The Coming Botched Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

The current Indian Summer over the Lake of Geneva will not ensure a smooth launching next Thursday of the international negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program. Too many participants have decided to make them fail. Provocation and contempt, threats and sanctions without underlying negotiable proposals, an Orwellian stage pitting the Five Nuclear Weapons States -- standing on their self-assigned moral high ground -- against a paranoiac, but still Non-Nuclear Weapons State. To secure an Iran without nuclear weapons, a more rational approach will be needed, an approach with strong sanctions complemented by specific technical proposals potentially acceptable to Iran, negotiated in a bilateral framework rather than the now chosen international extravaganza involving too many parties that disagree openly among themselves on how to proceed.

Iran provokes foolishly -- with the launching of missiles and with even more silly sound bites from its president. Tipped by the Russians about the imminent Western announcement of the Qom enrichment site, Iran sends only late September a last-minute letter to the IAEA declaring Qom -- like a rebelling child displaying stolen cookies. Exposure is inescapable in the age of satellite surveillance; the Iranians would have been clever-and-a-half to declare their second enrichment facility much earlier if eager to pre-empt Western accusation of non-compliance with safeguards obligations. But confusion prevails in Tehran.

Fellow-blogger Joe Cirincione has pointed out here the strategically correct approach adopted by the Obama administration, namely to keep confidential all new intelligence information on Iranian activities until bargaining time. Regrettably, last week, tactical considerations got priority when Obama, Brown and Sarkozy went public frenetically with the short-term hope to enlist Russian and Chinese support for subsequent stringent sanctions. Illusion. The Russians will continue to play double games. As an only ally, they keep the Iranians on a short political leash, while extorting horrendous prices for the nuclear fuel services they provide. In a broader context, the Russians will do whatever they can to foil a grand bargain between the US, Europe and Iran, a bargain that could see Iranian natural gas flowing to Europe, thereby helping Europe to reduce its dependency on Russia. As to the Chinese, they do not care; they only want Iranian gas to continue flowing their way.

What to expect from the forthcoming Geneva negotiations? Not much. For sure, the negotiating framework is ludicrous. On one side of the table, the Iranian delegation alone. On the other side, a big crowd: the Five Nuclear Weapons States, and Germany, and the European Union. The P5, those who carry the day at the Security Council, will claim the main seats (like five noisy drunkards threatening a boisterous youngster tempted by his first glass of wine). Well, without the presence of Germany, the so-called P5+1 have little moral authority on nuclear proliferation. As to the European Union, it disagrees fundamentally within itself on how to handle Iran. Most members oppose the British and French claim of speaking on behalf of Europe, and most oppose decisive sanctions. As with the North Korean negotiations, the presence of so many people across the table will not impress the Iranians.

Quite clearly, the Obama administration needs to revert to a strategically more sensible approach, a road map that would see the US engage Iran with a credible Plan B containing specific technical proposals meant to pull the rug from under an emerging nuclear weapons program in Iran. To be realistic, with Iran in political disarray, with its incompetent and quixotic government, the diplomatic logjam could only be broken through a discrete channel that would involve two experienced negotiators enjoying the trust of their respective leaders, personalities with the authority to move an agenda forward. On the Iranian side, there are not too many candidates; the most obvious being Ali Larijani, Speaker of Parliament, a knowledgeable man in an independent position with a direct link to the Supreme Leader. In the US, the former Under Secretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering, would be the best among many possible candidates.

As to the substance, the US must realize that Plan A is a non-starter -- that is, the complete suspension of sensitive nuclear activities in Iran through sanctions alone or military options alone. In the New York Times of September 17, 2009, Roger Cohen wrote concisely what I have advocated for many years: "I cannot see any deal that will not at some point trade controlled Iranian enrichment on its soil against insistence that Iran accept the vigorous inspections of the I.A.E.A. Additional Protocol and a 24/7 I.A.E.A. presence. The time is approaching for the United States and its allies to abandon "zero enrichment" as a goal -- it's no longer feasible -- and concentrate on how to exclude weaponization, cap enrichment and ensure Iran believes the price for breaking any accord will be heavy." An in-depth 2006 report of the International Crisis Group -- of which I was a co-author -- dealt with one particular option to cap enrichment in Iran. There are indeed several options to forestall weaponization and to cap enrichment; they deserve consideration, because they could open the door to Iran's acceptance of the vigorous inspections associated with the Additional Protocol to the existing Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. I will deal with the pros and cons of various options in the coming weeks.