Iran: The Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship
17 June 2012: Ali Vaez, Crisis Group's Senior Iran Analyst, discusses the new briefing, The P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship. 7:51
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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Kimberly Abbott. Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran will resume in Moscow on Monday. While the P5+1 hope to come closer to ending Iranian nuclear proliferation, Iran hopes to remove some of the sanctions that are crippling the country and maintain its civilian nuclear program.
The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the west have had their share of dashed expectations, but even by this standard the recent diplomatic rollercoaster stands out. Brimming with hope in Istanbul, negotiators crashed to earth in Baghdad a few weeks later. That was not unexpected given inflated hopes, mismatched expectations, and most hurtful, convictions on both sides that they had the upper hand.
But if negotiations collapse now, it’s hard to know what comes next. Washington and Brussels seems to count on sanctions taking their toll and forcing Iran to compromise. Tehran appears to bank on a reelected president Obama displaying more flexibility and an economically incapacitated Europe balking at sanctions that could boomerang. Neither is likely. Instead, with prospects for a deal fading, Israeli pressure for a military option may intensify.
To talk about the state of the negotiations and our new report on the issue, P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship, I’m talking with Ali Vaez, Crisis Group’s Senior Iran Analyst.
So Ali, what is the likely outcome of nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers due to resume in Moscow on Monday?
It’s very difficult to predict at this stage, but all signs are pointing in the wrong direction. If we look at the problems between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran, pronouncements that are coming out of Tehran and Washington, and political constraints in both capitals, it’s far safer to wager on a breakdown than on a breakthrough. I think the Russians will do their utmost to make sure that the talks will not fail in Moscow, but they can’t continue, and they can’t be sustained for much longer if there is no substantial progress.
Given the substantive gaps between the two sides, how long do you think that the talks could be sustained?
I would argue that both sides are now trying to buy time, but for entirely different reasons. The western countries are trying to buy time in order to allow the sanctions to sink in and make Iran more amenable to compromise. And the Iranians are trying to buy time so that, in anticipation of a re-elected President Obama, the U.S. will be in a better position to make genuine concessions to Iran.
The problem is, time is precisely what the Israelis think they don’t have. And that is not because they think Iran would develop a nuclear weapon in the next few months, but because they think that Iran’s nuclear program will become impervious to their attacks, and specifically because of an underground facility called Fordo, which is built under a mountain.
What is the main obstacle that the negotiators will face in Moscow?
What we argue in the report is that what arguably made the resumption of the talks possible is what constitutes a principal obstacle to their success now. And that’s basically the fact that both sides have tried to accumulate leverage, as much as possible, over the past few months and now it has become extremely difficult for them to give it up. Iran has advanced its nuclear program, has enriched uranium to higher levels, has installed more centrifuges, and the U.S. and Europe have imposed an unprecedented amount of sanctions on Iran. And for both of them it is extremely difficult to reverse course at this stage.
Is the postponement of the EU oil embargo that is set to go into effect on 1 July unlikely?
This is definitely something that is very important for Iranians, but the Europeans appear reluctant to postpone the embargo, and this is mainly because it’s now already 85% in effect. The Europeans have signed new contracts with the other oil exporters. And additionally, when the U.S. sanctions on the Iran central bank come into effect on 28 June, that would make basically any transactions between an Iranian oil customer and Iran impossible, because it would make payments for purchased oil very very difficult.
What will happen if the talks fail?
A breakdown would present even more starkly the question of a military strike, whether Israeli, American, or both. But even if we don’t witness a military strike in the short-term, it would definitely mean that tensions will escalate.
And that’s what happened in the past?
Absolutely. We saw in 2005 that when talks failed, Iran boosted its nuclear program and the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on Iran. Again in 2009, when talks reached a dead end, Iran started enriching uranium to higher levels, and the UN Security Council imposed more sanctions, and the U.S. and EU imposed unilateral sanctions. And then again in 2011, when talks in Istanbul failed, it gave way to 15 months of bellicose rhetoric, saber-rattling, sanctions, assassinations and cyber attacks.
So what would we see if the U.S. did carry out strikes, or if Israel did carry out strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities?
It can be anticipated in the case of a strike that Iran will withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty, will expel UN nuclear inspectors, and it will use its indigenous knowledge to reconstitute its nuclear program, and this time, specifically geared towards producing a nuclear weapon. So, a strike is more likely to give rise to a nuclear armed Iran than preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
So what are your recommendations in the report? What should be done to at least reach an interim deal that provides for more space and time for finding a comprehensive solution?
We have several suggestions in the report. On the format of the talks, we suggest that instead of high-level, highly sensitive, sporadic meetings, Iran and the P5+1 should hold sustained meetings, at lower-level political and technical experts, to allow for a less-charged atmosphere. On 20% enrichment problem, we recommend that Iran suspends enriching at that level and converts its entire stockpile into uranium dioxide, which is much less prone to proliferation that uranium hexafluoride. And in return, we suggest that the P5+1 should provide Iran with medical isotopes that it needs for its cancer patients, and also, cutting-edge nuclear fuel manufacturing technology. On the issue of Fordo, we suggest that Iran uses the facility as a research and development center, and put it under more rigorous inspection from the IAEA. On the issue of sanctions, we suggest that the western nations should be prepared to refrain from imposing additional sanctions and diluting some of the existing ones. And finally, on Iran’s right to enrichment, we recommend that the P5+1 should clearly convey to Tehran, that if it receives a clean slate from the IAEA, it would be able to enrich uranium on its soil, under IAEA supervision, and with some restrictions.
Edited for print