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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Western diplomats are still getting it wrong on Iran
The outcome of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (France, Germany, Russia, UK, US and China) in Istanbul back in April gave hope to those who believe that war is no solution to the dispute with Iran. But, a month later, it's already unclear whether the west intends to honour promises made in Istanbul.
Lady Ashton has informed reporters of her expectations for another round of talks between Iran and P5+1 on 23 May: "My ambition is that we come away with the beginning of the end of the nuclear weapons programme in Iran." Her words give a hint of how western diplomats still struggle to understand the Iranian mindset. Iranians have repeatedly staked their honour on their assurance that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. The IAEA, US intelligence experts and Israeli intelligence experts are agreed that Iran is not building nuclear weapons and has not decided to do so.
Diplomatic blunders like this one can at least be put right by a further statement. The failure to honour promises, however, will deliver a mortal blow to the negotiating process launched last month.
At talks in Istanbul in April, it had been announced that discussions would be guided by the principles of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach. Most observers understood this to mean that the fruit of negotiations would be harvested at intervals, and that each harvest would consist of two baskets of concessions, roughly equal in value.
To put it simply, the Iranian basket would contain measures extending beyond those Iran is required to concede, and has conceded, as a party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – in order to increase western and Israeli confidence that Iran will not divert nuclear material to a clandestine military programme. The P5+1 basket, on the other hand, would mainly contain sanctions "relief" and the progressive lifting of the sanctions that the US, EU and UN have heaped on to Iran's back since 2006.
Yet now the terms of the bargain appear to have changed. According toan Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, US administration officials are saying: "Sanctions relief is not on the table unless and until we see substantial Iranian concessions." This does not sound like an approach "guided by the principle of reciprocity". From a European capital, meanwhile, comes a report that the EU is reluctant to accept that initial Iranian concessions will have to be bought through substantial sanctions relief or removal.
The US has always been likely to find the removal of sanctions problematic. The authority to lift US sanctions rests with Congress, not the administration. Anti-Iranian feeling is strong in Congress. Getting Congress to agree to sanctions removal is going to be a hard slog. But the administration has latitude to offer sanctions relief. More