A window of opportunity with Iran?
Earlier this week six world powers agreed to seek renewed talks with Iran as fast as possible.
This reflects increasing concern over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program amid fears that it is expanding its nuclear capacity in an underground bunker. On Nov. 16, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran is continuing to stockpile its enriched uranium, and upgrade its facilities. Since August, Tehran has added 43 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium to its stockpile. Iran has also still failed to allow UN inspectors adequate access to its facilities to assess whether or not its nuclear program is just for peaceful purposes.
The new push is also linked to US President Barack Obama’s recent election victory. He has probably requested the Europeans -- who lead the talks -- to try to move ahead while there is a window of opportunity. This window will close in the run-up to Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections. The climate has changed since the US elections because Obama is now much freer to be able to put a more attractive package or offer on the table. If the international community is met with an Iran more open -- not least because of the impact of the international sanctions -- then there could be a good chance of achieving some success.
Indeed, there seems to be a belief that the combination of international sanctions, particularly the oil embargo placed by the EU before the summer and Iran’s increasing international isolation, means there is more likelihood of getting concessions from Iran. However, Iran has already made it clear that it is expecting a more constructive and flexible approach from the other side, which means pushing for concession may be a non-starter.
It is true that Iran is feeling increasingly isolated, not least because of the Arab Spring. Iran’s initial response was positive. Tehran believed the shake-up of the status quo, especially in Egypt, would be beneficial to them and that it could lead to strengthening of Islamist forces in the region and increased animosity towards Israel. That a weakening of key states such as Egypt would enhance Iran’s regional influence. Rather, Iran has been a big loser from the Arab shake-up. Tehran has been bitterly disappointed. The widespread regional instability has not been conducive to the extension of either Tehran’s power or influence with many of the new leadership’s having no desire for close relations with Tehran. This has led to Tehran feeling more paranoid about Saudi Arabia and Gulf States such as Qatar.
Iran’s growing isolation is also demonstrated by its relations with Hamas, with Hamas largely turning to Qatar for funding and support. Of course Iran still has its role to play there, but it seems to have much less influence over the Hamas leadership than previously. For example, Hamas refused to follow Iran’s position on Syria. While Iran may still act as a spoiler for regional security -- Iran is clearly still supplying Hamas with weapons -- such as the rockets (Fajr-5 missiles) that were fired into Israel, it is facing being marginalized. Today the only organization that Iran really seems to have full control over is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but they are rather small. Moreover, the situation in Syria does not look good for Iran either, with the downfall of the Bashar al-Assad regime very imminent. That only leaves them with Iraq.
Yet even in Assad’s weakened regional position Iran will never kowtow to the international community. Therefore if new talks are to succeed, there needs to be a much more flexible approach. No matter how isolated Iran may be, the country will never agree to a deal where it sees the West as being the winners and Tehran as being a loser.
The international community needs to be more realistic in what to expect from Iran and in terms of what Iran will want from them, rather than just what they want from Iran. Putting another deal where spare parts for planes are the main incentive will not produce a positive result. Iran is looking for less intrusive inspections, recognition of Iran’s right to enrichment and perhaps a partial lifting of the oil embargo or the sanctions placed on the central bank. There should be a win-win outcome. Both sides still need to concede some ground, but the chances for an agreement are better than they have been for some time. This opportunity should not be squandered.