x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

US politics risk scuttling Iran nuclear talks

Iran has never responded well to ultimatums, which is why American conditions set for upcoming talks with Iran could derail diplomacy before it is given a chance.

Who even remembers Iraq? Apparently, not too many Americans. In February, more than 58 per cent of US adults polled by Pew Research Centre responded that military action could be justified to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. In a country that is staggering out of two wars, the message for US policymakers still could not have been clearer: staying tough on Iran is a foreign-policy winner.

That might explain why the White House seems intent on derailing prospects for negotiations with Iran even before the next round of talks begins, slated for Friday. As The New York Times reported at the weekend, the Obama administration will go into negotiations with Tehran demanding a set of preconditions that Iran will probably find unacceptable. Among the preconditions is that Iran halt production of uranium enriched to 20 per cent; another calls for Tehran to immediately dismantle the underground enrichment facility at Fordo.

Iran has never responded well to ultimatums, even sensible ones. Strangely enough, even some US officials understand this. As one anonymous senior official told the Times: "We have no idea how the Iranians will react." The most probable reaction? The same type of rhetorical bluster and intransigence that has pushed the region, and the world, into this mess in the first place.

Mr Obama is walking a tightrope: he is running for re-election in November, Israel is lobbying for military action and European partners appear split on whether Iran is actually pursuing nuclear-weapons capability. There is no way to keep everyone happy.

And Iran is doing itself few favours. At the weekend, a senior Iranian lawmaker, Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam, said Iran "has the scientific and technological capability" to produce a nuclear weapon "but will never choose this path". It was a rare statement relating to the "breakout" potential that would enable Tehran to militarise its programme relatively quickly. The world, apparently, is supposed to take Iran's good intentions on trust (and until recently, the Fordo facility was a secret).

Negotiations could help clear some of this ambiguity from the air. Inspections, confidence-building measures, even talks about a nuclear-fuel swap could all make quiet progress. At the moment, Mr Obama appears to prefer loud politics. Tehran's own squabbling politicians, boxed in from the start, are going to see few reasons to acquiesce to unilateral demands.

More threats push the region towards the possibility of a war that no one (with any sense) wants to see. Mr Obama may have domestic political priorities, but he will be accountable if he sacrifices responsible foreign policy as a result.