The talks that open in Baghdad Wednesday between Iran and six world powers on curbing Iran’s nuclear program may well determine whether Israel or the US launches airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The talks will also be a factor in the US presidential election this year.
But no one should expect to see Wednesday either a comprehensive agreement addressing more than a decade of concerns about Iran’s nuclear development, or a throwing in of the towel (by either side) that paves the way to war.
The more likely scenario, if the talks go well, is the launching of intensive, virtually constant negotiations, which would suggest that agreement on the key issues important to each side is possible and indeed achievable in some reasonably short time frame, some regional experts say.
“I don’t believe we should look at tomorrow as a make-or-break meeting, but having said that you also don’t want to approach this from the perspective that we have all the time in the world,” says Dennis Ross, a former special assistant on the Middle East to President Obama who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
What should come out of Baghdad, he adds, is announcement of talks “on a nearly continuous basis” on a set of substantive issues. “That would suggest this is a process that is serious,” he says.
Others, including some Obama administration officials, say a possible “positive” outcome would be an interim agreement that addresses the most pressing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program – for example, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, considered dangerously close to the 90 percent enriched uranium needed to fuel a nuclear weapon. Such an agreement would allow time to negotiate a more comprehensive deal.
Administration officials like to use clock analogies to describe this scenario, saying a good result would be an initial accord that allows for “stopping the clock” or “turning back the clock” on Iran’s nuclear program.
The Baghdad meeting, bringing together Iran and the five members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France – plus Germany, follows an initial meeting last month in Istanbul, Turkey.
The US and some of its partners in the talks are speaking more hopefully about prospects for these negotiations than at almost any point in the past. One reason is the suggestion coming out of Iran that the regime is ready to make a deal – and not just trying to drag out talks.
One explanation is that the tough sanctions that the international community has imposed on Iran in recent months are having a growing economic impact. Another is that Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has consolidated power after a period of political turbulence and may feel more confident about making a deal.
Some influential policymakers, particularly in the US Congress, believe no deal is possible with Iran. They say the country out to hoodwink the world into accepting a nuclear program that one day – surprise! – delivers a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Ross acknowledges these concerns, and he says that is why any negotiating process coming out of Wednesday’s talks would have to have “a very clear agenda” and be based on clear principles accepted all around the table. One such principle, he says, might be that “it is possible for Iran to have a program of civilian nuclear power, but with fire walls” so secure and under such surveillance that there would be “no breakout possibility.”
Among the demands that might be laid out on the table but not resolved Wednesday: The US might seek a shuttering of Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear facility, and the Iranians are expected to demand a loosening of economic sanctions as a first step for them to proceed. The most pressing matter for the world powers will be dealing with that stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
Mr. Obama has said that there’s a window of opportunity for reaching a negotiated deal on Iran’s nuclear program, but that the window is closing. Wednesday’s talks are unlikely to produce a deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal, but at the same time, the message will be clear that any negotiating process won’t be allowed to drag on.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said these can’t be “talks for talks’ sake,” so that formula or something close to it may surface Wednesday.
One factor looming over the Iran talks is the US presidential election. Republican hawks out to divebomb any hint of a compromise with Iran – for example, accepting Iran’s right to uranium enrichment at some level – will hem Obama in and make striking a deal almost impossible, some political analysts say. But others say a deal that puts off the prospects for another war in the Middle East would be a boon to Obama.
Any administration that was convinced it was possible to get a deal where Iran could have civilian nuclear power but could never get nuclear weapons “would go for it,” says Ross, who has worked for presidents from both parties.
“I’m not persuaded that just because it’s an election year,” he says, “it’s impossible to get an agreement.”