Meir Javedanfar

The just-ended two days of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) at least ended up agreeing on one thing: both sides will meet again in June, in Moscow.

That was one of the few things that they managed to find common ground on – with the two sides failing to reach an agreement about the cessation of Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium at 20 per cent levels at Fordo as per the West’s wishes, while the P5+1 didn’t agree to the removal of unilateral Western sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sector as per Iran’s wishes. 

Simply put, the two fell well short of the other side’s expectations. Iran insisted on its right to continue with enrichment of uranium as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while the P5+1 had no truck with Iran’s demands over sanctions, instead indicating it was willing to offer Iran assistance with safety at its reactors, and help its airline industry acquire spare parts for its commercial airliners.

The P5+1 must surely be aware that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is far from the only Iranian leader who would consider himself unable to accept such a deal, so why make such an offer in the first place? Why not place the onus on Iran by offering them something viable and attractive, such as the removal of banking and oil sanctions?  Had Iran accepted such an offer, it would have been a breakthrough for the P5+1, as the most sensitive and dangerous part of Iran’s enrichment programme would have come to a halt. And had Iran rejected such an offer, it would have isolated itself even more, while justifying the P5+1’s dual track of sanctions and diplomacy.

Such an outcome would have been a win-win for the P5+1 – all the West had to do was make the offer. So why is it taking its time? And what does this strategy tell us?

First and foremost, the fact that the P5+1 are in no hurry to make a viable offer to Iran is a clear sign that the Obama administration, as well as other members of the P5+1, don’ believe that Iran is making a bomb – at least not yet. Otherwise, a much better offer than the one made in Baghdad would have been made to stop enrichment at 20 per cent now, before it’s too late. It also suggests that the P5+1 clearly believe that Israel isn’t going to attack Iran’s facilities this year, giving them more time to negotiate with Tehran.

But the behaviour of the P5+1 also indicates that they believe that sanctions are working, and that biding their time could therefore serve them better. Over the years, Iran has been accused of stalling at the talks to give it more time to develop its N-programme. This was evident in 2011, when Iran wasn’t even willing to discuss its nuclear programme with the P5+1. That same year, Iran made a great deal of progress in enriching uranium to 20pc, which allowed Tehran to bypass the red lines that the West set for it with regards to enrichment.

Much like Israel’s current settlement expansion policy, stalling at the talks has given Iran time to create more “facts on the ground.” And, just as every new house built in the West Bank that is given the green light by the Netanyahu government gives Israel a stronger bargaining hand, so every kilogram of uranium produced during Iran’s foot dragging gives Tehran more leverage to secure concessions from the other side. Indeed, according to a recent statement by Hamidreza Taraghi, an adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei “crossing the West’s red lines” is viewed as something of an achievement by the Iranian regime.

Running the clock on nuclear enrichment has so far served Iran’s interests well. However, it’s not clear whether the Iranians understand that times have changed. These days, the West, through wide reaching unilateral banking and oil sanctions, has installed its own taxi meter next to Iran’s nuclear countdown, one that is clocking up an extremely high “fare” for each minute that goes by without agreement.

Iran could once let the clock tick away without an agreement with very little cost to itself and much to gain. But those days are over. Now that very costly sanctions have been imposed against Iran, it seems that the West wants the clock to keep ticking away. And, as the US seems to believe that Khamenei isn’t currently pursuing a bomb, the West seems determined to run the meter so high that Iran will eventually be forced to ask the US to stop, and negotiate on its terms.

There’s some logic behind to this strategy. The EU oil curbs will at the very least be a significant psychological blow to Iran’s economy. Even South Africa, which for many years has been Iran’s staunch defender in the Non-Aligned Movement, is now looking to replace Iran with Nigeria as its key oil supplier. This combination of factors, plus falling oil prices, is likely to prompt Iran’s currency to fall again, perhaps soon, placing even more pressure on Iran to compromise.

It’s natural for any side to want to diminish the other’s bargaining position during negotiations, and Iran and the West have been playing this game for many years. Now the P5+1, especially its Western members, seem to have the upper hand. Clearly, the best outcome for the P5+1 is one in which they convince Khamenei to do what they want, something that seems entirely possible through the current dual track of diplomacy and sanctions.

But Khamenei will need a deal that he can sell to his home audience, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Anything less, such as the current offer by the P5+1, would be political suicide for him, and one thing Khamenei has shown over the years is that he isn’t suicidal. For now at least, the costs of accepting what’s on the table are far higher than what the P+1 meter is showing.

–Diplomat