To their credit, Western negotiators at the P5+1 talks in Baghdad did not completely fold before the negotiations began. They presented a proposal that, while still granting legitimacy to the Iranian nuclear program, did not remove existing sanctions or the threat of an oil embargo in advance of Tehran’s agreement to stop refining weapons-grade uranium and to ship their stockpile out of the country. The Iranian reaction to this mild offer was predictable. They claimed it was not only unreasonable but that it violated what the Islamist regime says was agreed to at the previous meeting in Istanbul.
That means those who feared the Baghdad meeting would lead to an unsatisfactory agreement that could be represented as ending the crisis but by no means removing the Iranian nuclear threat can exhale. But that does not mean the danger of an Iranian diplomatic victory is averted. Quite the contrary, the Iranians view their indignant refusal as just the start of the bargaining process by which they will ultimately get what they want: the West’s endorsement of their right to a nuclear program and removal of sanctions. The question here is whether the negotiators, led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and backed up by political leaders such as President Obama and French President Hollande, have the will to stick to this position rather than being enticed into a bazaar-style barter in which the Iranians are bound to win. If, as is reported, the West’s stance is just a preliminary bid, then we will soon know the answer.
The trouble is both sides in this negotiation have a common goal: keeping Israel from launching a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and avoiding an oil embargo. Yet, while both the possibility of an Israeli attack and increased Western sanctions worry the Iranians, they appear to have great confidence in their ability to talk their way out of what seems on the surface to be a perilous position. If, as reports indicate, the West doesn’t merely leave their proposal on the table but holds out the possibility of future sessions without Iran’s compliance with even these first steps, then Tehran has good reason to believe they have Ashton, Obama and Hollande right where they want them.
It must be understood that even if Iran agreed to the current Western proposal that would by no means alleviate worries about the regime going nuclear. So long as the Iranians are refining uranium — even with the permission to do so only at lower rates of refinement — there is no reason to believe they will give up their quest for a bomb. Indeed, giving their facilities a Western seal of approval under any circumstances will facilitate the continuance of their military project by less public means. Putting this approval on the table now only means that the final agreement, if Iran ever consents to an accord, will be even more generous. And because, as the AP reported yesterday, Iran has already started transferring uranium refined at a weapons grade level of 20 percent to their reactors, there is no way of telling whether they can even be made to comply with the terms Ashton laid on the table.
Nevertheless, if the West is more desperate than Iran to keep the talks going, there is little doubt the terms will start to be sweetened. It takes quite a leap of faith to imagine President Obama won’t fall for Iran’s negotiating ploys.