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Iran's Nuclear Calculus

Ali Vaez, Frontline  |   21 Jun 2012

Mutual perceptions of weakness yield little progress.

Tehran's nuclear calculus has fluctuated significantly since negotiations between Iran and the world powers resumed in April. Iran first appeared eager for a deal that could check the damaging momentum of sanctions and avert a war. The run-up to the Istanbul meeting was marked by positive signs, ranging from Ayatollah Khamenei's rare praise of President Obama's defense of diplomacy and the reiteration of his nuclear fatwa, to Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi's constructive commentary in the Washington Post indicating commitment to diplomacy, and the conciliatory remarks by Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, on halting high-level enrichment. At the same time, Iran's confidence was bolstered by its recent advances in nuclear technology and the completion of the underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow.

In the wake of the Istanbul meeting, and despite its concentration on generalities, the mood in Tehran became Pollyannaish. The West's renewed interest in diplomacy, based on a step-by-step reciprocal process, was interpreted as a sign of weakness -- a desperate attempt to tame oil prices and avert a military confrontation ahead of the U.S. presidential election and amid an unprecedented economic crisis in Europe. Tehran consequently orchestrated a messaging campaign to up the ante in Baghdad by simultaneously demanding the removal of sanctions and conditioning the public for a compromise.

Seemingly based on this calculation, in the second meeting with members of the P5+1, Iran presented a five-point strategy that included both nuclear and nonnuclear matters. But the Western response poured cold water on the expectations of Iranian negotiators. In mirror image, the West had equated Iran's willingness to resume talks with its eagerness to delay further sanctions and avert an Israeli military attack. Perceiving signs of Iranian weakness, the West had no intention to relax or postpone sanctions on Iran's oil sector and central bank short of a major concession by Tehran. The Iranians realized that they had erred in insisting on easing the sanctions and reverted to more familiar hardline posturing, evidenced by their foot-dragging on efforts to resolve outstanding problems with the International Atomic Energy Agency and an acerbic squabble with European negotiators vis-à-vis preparatory talks.

In Moscow, Iranian negotiators stood firm, counting on their Russian allies to persuade the rest of the P5+1 to show more flexibility. Nevertheless, intent on not being seen as stalling, Iran prepared a comprehensive response to further underscore its position and respond to the P5+1's demands. Their proactive media campaign in Moscow, especially Deputy Negotiator Ali Bagheri's press briefing, was testament to this strategy.

Iran and the P5+1's diplomatic roller coaster hit bottom in Moscow, yielding nothing more than a follow-on technical meeting. But the prospect of achieving a breakthrough was as illusory as a breakdown could have been perilous. Rather than more brinkmanship based on mismatched expectations and misguided convictions, both sides should embrace intensive, continuous, technical-level negotiations to achieve a limited agreement on Iran's 20 percent enrichment.

Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group's senior Iran analyst.

 
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