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Most Difficult Question for the West in its Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

By Mahdi Mohammadi, Chief Editor of and Expert on Strategic Issues (translated by Iran Review.Org)

Since [the Iranian President] Hassan Rouhani has returned to Tehran [from a trip to New York to take part in the 68th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly] difficulties of diplomacy have been gradually popping up. As long as the Iranian president was in New York, both Iran and the United States were making tangible efforts in a bid to show that a positive atmosphere exists between the two sides. One of the main goals of Rouhani’s trip to the United States was to foster public diplomacy in order to improve Iran's image in the world and make it more difficult for the Israelis to pose new threats against Tehran, one may claim that Rouhani has been to a large extent successful in achieving this goal. This is why [the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has become so upset and has been trying by all available means to convince the international community that there is nothing new with regard to Iran's behavior to raise hope.

The public diplomacy, however, is not the whole story. There were two other aspects to Rouhani’s trip to the United States. A more or less complete assessment of Rouhani’s trip to the United States can be only carried out when this trip is considered in parallel with the public diplomacy which was pursued by the Iranian delegation. The second aspect of the trip was related to the official diplomacy. Undoubtedly, a turning point here was a meeting by [the Iranian Foreign Minister] Mohammad Javad Zarif with his counterparts from the member states of the P5+1 group of world powers. Of course, a more important event was a private conversation between Zarif and the US Secretary of State John Kerry which took about half an hour. There was also a third aspect to Rouhani’s US visit, which is known as covert diplomacy or Track II diplomacy. This article will solely focus on the official diplomacy as Track II diplomacy will be covered by a separate article.

The most important issues with regard to official nuclear diplomacy which was pursued in New York is that we still do not exactly know what proposal has been offered by Zarif during his meeting with the foreign ministers of the P5+1. It is, however, clear that since that day, the American officials have been trying to reduce tension in relations to a lower level and even instill some degree of optimism.

There are currently two serious crises which may be faced in the sphere of official diplomacy. The first crisis will undoubtedly come as a result of efforts made by the united front of Saudi Arabia and Israel which oppose Iran's ideas and initiatives. The second crisis is related to the ongoing tension in relations between the US administration and the Congress over the country’s annual budget which is also the most unexpected mishap which could have occurred at this juncture. Such a tension between two American political institutions can certainly have a direct impact on the cooperation between the US administration and the Congress on other issues, including the relations with Iran. If the US administration is actually willing to see a progress in its diplomatic efforts toward Iran, it will have to either convince Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Congress about usefulness of such diplomatic efforts, or to totally ignore them. On the other hand, US Secretary of State John Kerry has clearly modified what the West previously demanded from Iran. This is true because the proposal he has put on the table for Iran is neither similar to what the Israeli regime wants from Iran, nor - unlike what the Western officials had already announced - is even a repetition of the proposal put forth [during negotiations between Iran and the P5+1] in [the Kazakh city of] Almaty. In a televised interview with the American news channel, CBS, Kerry asked Iran to allow inspection of its nuclear site in Fordow, implement the Additional Protocol [to the Non-Proliferation Treaty] and reduce the level of uranium enrichment on its soil from 20 percent to 5 percent. There is a wide and meaningful difference between Kerry’s demands from Iran and the four requests that have been put forth by the Israeli officials which require Iran to stop uranium enrichment altogether, shut down Fordow nuclear site, and also to take all the nuclear material out of the Arak nuclear reactor before closing it down. What Kerry said was not even similar to the proposal offered to Iran during negotiations in Almaty. In Almaty, the P5+1 group had asked Iran to convert its 20-percent enriched uranium into uranium oxide, reduce operations at Fordow, and totally stop enriching uranium to 20-percent level. The request from Iran to stop 20-percent enrichment is the sole common denominator between these two different sets of proposals. In other instances, however, there are basic differences between these proposals which include:

1. Kerry has so far accepted officially that Iran can continue to enrich uranium at lower levels. This issue had been never accepted by the Americans in an official capacity. Up to the present time, the Americans have consistently used the phrase “peaceful nuclear technology” to describe what they will be finally ready to accept with regard to Iran's nuclear energy program. That phrase actually meant that Iran should stop enriching uranium as part of its nuclear activities at any level - because it is a part of the nuclear energy program which has double applications. At present, however, Kerry has clearly accepted enrichment by Iran at low levels, which shows that some change in the United States position on Iran's nuclear energy program is in the offing.

2. The second problem here is that Israel’s idea of controlling Iran's nuclear energy program is a combination of increased transparency (with the goal of ensuring lack of diversion in that program) and dismantling certain parts of the nuclear energy program (in order to prevent Iran from reaching the so-called point of breakaway). On the other hand, the idea proposed by Kerry puts the main emphasis on the need for more transparency in Iran's nuclear energy program. As a result, it practically means that Kerry believes the transparency is sufficient to eliminate the existing concerns with regard to nuclear breakaway by Iran and there is no need for the Islamic Republic to dismantle any part of its nuclear program.

The question which can be posed now is what will happen when we reach October 15 [the date on which Iran and the P5+1 are expected to hold their next round of comprehensive talks]? Will the United States administration take the same position as Kerry, or will Netanyahu succeed during his stay in the country to change the viewpoint of the American officials with regard to Iran's nuclear energy program?

As far as Iran is concerned, if the forthcoming negotiations mostly focus on the concept of transparency and assuring the West that Iran has never tried to build nuclear weapons and will never try to do so in the future, it will be quite possible for the two sides to reach an agreement. In fact, the main problem up to this day was the fact that Iran believed and argued that the West’s main concern is not about Iran's nuclear energy program being, and continue to remain, peaceful because if this was the West’s real concern, it would have been quite possible to solve this issue rapidly and simply.

The second crisis in the area of official diplomacy is related to what can be called the translation of generalities into details and tone into action. Both the Iranian side and [the European Union’s foreign policy chief] Catherine Ashton have announced that on October 15, they will put their main focus on hashing out the details of measures that each side should take. Remarks made by the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister [for Legal and International Affairs] Abbas Araqchi last week proved that Iran has put the formulation of a new modality on its agenda. That modality, as defined by Iran, aims to set the course of the negotiations from the beginning to the end and also specify steps that both sides should take in accordance with a specific schedule. On the Western side, however, there has been no sign that they are really inclined to formulate a negotiation modality from the very outset of the talks, and there has been also no sign that the P5+1 group is ready for this. Available evidence also shows that even when the Western side talks about a comprehensive modality, it will be actually focused on the first step and will try to have some of its more urgent concerns dispelled when the first step is taken. From this viewpoint, it would be quite pessimistic to assume that what John Kerry has said is, in fact, description of the first step that the United States expects Iran to take, not a road map for the entire course of the negotiations and not all the things that Washington expects from Tehran. If this turned out to be the case, then the chances for any advances on the diplomatic front would be reduced. If the United States is only focused on the first step - as it was during negotiations with Iran in Baghdad - it would mean that there would be no serious and meaningful lifting of anti-Iran sanctions, especially those sanctions imposed on Iran's banking and energy sectors, and the United States will keep basic sanctions against Iran in place in order to use them as its trump card in further bargaining with the Islamic Republic. Such a process, if taken, would be exactly the repetition of the past experiences in Almaty and Baghdad talks. As a result, it would be highly unlikely that negotiations would hit any decisive result because from the viewpoint of the Islamic Republic, this process is actually aimed to make Iran dispel the West’s most critical concerns with nothing given to Iran as quid pro quo.

It seems that we must wait until October 15 to see what proposals the United States will bring to the negotiations. In reality, however, if the negotiations on October 15 fail to lead to a tangible move forward, it would be very difficult afterwards to take further diplomatic measures. In the meantime, the West should answer the most difficult question in the history of its nuclear diplomacy with Iran: Will they be ready to reduce anti-Iran sanctions to zero after the Islamic Republic accepts to go on with its uranium enrichment activities at the lowest level and under international supervision?

... Payvand News - 10/04/13 ... --

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