Sanctions Drive Iran Back to Negotiating Table

The future of talks may hinge on the outcome of the American presidential election.

Presidents Dmitri Medvedev of Russia and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran meet in Tajikistan, November 19, 2010
Presidents Dmitri Medvedev of Russia and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran meet in Tajikistan, November 19, 2010 (Presidency of Iran)

Three months after the European Union implemented a universal ban on Iranian oil imports, European officials agreed to even more economic penalties on Tehran over its continued uranium enrichment efforts. The additional measures go the heart of Iran’s banking sector and are designed to place an unprecedented amount of pressure on the country’s exports, natural resources and shipping industries.

The strengthening of European sanctions comes at a particularly difficult time for the Iranian regime which is in desperate need of revenue. The value of the rial, in part due to mounting international pressure, has fallen 80 percent from last year, leading to a day of angry protests by Iranian merchants in the capital.

Oil, the one product that the Islamic republic has relied on for more than three decades, has slowly but surely been taken off Western markets. Tehran was at one time the second highest producer and exporter of crude oil in OPEC but that status has taken a hit over the past year since European countries terminated their purchases of Iranian crude in July. Oil exports are down by approximately one million barrels per day.

The reason Western powers are limiting their business dealings with Iran to such an extent is because they are increasingly concerned that the country is coming close to a nuclear weapons capability. By passing a blanket of economic sanctions on the Iranian economy, the European Union and the United States hope that Tehran will be forced into a weaker negotiating position.

It appears that the strategy is working. Over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister suggested that his country may be willing to suspend the production of highly enriched uranium in exchange for a reliable source of fuel for its medical research reactor. The offer resembles a 2009 proposal that was agreed to in principle by the Iranians before they backtracked from the deal.

While it is easy to lay all of the blame on the Iranians for the diplomatic impasse, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany have made mistakes of their own.

The group’s last offer, which would have given the Iranians spare parts for their civilian airlines and help dealing with nuclear safety issues in exchange for the dismantlement of a major uranium enrichment plant, was utterly unacceptable to the Iranians.

The West has refused to lift economic sanctions before Iran suspends its 20 percent enrichment activities. The problem with that approach is that it puts the entire onus on Tehran and weakens their bargaining position. Iran’s insistence last year that all United Nations and unilateral sanctions be lifted before negotiations resumed did not help the process either.

How to go from here? Iranian and Western negotiators are trying to answer that question but a lot depends on the outcome of November’s presidential election in the United States. If Barack Obama is reelected, there is a good chance that talks will resume and Washington will be more flexible.

The New York Times revealed on Saturday that the Obama Administration and representatives of Iran had agreed “in principle” to bilateral negotiations which suggests that the incumbent president favors a more direct approach. Both Iran and the United States have denied the report, however.

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, such talks might never be initiated. The Republican has touted a “tough on Iran” message during his campaign and seems willing to use military force to stop their program earlier than Obama would. Romney has also been prone to taking Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s word as gospel on how fast the Iranians are improving their enrichment capabilities.

Whoever wins in November, negotiations remain the only safe way to resolve a problem that has troubled the international community for over a decade. Airstrikes and sanctions can only delay the Iranians’ progress.

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