Iran’s Last Gambit

I mentioned last week, in the aftermath of the announcement that William Burns would be attending Saturday’s Iran nuclear discussions, that the move seemed calculated to appeal to the court of public perception as much as it did to the Iranians. After all, while Burns’ presence represented a symbollic shift, his message didn’t. And it’s a message that the Iranians have consistently rejected over the years.

Now that it looks like the meeting between the EU’s Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili didn’t produce any breakthroughs (which isn’t so very surprising), the onus does indeed seem to be very squarely on the Iranians. At the very least, Condoleezza Rice felt comfortable going ballistic in remarks to the press (“People are tired of the Iranians and their stalling tactics. . .”), and dismissing questions about whether Burns will attend future meetings by saying, “I think we’ve done enough to demonstrate that the United States is serious and to assure our partners that we’re serious.”

Jalili, on the other hand, was more circumspect, calling the talks constructive. The same IRNA report had him announcing the next round of talks in two weeks time (which corresponds to the “ultimatum” Iran has to respond to the “freeze for a freeze” offer), while another had him announcing them for next week.

Significantly, Jalili’s first stop after Geneva was not Tehran, but rather Ankara, where he met with Turkish FM Ali Babacan. While acknowledging that Turkey is not playing a formal mediation role, Babacan described its participation as “consolidating and facilitating” the negotiations. It’s an interesting way to describe it, seeing as how last week’s meeting with Iranian FM Manuchehr Mottaki (which some speculated might be a backchannel negotiation in light of Stephen Hadley’s Ankara stopover the day before) also apparently resulted in Turkey’s expressing interest in investing up to $10 billion in Iran’s energy sector, including up to $6 billion to prospect for gas for the eventual Nabucco pipeline. (The “expression of interest,” which is far from a signed contract, was based on Mottaki’s declarations to the Iranian press, and I’ve yet to see Turkish confirmation.)

Be that as it may, one thing to keep in mind about these talks is that while the American and European objective is to get Iran to initially freeze and ultimately forego uranium enrichment (which they consider the only failsafe way to prevent Iran from secretly developing a weapons capacity), Iran is under no legal obligation to accept the latter, and is only obligated to accept the former (freeze its enrichment) because it has refused to be sufficiently transparent with the IAEA. That’s the legalese of it, anyway. By sending Burns to Geneva, the hope was that the symbollic optics of the shift in American policy might make the deal-sweetening incentives of the most recent offer credible enough to get Iran to basically cave on its oft-repeated red line. We’ll know better in two weeks time, but that might not be very realistic.

How the Iranians do respond when talks resume will be very telling. Essentially, they’ve assumed (and rightly so) that they could stonewall both the IAEA and the P5+1 negotiating track for the past two years, gaining valuable time and expertise in their enrichment capabilities. Should they decide that they can continue to gain an advantage by making no concessions, either on inspection transparency or compliance with UNSC resolutions calling for an enrichment freeze, it says a lot about both their assessment of the threat of an American or Israeli military option, as well as their ability to withstand and respond to it.

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