by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 4, Rajab, 1433)
Hopes aroused for a mutually acceptable approach to breaking the deadlock in Iran-P5+1 talks in Baghdad on May 23 and 24 were dashed because of Western duplicity.
Instead of offering any constructive proposals, Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, representing Western powers, put forward a series of demands that were breathtakingly brazen. It appears as if the Western powers, notably the US and Britain, had come to sabotage the talks deliberately. Not every member of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — US, Britain, France, China, Russia — plus Germany) endorsed such demands. China and Russia as well France under its newly elected president, Francois Hollande, were not in agreement with such a hardnosed approach.
Western demands were a reversal of what was agreed in Istanbul on April 14 that discussions would take place within the framework of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty not only allows Iran to enrich uranium for peaceful energy, medical and research purposes but also requires NPT signatories to provide technical assistance to Iran. Western demands also negated progress made during negotiations between representatives of the two sides to agree on an agenda leading to the Baghdad talks.
Iran’s chief negotiator, Dr. Saeed Jalili, who is Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council and a personal representative of the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, presented a set of counter-proposals to the P5+1. Iran’s five-point proposal outlined a step-by-step approach to resolving the nuclear standoff deliberately created by the West. Talks were extended for another day in Baghdad to see if a mutually acceptable agreement can be arrived at. When the gap proved too wide, it was decided to hold the next round of talks in Moscow on June 18 and 19.
What was described as the P5+1 “offer” was a set of demands that required Iran to “immediately” halt uranium enrichment to 20% and to ship its existing stockpile out of the country. The Fordow nuclear facility must also be shut down, Ashton demanded in her “offer.” What was the West going to do in return? It would agree to provide spare parts for Iran’s aging fleet of civilian planes and “consider” the lifting of sanctions with no guarantee of actually doing so, after Iran had fulfilled these demands.
Iranian officials at the Baghdad talks said the West’s new stand (Russia and China were not in complete agreement with it) went far beyond the step-by-step and “reciprocal” process agreed in the first round of talks in Istanbul on April 14. Those talks had generated high expectations, further reinforced by positive signals from both sides. Immediately after the Istanbul talks, Ashton had publicly stated that talks would be conducted within the framework of the NPT. If so, on what basis did she demand that Iran halt uranium enrichment to 20% and shut down the Fordow facility? Surely, she and American and European officials could not be oblivious of the treaty’s text?
Speaking at the conclusion of the Baghdad talks on May 24, Dr. Saeed Jalili emphatically stated that all countries had the right to enrich uranium under the NPT. He also reiterated Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. He made clear that Iran was not going to abandon its rights under Western pressure and called on Western countries to earn Iran’s trust.
An Iranian diplomat at the Baghdad talks quoted by the Christian Science Monitor (5-24-2012) said: “What you are asking for is… not what we agreed to in Istanbul.” Steps were meant to be “reciprocal, simultaneous, and… balanced” in their value to each side, said the Iranian diplomat. The demand to shut down the Fordow facility was completely ludicrous.
For her part, Ashton said both sides had found “common ground” for talks, though significant differences remained. She further noted that the next round of talks would be held through a step-by-step approach based on reciprocity. But that is precisely what she had said after the Istanbul talks, so why did she abandon the step-by-step approach and reciprocity that had been so much talked about preceding the Baghdad meeting? What countries or forces were involved in sabotaging the talks when a resolution is desperately needed by US President Barack Obama to help lower oil prices in order to have a chance at re-election?
The demands presented by Ashton seemed to reflect a change of position at the last minute, most likely to appease the Zionist lobby in the US. This is what the Zionists had demanded. Was Obama pressured into giving in to their demands, not wishing to antagonize them? Could it be that he sabotaged the talks in order to prevent Iraq getting any credit because the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had shown little gratitude for US help and refused to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement that would have allowed the stationing of US Special Forces in the country after the end of their formal mission in December 2011? In private discussions with Dr. Jalili, some members of the P5+1 expressed doubts about the legality of demands presented by Ashton. This clearly pointed to divisions between the P5+1 members. While Iran has indicated it would be willing to consider limiting its uranium enrichment, it insists this must occur within the framework of an overall agreement that would include the lifting of illegal oil and banking sanctions.
Statements from Iranian officials prior to the Baghdad talks indicated they were looking for specific timetables and goals instead of giving inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unfettered access to various sites without getting anything in return. Iran would not repeat what had happened in 2003. Nine years ago Iran agreed to halt all uranium enrichment; it allowed IAEA cameras to be installed at its nuclear facilities and even accepted the Additional Protocols, much beyond what was required by the NPT under the specific agreement that its right to uranium enrichment must be recognized and the illegal sanctions lifted. Far from lifting sanctions or reciprocating Iran’s important concessions, for nearly three years, the West simply stalled. In January 2006, Iran resumed enrichment but did so only after notifying the IAEA and allowing its inspectors to turn on their cameras.
The Baghdad talks were preceded by a flurry of statements and activities that reflected a positive outcome based on discussions the two sides had in the period leading to Baghdad. Ali Bagheri, advisor to Dr. Jalili, and Helga Schmid, deputy to the EU foreign policy chief, had held detailed discussions agreeing on a framework for the Baghdad talks. Dr. Gholamali Haddad Adel, former speaker of the Majlis and senior advisor to the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Khamenei said in Tehran on the eve of the talks: “Our minimum expectation is the annulment of the sanctions.” Another advisor to the Rahbar on foreign affairs, Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, suggested: “There is hope for the Baghdad talks” if the West’s intentions are sincere and they abide by international law and do not try to dictate solutions.
Perhaps the most interesting news was the May 19 telephone conversation between Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle. Dr. Salehi conveyed to Westerwelle his hope that the P5+1 would adopt a “positive and constructive approach” at the Baghdad talks so that they yield positive results. The Salehi-Westerwelle conversation occurred in the context of German Chancellor Angela Merkel arriving at Camp David for the G-8 summit meeting the same day. Obama later had a one-on-one meeting with Merkel. No doubt, Westerwelle’s discussion with Dr. Salehi was communicated to Merkel who in turn informed US President Barack Obama of its content.
While it is true that the illegal US-European imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors have had some negative effect, they are not a major threat to Iran’s economy. The Islamic Republic is largely insulated from Western economic pressures because it has diversified its trading partners. Failure of the Baghdad talks pose a much greater risk to Obama’s re-election bid than to Iran’s interests. He needs to keep oil prices low in order to placate an irate American public that has grown weary of wars (as was evident from protests at the NATO summit in Chicago) and downturn in the US economy. He “cannot run against the gas pump,” as pundits keep saying. This requires lowering of tensions with Iran that have caused the price of oil to rise by nearly 30%. Industry experts believe oil prices will remain steady or even drop till the US presidential elections in late October if tensions with Iran are kept low. Is Obama simply playing a game to keep the talks going creating the impression that the threat of war has receded thereby facilitating a drop in oil prices? If so, he is playing a dangerous game that will not last long.
The choice of Moscow as venue for the next round of talks on June 18 and 19 is indicative of two things: first, the two sides feel there is room for progress to continue talking. Second, it was Russia that had proposed a step-by-step approach and reciprocity to achieve success. Will the US see reason and come to terms with the fact that it cannot bully Iran into giving in to threats? The war option, no matter how hard the Zionists push for it, will not benefit the US. Senior US officials including military commanders have repeatedly warned against such adventurism. True, the Zionists do not care about US interests but the consequences of war would be disastrous for America and its European allies gripped by financial crisis and facing an imminent threat of euro’s collapse.
There are also other pointers that work against the US’s disruptive policy although not too much emphasis can be placed on them. One was the May 20 visit to Tehran by chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano. This was his first visit and the following day Amano struck a positive note in clear departure from his earlier statements that were critical of Iran. Whether a Tehran-IAEA deal will materialize in the aftermath of Baghdad is difficult to predict but it shows there is room for guarded optimism. Iran can also take comfort in the election of Francois Hollande as president of France, defeating the petulant Nicolas Sarkozy. The new French president signalled he wanted improved ties with Iran by sending Michel Rocard, prime minister in the socialist government of Francois Mitterrand, to visit Tehran.
The Moscow meeting later this month will reveal whether the West, especially the US, is really interested in finding a solution to the standoff or is merely going through the motions.