The talks resuming Wednesday between six world powers and Iran about the country’s nuclear ambitions are unlikely to produce any immediate results, according to former ambassador Dennis Ross, one of US President Barack Obama’s closest Middle East advisers.
However, Wednesday’s negotiations between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — should yield the first indications of whether an agreement will be possible in the near future, Ross said, adding that in order to be successful such talks need to occur more frequently.
“It’s unrealistic to think you’d have a breakthrough right now. But it is important to be in a position where you can begin to determine whether you can produce an outcome or not,” Ross told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.
“I don’t think we should look at tomorrow to be make-or-break meeting — that if there isn’t an unmistakable breakthrough then the process isn’t a real process,” he said. “Having said that, I also don’t think that you can approach this from the standpoint that we have all the time in the world, because I don’t think we do have all the time in the world.”
The real question was whether the talks, being held in Baghdad, will allow the international community to determine whether it is in fact possible to come to a meaningful outcome or whether the Islamic Republic is merely playing for time, he said.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly suggested that Tehran is pretending to be open to an agreement while at the same time advancing its nuclear program and moving it underground to protect it from military attacks.
Ross, who in November left the White House after two years as a senior director of the National Security Council, said Wednesday’s talks should “have a clear agenda” that demonstrate Iran’s willingness to enter substantive negotiations. Confidence building steps would include an agreement to “stop the clock” on producing highly enriched uranium and committing to the distinction between maintaining a strictly civil nuclear program and one that could easily be used to produce nuclear weapons, he said.
But in order to reach a diplomatic breakthrough, such talks need to be held much more frequently, Ross asserted.
“If the process is going to be characterized by meetings once a month, then it’s pretty hard to see how you get there, because the technical nature of the discussions is such that they have to be much more intensive and ongoing,” he said.
While it is recommended to have a timeframe in mind, it was not necessary to impose any concrete deadlines, said Ross, who today serves as a counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You want to send a signal that we’re serious but we’re not desperate for an agreement. Also, we’re not pushing prematurely, trying to produce an outcome before you’ve had a chance to have the kind of discussions that are credible enough to determine whether such an outcome is possible.”
The last talks between the P5+1 and Tehran took place on April 14 in Istanbul. When it emerged that the discussions’ only result was an agreement to reconvene in five weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fumed that Iran had been given a “freebie,” as it was granted precious time “to continue enrichment without any limitation.”
On Tuesday, the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog organization, Yukiya Amano, reportedly reached a deal with the Iranians. While no details were announced, the agreement, to be signed in the coming days, would presumably allow the International Atomic Energy Agency UN’s nuclear watchdog to resume inspections of the country’s nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials expressed extreme skepticism about the reported agreement and Ross, too, seemed unconvinced of its significance. An accord would “certainly be a very positive development, but we should actually see it done before we believe that it’s actually going to take place,” he said. This would not be the first time the Islamic regime pledged to comply with the IAEA’s demands only to later renege on its commitments, Ross warned.
Yet overall Ross seemed mildly optimistic about the P5+1 talks. “What we’re seeing for the first time are indications of the Iranians at least wanting to signal that they’re prepared to deal with their program,” he concluded. “Now we have to see if what they’re really prepared to do meets what we think is required.”