The P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship

Posted in Iran | 25-Oct-12 | Source: Crisis Group

The nuclear negotiations with Iran that resume in Moscow on Monday are likely to hit a wall and, without a change in approach, risk break-down with dire consequences.



The P5+1, Iran and the Perils of Nuclear Brinkmanship, the latest International Crisis Group briefing, examines the diplomatic rollercoaster, from the rush of optimism that followed the April session in Istanbul to the pessimism resulting from last month's Baghdad talks and proposes a pragmatic way forward. Washington and Brussels seem to count on sanctions to force Iran to compromise. Tehran appears to bank on a re-elected President Obama displaying more flexibility and an economically-incapacitated Europe fearing the adverse consequences of tougher sanctions. None of this is likely. If prospects for a deal fade, mutual escalation is more probable – and pressure by Israel for a military strike.

"If negotiations collapse now, it is hard to know what comes next", says Ali Vaez, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Iran. "The optimism that greeted the Istanbul talks was largely illusory. Success was measured against a negative starting point – the absence of talks for the preceding fifteen months and a series of escalatory steps by all sides in the interim".

Istanbul was largely devoid of polemics but also of substance. All were on their best behaviour, because they shared a tactical goal: to gain time and avoid a crisis that could lead to an Israeli military strike. Iran saw benefit in delaying pending sanctions; the P5+1 (the Security Council permanent members plus Germany) feared further regional instability could send oil prices soaring, complicating Europe's recovery and Obama's re-election. But, that commonality aside, the parties had widely differing expectations. European and U.S. officials believed Tehran came to the table due to the devastating impact of sanctions and fear of an attack. Iran felt it was in the driver's seat, having increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile, enriched at higher levels and completed the underground Fordow facility. Both felt confident; neither was in a mood to give in. In Baghdad, it showed.

Should progress not soon be forthcoming, the diplomatic process could grind to a halt. Even if it eventually resumes, precedent teaches that reciprocal escalatory steps are likely and that the hiatus could last longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, Israel will look warily at Iran's growing stockpile of enriched uranium, and even though the Islamic Republic is years away from acquiring a bomb, might believe the time has come to take military action.

This argues for new thinking, beginning at Moscow. The sides should agree to ongoing, technical-level negotiations for a limited agreement on Iran's 20 per cent enrichment and drop some demands: there will not be significant sanctions relief at this stage, and it is equally unlikely Iran will close Fordow, its only installation that could resist an Israeli strike. In exchange for Iran's suspension of 20 per cent enrichment and conversion of its stockpile, the West should offer its own serious concessions, related to easing the sanctions and recognition in principle of its right to enrich.

"The talks could well fail. Then, the goal will be to avert all kinds of destructive steps, including military confrontation, the most destructive of all", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director. "But, before reaching that phase, there is much work to do to see if a deal can be reached and if what little optimism is left over from Istanbul can still be salvaged".