Iran's chief nuclear negotiator: we're being asked to make all the sacrifices

Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator and a contender in the June presidential election, sat down with the Monitor to share his views about an 'unbalanced' nuclear offer made by world powers.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili attends a news conference at the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday. Iran is prepared to pursue nuclear diplomacy with world powers before or after next month's presidential election in the Islamic Republic, Jalili said on Thursday.

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and a presidential candidate, says that offers from six world powers demand far more short-term sacrifices of his government than the Islamic Republic considers reasonable or reciprocal.

The current offer from the so-called P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) requires Iran to suspend all 20 percent uranium enrichment, disable an impregnable underground enrichment facility at Fordow, and agree to more intrusive inspections, before modest relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

“Their proposals are unbalanced,” Mr. Jalili told The Christian Science Monitor in an Istanbul interview today, a day after his inconclusive meeting with Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who leads negotiations for the P5+1. “The other party needs to appreciate that they need to table proposals that have the necessary balance," says Jalili. "If they accept to do so, then we can engage in talks that will hopefully bring about that required balance.”

Compared to past full-fledged rounds of negotiations, this session in Istanbul amounted to little more than diplomatic maintenance, though slight progress may have been made. Jalili says Iran and the P5+1 will continue their nuclear diplomacy “in the near future" and that “last night we talked about how these steps can complement one another, how we should design these steps that are of the same weight."

But Iran is preparing for a presidential election on June 14 that makes a nuclear breakthrough before then seem highly unlikely. Mr. Jalili is among a handful of high-profile conservative candidates. At a press conference today he said Iran is “ready to continue our talks with the P5+1 whenever they are ready, before or after the presidential election in Iran.”

Ms. Ashton, who is also the EU's foreign policy chief, said: “We had a useful discussion. It was not a negotiating round. We talked about the proposals we had put forward and we will now reflect on how to go on to the next stage of the process.”

Top priority for the six world powers has been halting Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work – uranium enrichment to 20 percent, which is a few technical steps from bomb grade – to prevent Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon.

Iranian officials say they reject nuclear weapons for religious reasons, but insist that Iran has the “right” as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, which include medical isotopes and nuclear energy.

Balance on the table

Did Jalili receive any signals from Ashton, that she and the P5+1 recognized the imbalance he complained of? “Yes, I did get the impression that at least they have accepted … a need for the proposals to be balanced,” Jalili says. “We have to wait and see.”

American and EU officials have long argued that the Islamic Republic – which is subject to four sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions, and crippling US and EU measures that have choked oil exports and frozen Iran’s global financial transactions – must take the first steps, as part of “confidence building measures” to show that Iran was “serious” about talks.

Before the dinner Wednesday night, Ashton echoed other senior P5+1 diplomats when she stated that “good proposals” were on offer: “We believe we have put forward a good, comprehensive, fair, and balanced approach, a confidence-building measure that we think is a good start.”

The P5+1 argues that because Iran has not resolved outstanding claims about past weapons-related work with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – charges Iran maintains are based on fabricated documents – the burden is on Tehran.

“The onus is on Iran,” the top US negotiator on Iran, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, told Washington lawmakers yesterday. She said that Iran responded to the “very reasonable and balanced” P5+1 proposal last month by “putting very little on the table and asking a lot in return.”

“When Cathy Ashton has dinner with Jalili this evening, her message to him will be that we are united, that unless Iran is ready to have serious talks where they put a substantial response on the table, that it will be very difficult to sustain the P5+1 negotiations,” Ms. Sherman testified.

Nuclear ambitions?

She spoke of Iran’s “nuclear weapons ambitions,” though US intelligence agencies assess that Iran has not made a decision to make a bomb. Sherman said that “although the sanctions relief [the P5+1] put on the table is not significant, it is meaningful.”

Jalili could not see the process more differently. He casts the P5+1 as the reluctant party, which until now has not clarified to Iran that the endgame – in exchange for Iran permanently limiting its nuclear advances – will also ensure that its “right” to enrich uranium will be recognized, and sanctions will be lifted.

Jalili likens the grinding nuclear diplomacy to a long road. “For the totality of this 100 kilometers, we have ideas, we have proposals,” he told the Monitor.

At talks in Moscow last spring, Iran had put forward a comprehensive set of proposals, as an initial counter-proposal to the P5+1, which he says covered the whole distance. At the Almaty I talks in February, the P5+1 wanted to focus on only a portion of that offer, perhaps 25 km of road.

At the last round, the Almaty II talks in early April, Jalili says he told the P5+1 that, “‘Right now we can start moving towards and reach kilometer number five.’ They responded that they needed time to study this. They were supposed give me a reply in a few days time, and that turned into 40 days. That tells us it is their turn to give us a response."

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ruled out direct talks with the US for now and in February said that sanctions and other pressure are akin to the US “pointing the gun at Iran and say[ing] either negotiate or we will shoot.”

In her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sherman said: “Over nearly 5,000 years, Persian civilization has given the world innovations in culture, art, medicine and government. But today the historic greatness has been set far back. The limitless potential of Iran’s people has been stifled.”

She noted that the US and Iranian national wrestling teams were competing at Grand Central Station yesterday, in a joint bid to keep wrestling as an Olympic sport, “but sadly this show of healthy competition and good sportsmanship is a deep, deep exception.”

Sherman said, “I find the regime odious,” but also stated that the US wanted to change Iran’s behavior – particularly its nuclear calculus – and­ not change the regime itself.

“I don’t think the supreme leader has made the strategic decision to, in fact, deal on their nuclear program,” said Sherman. “I believe it is all part of a broader projection of power and assertion of Iranian authority and point of view…”

When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked “how creative” the US was being to provide an “internal face-saving” way out for Iran, so as not to “completely paint your opponent into a corner,” Sherman said there was a diplomatic way out, and also that pressure would increase.

“It is our belief – and the intelligence community supports this… – that increased pressure is part of the solution here; that this is [in Iran] a culture of resistance but, at some point, they will and can make the strategic decision to truly deal on their nuclear weapons.”

Referring to aspects of Sherman’s testimony, Jalili told the Monitor: “As you might appreciate, the US is in no position at the moment to issue ultimatums. And this language, unfortunately, is the language – the words – that created so much headache for the US around the world.”

“After everything is said and done, the Americans usually make such mistakes,” Jalili added. “And as each day passes, they seem to make fresh mistakes. These mistakes do not come cheap; they are very expensive.”

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