By Ali Ezzatyar
the international community (read: U.S.) are set to retake their seats at the
negotiation table next week in Baghdad.
If these were real chairs, one would hope they were made of a durable mahogany,
as they have been frequented for ten years by fidgety, tough-talking diplomats
on both sides, and there is still no likelihood that they will be retired soon.
The talks are seen by both sets of negotiators as a zero-sum game, where no
confidence-inspiring measures have been seriously considered -- the other
side's threat of force has been the bottom-line motivator for both. As an
important diplomatic window opens again, America
and the world need to seek a grand bargain with Iran instead of the same old course
of action. Think three factors: Assets, Sanctions, and Enrichment.
I argued previously
that Iran's nuclear ambitions, while
scary to the West, are understandable. They are reasonable from an energy
perspective, as Iran
can diversify its energy composition for domestic use and boost sales to the
outside world of its most valuable natural resource. The nuclear program also offers
Iran, even if it fully abides by the legal requirements of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)
, dual-use capability that allows it to be a
potential acquirer of nuclear arms, and hence to have a deterrent. This nuclear policy
is supported by a vast majority of Iranian citizens, who otherwise (mostly)
disagree with their government on most things.
So while the fundamental calculation for both sides to push
full-steam for their objectives has not changed, the constantly changing threat
of force from each respective side has colored the way in which negotiations
have gone forward. From the U.S. perspective,
Iran's temporary halting of uranium
enrichment in 2003 was an exceptional step that was not adequately taken
advantage of. In 2003, America's
aggressiveness in the region was Iran's primary motivating factor to
consider this concession. Later, as the U.S.
position in Iraq
deteriorated, Iran utilized
its proxy groups and resources to drive America
into an even more precarious position there; this distracted America's
attention from Iran's nuclear program almost totally, and even
lead to the U.S. asking Iran for help and cooperation in stabilizing Iraq.
music to Iran's
ears, and the death knell of a genuine nuclear diplomatic process as far
the Iranians were concerned.
Today, there is still no clear existential danger in the
view of the Islamic Republic. Threats of attack from Israel fall short of a
regime-change scenario; the regime is likely to survive even if sanctions
continue or get worse; and the United States is largely viewed as being out of
the regime-change game, in particular where such a campaign in Iran would make
Iraq and Afghanistan seem almost effortless in hindsight. There is one very
important consideration in Tehran,
however, that in addition to the aggregate effect of the latter annoyances has
convinced the Iranian regime to play peace-seeker again.
The on-and-off tinkering of the Syrian regime, the only true
regional ally that the Islamic Republic has ever had, is probably the largest
existential threat to the Islamic Republic as well. Iran has sacrificed resources,
political capital, and even its revolutionary idealism in supporting Bashar
al-Assad with his brutal crackdown. The Saudi regime, Iran's primary
rival in the region, is seeking not only to oust Assad due to his faithfully
anti-Saudi stance on all issues, but also as a blow to its main rival.
From the moment America
began dedicating countless resources to preventing Iraq
from spiraling into civil war, and its positions in Afghanistan
and the region were similarly weakened, Iran has not had a series of
pressures that have convinced it that it needs to negotiate. The current
tenuousness of Iran's
position presents an opportunity. As a result, both sides (but particularly the
must take the initiative in proposing solutions -- solutions that will be
viewed by both sides as painful concessions at home. The reality is, the
necessary compromises have been clear from the beginning.
billions of dollars in frozen assets residing in the U.S. or in U.S. financial institutions
must be back on the table as an incentive. There were early discussions of an
offer to unfreeze Iran's
assets in 2002, but that was soon replaced by a more hawkish stance on the
American side that basically only considered more or fewer sanctions as the two
options for going forward. The U.S.
needs to acknowledge that it doesn't have a kitchen sink to throw at Iran anymore militarily; it needs to offer to
refrigerator instead. The partial unfreezing of sanctions needs to be the
ultimate carrot, short of restoration of diplomatic relations, to motivate Iran. Talk of
this possibility should be brought up early enough to have a fruitful bearing
on the conversation, and the appearance of weakness should not be a
preoccupation of the American position.
Speaking of broken refrigerators, a genuine plan to
quantifiably reduce or end sanctions against Iran must also be presented as a
prize for Iranian cooperation. The sanctions have always had the wrong effect
on Iran, preventing ordinary Iranians from procuring key supplies necessary for
important medical research, spare parts for civilian aircraft, and other
supplies, while actually strengthening the regime's hold on power. While the
sanctions are just recently leading to Iranians holding their government
responsible for the consequences of sanctions, the people and not the
government continue to be the primary group affected by sanctions in Iran's autocracy.
Scaling the sanctions back as good reward is a no-brainer.
must be prepared, in return, to freeze its uranium enrichment once again. More
importantly, it has to be willing to abide by one of the various plans that
have been proposed historically that allow it to develop its technology
unhindered, with checks against production of nuclear arms. Such a process
might entail having weapons-grade uranium produced offshore and imported at no
extra cost to Iran, and will most certainly necessitate frequent inspections by
the IAEA that are to some extent a blow to Iran's sovereignty. But the trade-off could be immense, and could (for better or worse) guarantee survival of the
Islamic regime while leading to greater prosperity in Iran.
If the U.S.
makes the right promises, Iran
should take an active step towards easing American fears of a weapons program.
This must be reciprocated by a temporary rolling back of certain sanctions
against the Iranian regime, while a final plan is worked out for a functioning
Iranian nuclear program in line with the NPT. That is the chronology. Ultimately,
a full proof process that is acceptable to the world, guaranteeing that Iran cannot develop nuclear arms in the short
term, should be reciprocated with Iran's inclusion in the
Surely, critics will say that such proposals are idealistic,
technically incomplete and shabby, and naive. But no matter how these
negotiations are analyzed, sanctions, assets, and weapons-grade uranium
enrichment are the three main factors. Everything else -- accusations of
support for terrorist groups in the region and threats against Israel on one
side, regional imperialism and an anti-Muslim crusade on the other,
will not derail the negotiations if genuine will exists as to those three
Labels: Iran, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nuclear power, nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. foreign policy