x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mood music at Iran nuclear talks drowns out substance

The weekend round of Iran nuclear negotiations set a more amiable tone, but none of the difficult issues have been addressed.

For an outsider trying to understand the showdown over Iran's nuclear programme, the myriad of technical details can make your head spin faster than a nuclear centrifuge. For the recently concluded talks in Istanbul between Iran and the so-called P-5 + 1 nations (UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany), one can temporarily put aside the jargon.

These talks were more about symbolism and the act of talking than the technical aspects of Iran's programme. In that sense, they have been described as a success, a step forward that will lead to more technical talks in Baghdad next month.

Western diplomats who spoke anonymously to the media all had the same basic message: the mood was right; Iran seems more serious; there will probably be another round of talks. There were no major spats or breakdowns. One European diplomat told the media "the atmosphere was completely different" from tense previous talks.

While the highly publicised refusal of the Iranian delegation to accept an offer from the Americans for a bilateral meeting might have seemed like a blight on the mood, it should have come as no surprise. Iran has long said that it will only speak to the US in multilateral settings, and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, would have needed a green light from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stray from that policy.

So, as the diplomats return to their respective capitals, the ball is rolling and the outlines of a negotiating process are being formed. But that ball is not moving downhill; it is being pushed uphill, and it will face tremendous obstacles along the way.

The first challenge to be faced is mistrust. Neither side has much trust in the other - and that goes for Russia and China as well, despite the oft-repeated media reports about how Beijing and Moscow are in Tehran's "corner". China and Russia are, like all other capitals, in their own corners, championing their own interests.

Tehran still feels the sting of four successive UN Security Council sanctions resolutions signed by both Russia and China. When the heat gets turned up on Moscow or Beijing, they tend to withdraw their support rather quickly.

Of course, the crux of the mistrust is between Iran and the "other four" of the P5 +1 - the United States, France, Britain, and Germany. These western powers have grown weary of what they view as Iran's foot-dragging, evasion, defiance and - some would argue - outright deception about its nuclear programme. This sentiment built over the last few years, coupled with an Iranian foreign policy that challenges western powers and their regional allies, makes it unlikely that Tehran will be given the benefit of the doubt, as are other nations pursuing nuclear-energy programmes, and which are also signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as is Iran.

Tehran, of course, has its own long list of grievances. It argues that the West employs double standards given Israel's large nuclear arsenal.

This is true, of course, but irrelevant: politics is not about morality, it is about power and interests, something the Islamic Republic understands very well. Iran employs its own double standards on a variety of issues. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find any state acting without them.

Iranian leaders' other grievances are more germane: they feel that the IAEA has been involved in leaking information about Iranian scientists, who have subsequently been assassinated; western-led sanctions are hurting their oil sector and their broader economy; and as signatories to the NPT, they have a right to enrich uranium below weapons-grade levels on their soil.

In fact, Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, took to the opinion pages of the Washington Post this week to discuss the issue of trust. He wrote: "All relationships - whether between parents and children, spouses or even nation-states - are based on trust." He went on to outline "the key issue between Iran and the United States: lack of trust".

It is still too early to tell how deep this new gap in the wall of mistrust between the two sides will be. And even partners that trust each other may not come to an agreement if their positions are too divergent.

For Iran and the P5 +1, that has seemed the case, regardless of any lack of trust. Iran insists on its right to enrich uranium to a 20 per cent level, enough to fuel a research reactor; the western powers have baulked at that, arguing that it gets Iran too close to "break-out" levels of enrichment that could be used for weapons.

For the past year, this basic difference was the equivalent of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. But news from Tehran before the talks began suggested that Iran might be willing to offer a key concession: the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation suggested that Iran would cease enriching uranium to 20 per cent once it had enough material to fuel its medical research reactor.

This would meet a key demand of the P5 +1 and the message was delivered by Fereydoun Abbas Davani, a scientist who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt widely believed to have been orchestrated by Israel's intelligence services. Dr Davani is no dovish figure; he has skin in the game.

So, the mood has shifted, and perhaps even some of the substance has shifted, but the reality is that this ball still has a long way to go uphill. And with this tiny step forward, we still are far from seeing the other side of the mountain.


Afshin Molavi is a senior adviser at Oxford Analytica and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation

On Twitter: @AfshinMolavi