to leverage the energy question into a geopolitical instrument of Russian ambitions, it seems unlikely that the China-Russia axis (and more widely the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, SCO) would choose to put the kind of pressure on Iran that would benefit the U.S. and its Western allies.

The State of Play

So we have the following situation: The U.S. and its allies would like to pressure Iran enough to produce a change but realize that higher oil prices benefit Russia; the West would like to minimize the benefits to Russia and China, who are, after all, their competitors. For their part, Russia and China may be happy enough to go along with sanctions that pressure Iran, as long as it benefits Russia by yielding higher prices for Russian oil, and benefits China as the only large market left open to Iran, which then must sell to China at below-market prices. But neither Russia nor China desires regime change in Iran that could bring it into alignment with the West; and both Russia and China are aware that Iran is, despite present appearances, by its history, culture, and intellectual society, connected to the West.

The U.S. president has always declared, as for political reasons he must, that "all options are on the table." Nevertheless, given the new global balance of power and the economic crisis, and given the Obama administration's desire to withdraw U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan (having promised and accomplished the Iraqi withdrawal), it is clear that the military option is becoming less and less realistic. So diplomacy as the art of avoiding war prevails. Facing election, winding down two now-unpopular wars, Obama is loath to involve the U.S. in yet another Middle East war. In this context, the verbal violence of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems a bit theatrical, because even the Israeli strategic establishment isn't buying his fiery rhetoric on Iran.

President Obama is also aware that Bibi's fear mongering constitutes an appeal to his American base, while giving ammunition to the political opposition.

The Obama administration is also well aware of the following:

  1. Iran has in fact not made the decision to acquire a nuclear weapon, considered sinful and against the regime's religious principles.
  2. Attacking Iran would make Iran more likely to acquire a nuclear weapon, not less, and could generate a regional conflict with unpredictable consequences for all.
  3. Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel, which is reputed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal. Israel is rumored to be involved in anti-Iran sabotage.
  4. Many international experts, including the top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have voiced doubts about the ability of conventional Israeli forces to inflict lasting damage to Iran's highly dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities.
  5. There must be respect for the sovereignty of Iran, while waiting for an internal evolution. In Iran there is present a solid, statistically significant civil society struggling to achieve democracy according to international standards.
  6. There is sufficient time to pursue a win-win diplomatic option based on the premise of a denuclearized Middle East within a general political framework including security guarantees for all the countries of the region.

Jockeying for Position

Those in the U.S. who see the goal of the sanctions as nurturing public discontent with the current Iranian government would tie the Iranian government's nuclear program tightly to the economic sanctions, but perhaps they overlook the fact that the sanctions essentially punish Iranian civil society. Punishing all segments of the population boosts those in the radical circles who manage and thrive on the illegal underground economy. Moreover, the regime itself seems to have tied its own destiny to the nuclear question as a means of, in the words of the Rand Corporation analyst Alireza Nader, "buying time."

Yet Iran is not alone in seeking to "buy time." All parties, including the Obama administration, which is using a cyberwar against Iran facilities, may see "treading water" as probably the most practical, least expensive, and certainly least dangerous course. This "giving time to time" provides Obama the opportunity to work on a diplomatic, albeit partial, solution, without a new war threatening his electoral chances or the lives of U.S. troops. For Tehran, too, time may appear to achieve and consolidate greater influence in a region that's a powder keg, and to manage its difficult internal situation. Buying time, while keeping tension high, is also useful for Israel, permitting it to keep pushing off into the future any resolution of the Palestinian melodrama. Buying time also allows Europe to avoid an unnecessary war that would ravage its economy further; and buying time serves the purposes of Russia and China on several levels.


Surely, the negotiation game will be long and complicated. Many analysts and diplomats believe no deal will be possible in the near future unless all sides compromise. This is not a radical insight, but considering all the different interests among the numerous players, compromise is certainly the best course. There will not be complete agreement, but partial consensus is possible, even likely. A full solution with a general agreement would require the U.S. and Iran to enter into direct negotiations, to overcome the reciprocal distrust that has grown over the years since the hostage crisis. In fact, it is well-known that the real source of conflict is between the interests of the United States, the last superpower, and Iran as the regional power.