On the Issues: Iran and P5+1 Talks

By: 
Dan Brumberg

USIP expert Dan Brumberg previews the upcoming talks with Iran and provides background on the current situation.

January 18, 2011

USIP expert Dan Brumberg previews the upcoming P5 +1 talks with Iran and provides background on the current situation.

Can you preview the P5+1 talks scheduled for January 20?

This second round of talks on January 20 between Iran and the P5+1 – Britain, China, France, Russia, U.S. and Germany will provide a venue for each side to sustain diplomatic efforts aimed at shoring up international support among their respective and potential allies allies. What we know so far, at least from public declarations, is that the U.S. and its partners in the P5+1 group do not plan to alter their basic goals in any fundamental way.

As U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley put it, "We and our partners are committed to pragmatic efforts to resolve the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program, but we are equally committed to holding Iran accountable to its international obligations and will continue to focus on this until Iran demonstrates through tangible steps that it is prepared to resolve international concern.” Thus, in terms of its public posture, the U.S. position is that Iran must take the first steps, i.e. a halt or suspend enrichment, and demonstrate through actions a credible and forthcoming response to the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Obama administration's plans for a further tightening of international sanctions suggest no major change of direction either tactically or strategically.

As for the Iranians, the mere fact that they invited Hungary, Russia, China and Cuba to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities, but did not invite the U.S. or the IAEA, suggests a familiar story, i.e. that Tehran is still playing for time, which means, in part, using negotiations and the diplomacy around negotiations as a devise to divide the international community. Given that the talks are taking place in Istanbul, a proposal that Washington initially resisted, may suggest to the Iranians that their effort to work their relations with Turkey and other important regional states is providing a mechanism to undercut U.S./Western pressure. After all, Turkey and Brazil have tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to advance a “nuclear swap deal,” that would have Iran ship low enrichment uranium overseas for further enrichment. Growing economic and diplomatic ties between Turkey and Iran are viewed in Tehran as a sign of diplomatic success.

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What do you expect to come out of the talks?

I doubt that talks will provide any basis for a fundamental breakthrough, or even a more symbolic “confidence building” measure that would advance a substantive diplomatic process. But we cannot discount what we do not know: there have been reports in the Western press that the EU is now ready to back a compromise of the nuclear fuel swap proposal, one that would provide implicit recognition of Iran’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) enrichment rights. Moreover, the replacement of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki with Ali Akbar Salehi — a close confident of President Ahmadinejad who is now “Acting Foreign Minister”—might provide Iran’s leaders with more domestic confidence (and cover) to accept such a compromise. Alternatively, by intensifying internal political conflicts within the conservative camp, Mottaki’s removal could have the opposite effect. And so, despite the posturing of the U.S. and its P5+1 partners on the one side, and Iran on the other, we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of surprise, minor breakthrough in the talks, or at the very least, an agreement for another round of talks. As long as talking serves each sides' diplomatic purposes, talks may continue.

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In your recent USIP-Stimson Center report on nuclear issues, what the are some key points that should be underscored from the report to understand the current situation?

1) The considerable success that the U.S. and its allies have had in advancing a more robust sanctions regime should not provide rationale for avoiding the challenge of putting on the table a more expansive set of incentives for Iran to comply. A strategy largely based on punitive measures, one that flows down one track while leaving the other “in the dust,” will not succeed.

2) Sanctions have increased the costs to Iran for its failure to seriously address the demands of the IAEA , the U.S. and its Western allies. Moreover, sanctions have exacerbated Iran’s internal social and political tensions in ways that have highlighted the costs to Iran for its failure to cooperate. But the possible window of opportunity created by sanctions will not endure forever. Iran’s leaders will find means to mitigate their effects, while at the same time sustaining its pragmatic diplomacy of building new alliances. Thus the perception in the administration that Washington now has more time on its side should not lead the U.S. to skirt the challenge of renewing a more coherent, dual track approach.

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January 18, 2011