An unbending Iran meets an underprepared international leadership

An unbending Iran meets an underprepared international leadership

Ahead of Friday’s ‘last chance’ talks on its nuclear program, Iran’s latest boast that it can withstand three years of oil sanctions is a good barometer of its intentions

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, April 2012 (photo credit: AP/Hasan Sarbakhshian)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, April 2012 (photo credit: AP/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Fourteen months after the collapse of talks between the international community and Iran surrounding its nuclear program, a new round of negotiations is scheduled to resume in Istanbul this Friday.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, collectively known as P5+1, will attempt to pry guarantees from Iran that its enrichment of uranium won’t be used in the future as part of a program for military purposes. US President Barack Obama has dubbed the Istanbul talks “Iran’s last chance” to lift the threat of military intervention and a toughening international sanction regime imposed on the Islamic Republic.

The West is demanding that Iran shut down its underground enrichment facility in Fordow and stop enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent, which can be easily upgraded to weapons-level use of 90%. Iranian nuclear chief Fereidoun Abbasi Davani indicated this week that Iran may be willing to scale back its uranium enrichment when it has produced enough. But he rejected the international demand that Iran turn over the uranium already enriched to a third country, and that Iran close the installation in Fordow.

Ahead of the meeting, Obama conveyed a message to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whereby the United States would tolerate an Iranian civilian nuclear program in return for guarantees that Iran is not pursuing a military one, the Washington Post reported Friday. Iran’s answer was vague and illusive.

Obama has insisted that he is intent on ensuring Iran does not attain a nuclear weapon — by military means if necessary, but with a readiness to try diplomacy for a while longer yet. Iran has to date shown no sign that it takes seriously his assertion that the military option is on the table. Iran is also well aware that the P5+1 members do not necessarily speak with one voice.

In Israel and the Arab world, expectations of the Istanbul talks are low. Israeli officials have warned repeatedly that Iran is simply using the diplomatic route to buy time, while it quietly maintains its drive toward nuclear weapons, and the fear here is that an unbending Iran will outmanoeuvre an inadequately organized P5+1. There are also concerns that Iran will seek to exploit potential differences of opinion among the P5+1 members. As on Syria, the likes of China and Russia do not always see eye-to-eye with the US, UK and France.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said several times recently that the sanctions aren’t working, and indicated that a decision on military intervention may be only months away.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told The Times of Israel last month that this round of talks had to be the last, with the resort to force the only option left if it wasn’t quickly clear that Iran was negotiating substantively.

Halevy also warned that Iran would be seeking to manipulate the P5+1 powers, taking advantage of the fact that it is a single entity facing off against numerous players, and urged serious preparations ahead of the talks among the P5+1 members and the appointment of a single, expert negotiator; he said bleakly that he saw no signs of any such serious preparations.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN on Sunday that even though sanctions had affected the Iranian economy — doubling its inflation rates in cities to nearly 22% — economic pressure alone was unlikely to cause Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

A satellite image of Iran's Fordo nuclear enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image of Iran's Fordow nuclear enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)

“We hope for the better but I don’t believe that this amount of sanctions and pressure will bring the Iranian leadership to the conclusion that they have to stop their nuclear military program,” Barak told CNN.

Barak added that even low-grade uranium, enriched to 3.5%, should be removed from Iran to a trusted third country.

The Dubai-based news channel Al-Arabiya expressed pessimism Tuesday regarding the prospects of the Istanbul talks to curb Iran’s ambitions. “Negotiations on the Iranian matter set to fail,” read the headline of the channel’s online article.

The report contended that allowing Iran to enrich uranium to a level of 3.5% may be satisfactory to both sides. However, Iran has deceived the world before, hiding its enrichment efforts from international eyes. It was not the regime but rather Iranian defectors and foreign intelligence agencies who revealed Iran’s true nuclear ambitions.

Moreover, Iran could still lower its uranium enrichment but continue working on its missile-launching capabilities, only to return to bomb-grade uranium enrichment at a later stage. Meanwhile, it would have avoided years of sanctions.

Until midweek, it was unclear whether Turkey would even be hosting the talks. The Turkish daily Hurriyet reported that neither Iran nor the other attendees confirmed Istanbul as a venue, with relations between Iran and Turkey souring after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed Iran, April 5, for acting insincerely by proposing Baghdad or Damascus as alternative venues for the negotiations.

What will Iran demand in the talks, if and when they take place?

According to Iranian analyst Kihan Barzajar, translated into Arabic Tuesday by the London-based daily Al-Hayat, Iran is trying to expand the scope of debate to focus on other regional countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. It will also demand to turn the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone and to pressure Israel to forgo its policy of nuclear ambiguity and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which will introduce inspectors to its nuclear facilities. But Iran is yet to deliver an official and coherent set of principles to calm international uncertainty.

On Tuesday, there was no mention of the Istanbul talks on any major Iranian news service. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did declare, however, that Iran could withstand three years of oil sanctions. This statement is probably the best indicator of Iran’s attitude to the Istanbul talks.

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