Talks have been promising, but the real challenge is yet to come.
To the encouragement of officials in Washington, Brussels, and New York, the first round of yet another diplomatic campaign with the Iranians ended last weekend in Ankara, Turkey with positive remarks from all sides. Catherine Ashton, the European Union official who is leading the delegation for the P5+1 powers, was upbeat about Iranian cooperation during the opening discussions. Even U.S. officials back in Washington, who have been deeply skeptical of Iranian intentions for the past 32 years, were pleased to learn that Tehran’s negotiating team appeared to be genuinely interested in bridging some of the divides that have led to Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation from much of the world.
If the first round of dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) was to generate some sort of goodwill and confidence in the process, then the objective was met with flying colors. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top representative at the talks, was described by officials in the room as the polar opposite from his past self in January 2011, when he was adamant about lifting economic sanctions before the negotiations could go any further. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, contributed to this positive atmosphere by suggesting days later that Iran may be willing to stop producing its highest-grade uranium if the international community could reasonably assure Tehran that it would receive a steady supply of similar fuel.
But the hardest part of the negotiations is just around the corner. When talks resume on May 23 in Baghdad, the Iranians and the P5+1 will likely clash on the same issues that have impeded the nuclear talks in the past: the right for Iran to enrich its own uranium; complete access of Iran’s nuclear program to international inspectors; lifting Western economic sanctions; and an Iranian pledge that it will forgo the nuclear weapon route. Despite the goodwill and positive rhetoric emanating from both sides right now, it is impossible to say with any certainty whether they will survive the next month, as the parties begin to address substance rather than process.
Yet there is one crucial difference between this upcoming round and the failing dialogue of the past: the P5+1 and Iran now have greater incentives to work towards a peaceful solution to the conflict. The Iranians are desperate to rid themselves of economic constraints, while the world is trying to make diplomacy work in order to avoid a preemptive strike.
Ironically, politics in Washington may be as important an indicator as Iranian behavior on whether the talks will collapse or succeed. The Obama administration in particular will have to withstand likely attacks that will come from certain quarters in the U.S. Congress and the President’s Republican challenger in November. In general, congressional Republicans have long opposed renewed talks with the Islamic Republic unless Tehran first stops the uranium enrichment cycle. President George W. Bush instituted this precondition, which has had no effect in solving the problem. Indeed, the Iranians used the preconditions as an excuse to avoid the diplomatic path.
A number of U.S. senators led by Mark Kirk are already pushing for the administration to close some of the caveats of the previous Iran sanctions bill that was passed last year by an overwhelming 100-0 vote. The Senate Banking Committee has gone to work on a bill that would place even more sanctions on the Iranian leadership for human rights violations against its own people. So far, the Obama administration has not expressed its views on this legislation. However, for a president who is attempting to do everything in his power to avoid war and further confrontation, the legislation that is circulating in Congress will not be a useful complement to a diplomatic strategy.
If the Iranians do not concede to something substantial next month in Baghdad, Congress could very well hinder the continuation of the talks. At this very moment, however, talking directly with the Iranians is the best option to build momentum towards a final agreement that will provide both sides with a face-saving measure. The Baghdad talks also happen to be the only thing standing in the way of the military route, an option that some reporters and analysts are calling a likely possibility before the elections in November.
The Obama administration must hold firm, knowing that its action in Ankara last week—and in Baghdad next month—is the only sensible course that can truly resolve what has long been one of the most serious national security problems of the past decade.
Daniel R. DePetris is the Senior Associate Editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. He is a past contributor to the International Affairs Review.