A series of crippling sanctions brought Iran back to the table with the 5+1 to talk about its nuclear program. After the Istanbul nuclear talks in April, the international community is now waiting for the second round in Baghdad in 23 May 2012. As an Iranian, I have been observing the long-time controversy over the Iranian nuclear program from its onset at the time the reformists were in power in Iran; at that time, Iran suspended enrichment and accepted additional protocol in the Tehran Declaration of 2003.
I believe the Baghdad nuclear talks are critical: they can either open a road of long-term constructive talks between Iran and the US or lead to an impasse that bodes a military confrontation. Therefore, it is important to consider the way in which the US should approach these talks. The key point I wish to emphasize is the way sanctions should be understood in relation to Iran domestic politics and its security concerns.
After the first round of talks in Istanbul the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, asked the 5+1 to lift the sanctions as a step toward building the lost trust between the two parties. Obviously, the recent sanctions on Iranian oil production as well as its central bank are causing pain in the country. While I believe that these sanctions successfully brought Iran back to the negotiating table, it is important for the US and its allies to correctly assess the influence of sanctions. To do so, they must take into consideration the history of Iran’s behavior in opposing the United States as well as its nuclear program policy.
The main threat to the talks in Baghdad will be a wrong estimation on the part of the US and its allies, choosing to rely solely on the threat of sanctions. If the US and its allies play the role of the party with the upper hand and expect Iran alone to compromise its ambitions, the talks will lead to a dead end.
There are signs that indicate the readiness of Iran to compromise during the coming talks in the hope of lifting the current crippling sanctions, and in the longer term normalizing relations with the international community. After the talks in Istanbul, Ali Akbar Salehi announced ‘we won’t let the talks lead to a dead end.’ Also, the Iranian Ambassador to Russia talked about the possibility of Iran accepting additional protocol.
There are two vital points for Iran, however, to be considered by the West; first, Iran wants to keep the right to continue enrichment in the country, even if at a very low level. The second and most important thing, now, is the way the outcome of the negotiations is being presented to the outside world. For Iranian negotiators, the outcome should be palatable to public opinion in Iran, especially to the hardliners in the Islamic Republic. What the 5+1 should learn from its experience with Iran is the presence of different power sources in the country.
When, in 2003, the reformists in power suspended enrichment, hardliners criticized the reformists’ policy as so soft they got nothing in return. At that time, Ali Larijani, the current Iranian head of parliament, said “in return for the pearl we gave them [the West], they rewarded us with a candy.” Hardliners believe that if Iran compromises, it cannot get anything; in fact, they believe that if Iran takes one step back, the West will want them to take ten more, all the while heading aggressively towards them; the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, explicitly expressed this view of Iran’s relation with the West.
It is a mistaken calculation to rely on sanctions for more than bringing Iran back to nuclear talks, prepared to compromise on some of its ambitions. The 5+1 should try to continue the talks from an equal footing, understanding Iranian security concerns triggered by the US, as well as how the regime will gain support at home for the outcome of the talks.
Pushing too much to get what Iran is not ready to give, because of relying unduly on sanctions, can alienate Iran and push it toward isolation and dealing with sanctions through other strategies. Even though the crippling sanctions have caused pain, giving up the nuclear program in its totality in order to lift the sanctions can be as great a disaster for the regime as sanctions.
It is important to remind US policy makers that there are different layers of power centers in the Islamic Republic. If the US cannot negotiate with the current ones which have come to the talks, certainly there is no way it can negotiate with those who are against any discussion of its nuclear program with the international community. For these groups, the nuclear program is considered an undeniable right.