Wednesday, October 30, 2013

U.S. Administration Uses 5+1 Talks To Conduct Bilateral Back-Channel Talks With Iran

by A. Savyon and Y. Carmon


The nuclear talks with Iran, which are set to resume in Geneva on November 7, 2013, have turned into talks on two separate yet parallel tracks. One track is Iran's talks with the 5+1 group, while the main thrust of the other, which bypasses the 5+1, is direct U.S.-Iran talks under the auspices of the 5+1 talks. This bilateral track may also include secret contacts. But the official contacts are under the auspices of the 5+1 talks because Iran will not agree to official direct contact without maximal incentive to do so.[1]

Why Are Iran And The U.S. Bypassing The 5+1 Countries?

Iran and the U.S. are bypassing the 5+1 because they are both interested in doing so. First, the U.S. is interested because the Obama administration is alone in its flexible stance vis-à-vis Iran, and it is trying to reach understandings with it directly; it will then present these understandings to the 5+1 forum in an attempt to force it to accept them and thus turn them into a matter of international consensus. It was reported only recently that as part of the E.U.'s new approach in reinforcing its Iran sanctions regime, it is planning to revoke exemptions granted in recent months to several companies.[2] This runs counter to the American administration's efforts to prevent Congress from imposing additional sanctions. 

Attempting to conceal the gaps between its position and Europe’s, the U.S. is demanding that the 5+1-Iran track be conducted in secret. In contrast, the Iranians are demanding that the 5+1 talks be open and transparent, so that they are not accused at home of selling out the country's nuclear interest.[3]

It should be emphasized that the Obama administration is considering unfreezing tens of billions of dollars' worth of Iranian assets, a move that would likely be accompanied by an Iranian announcement that it is reducing the level to which it is enriching uranium. By doing this, the Obama administration would be circumventing both Congressional sanctions and the 5+1's consensus that sanctions on Iran not be lifted unless Iran takes a very significant preliminary measure.[4]

Iran is interested in direct talks with the U.S. because the consensus in the 5+1 – that is, the international community's position – remains unchanged: fundamental opposition to Iran's becoming a nuclear state; fundamental rejection of its demand to enrich uranium to any level on its soil and a demand that it cease and desist from doing so immediately in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions; harsh criticism of Iran's refusal to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and of its continued lack of transparency towards it and towards the international community; and harboring suspicions that it is conducting military nuclear activity.

In contrast to the 5+1's position, the U.S. has in recent months been hinting that it would be willing to recognize an Iran that is nuclear for civilian purposes and under strict oversight, and that it would consider Iran's cessation of enriching uranium to 20% as a positive move.[5] (It should be noted that in light of the American administration's efforts at rapprochement with Tehran, and its hints that it may recognize Iran's right to low-level uranium enrichment, Russia too has been attempting to strengthen its ties with Iran with a proposal of concessions that offers no less than the Americans are offering.)[6]

Each Side's Aim In Bypassing The 5+1 Talks

Iran needs to talk directly with the order to achieve its goal – recognition as a nuclear state, a status which follows from recognition of its right to enrich uranium on its soil. The U.S. is bypassing the 5+1 and talking directly with Iran in order to achieve its own goal – it seeks an historic reconciliation with Iran, or at the very least direct talks on a permanent basis. It should be emphasized that the American administration's goal, as indicated by its conduct in the negotiations, is not to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, but to limit its status as a nuclear power to the civilian domain, under strict international supervision, in order to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

At present, it is unclear whether the U.S. administration is dangling the option of recognizing Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels as bait and will ultimately oppose it – or whether it is actually willing to allow it. A decision by the Obama administration to pay for the longed-for historic reconciliation by recognizing a nuclear Iran that has no bomb – at least, not yet – will have far-reaching regional and international implications.

The Implications Of Possible U.S. Recognition Of A Nuclear Iran Entitled To Low-Level Uranium Enrichment

On the international level, U.S. recognition of a nuclear Iran that includes the latter's right to enrich uranium to low levels on its soil could destabilize the global nuclear order that has been more or less maintained for decades by all countries, with the exception of a few that are not signatory to the NPT. If the U.S. makes such a move, many other countries would move to pursue their own independent nuclear ambitions. 

On the regional level:
  1. The nuclearization of the Middle East, and the possibility of a nuclear arms race: The American administration's recognition of a nuclear Iran would necessarily lead to a nuclearization of the leading Sunni and other countries in the Middle East that have no faith in an American nuclear umbrella against Iran (see MEMRI reports on Egypt and Saudi Arabia on this topic).[7]
  2. The strengthening of the resistance axis – Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah – under Iran's leadership: This will come at the expense of former U.S. allies – the axis of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. U.S. recognition of a nuclear Iran would significantly reinforce the Shi'ite foci in the Middle East that fight Sunnis, for example Lebanon (Hizbullah), Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain.

* A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.

[1] Evidence of the bilateral U.S.-Iran track can be seen in the following statements: Abbas Araqchi, head of the Iranian delegation to Geneva, said: "The aim of the bilateral talks [with the American delegation head Wendy Sherman] was to advance the negotiations. We wanted to examine issues that came up in [the 5+1] negotiations in bilateral talks that were more in-depth, detailed, and serious. If we feel that we must hold bilateral talks [with the Americans] in order to facilitate the negotiation track and to consult [with the Americans], then we will hold such talks, as we have in the past..." Al-Alam, October 20, 2013. The conservative Iranian daily Jaam-e Jam stated on October 17, 2013: "Obama must prevent the warmongers [i.e. Israel and his opponents in Congress] from spoiling the positive atmosphere that was achieved [during the meetings]."
[2] Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2013.
[3] Iranian Interior Minister Rahmani-Fazli said that it is the West that is demanding that the nuclear talks be secret, and that their content not be leaked. IRNA, Iran, October 21, 2013. The Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is identified with Hashemi Rafsanjani, stated on October 21, 2013 that "the Iranian people are entitled to receive clear information regarding these talks, and to know the aim of the track that has been set and what price [Iran] must pay for it." The same day, Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is identified with the opposite camp of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who are conducting the negotiations, "Pardon me, gentlemen, you are making a  great mistake by maintaining the secrecy of the negotiations... The content of the Geneva talks cannot be the kind of thing [that remains secret] because the Geneva talks are held with the participation of the negotiating teams of the 5+1 countries, that is, the ones from whose eyes any secret matter must be kept... The explanation that 'the secrecy of the negotiations is a sign of their seriousness' sounds more like a joke than like a reasonable theory." Kayhan (Iran), October 21, 2013.
[4] Jomhouri-ye Eslami stated: "The [Western] media has reported recently that President Obama can overrule some of the sanctions, such as those concerning medical equipment, food, and inter-bank trade without Congressional approval... What is said in the U.S. on the unfreezing of frozen Iranian assets angers the Zionists. The unfreezing of these assets can be an effective step [because] it is considered one of the ways of removing the economic distress until the sanctions are lifted..." Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), October 21, 2013. Iranian Vice President Eshak Jahangiri said that billions of dollars of Iranian assets that are frozen in dozens of countries will be unfrozen soon and will serve as collateral to extend credit to the private sector. Ettela'at (Iran), October 21, 2013.
[5] In a September 29 interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set out steps that the Iranians could take to prove to the world that their nuclear program is peaceful: "They could offer to cease voluntarily to take enrichment above a certain level, keep it at a very low level because there's no need to have it at a higher level for a peaceful program." By this, he implied that a voluntary Iranian halt to enriching uranium to 20% while continuing its enrichment of uranium up to 5% would be viewed by the U.S. as a positive step., September 9, 2013. For transcript see:
[6] See Iranian reports on the Russian initiative: Jomhouri-ye Eslami, Etemad (Iran), October 29, 2013.

A. Savyon and Y. Carmon

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