Preconditions Not a Hopeful Sign for Nuclear Talks

To keep Iran sitting at the negotiating table, the Security Council must be willing to loosen its demands.

It has been fourteen long months since the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany set around the table with Iranian negotiators to discuss the suspension of Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.

Those talks, which happened in January 2011, ended almost as quickly as they began, with both sides sticking to their original positions without any room for maneuver. The P5+1 demanded that Iran suspended its nuclear program as a gesture of goodwill. Iran refused to talk altogether unless economic sanctions were halted.

The one and done discussion early last year was the clearest microcosm to date of how prolonged and at times hopeless the nuclear negotiations between the two sides have been. Yet even with the disappointment and shortfalls, the diplomatic track is the only option that foreign powers have to dissuade the Iranians from suspending their efforts, short of war.

European countries and the United States know this all too well, which is why the P5+1 powers are dragging the Iranians back to the negotiating table for another round of direct, and one hopes civil, discussion.

At first, the Iranians stonewalled the request, delaying their official response to the invitation. When they finally agreed, Tehran haggled for a few days over where the talks were to take place. Both sides have agreed on Turkey as the venue. Even the Iranians, it appears, are acknowledging that dialogue is the best way that they can garner concession from the world.

With the logistical details now finalized, the P5+1 are set to begin the difficult work of negotiating with the Iranians over the core dispute that has befuddled past attempts at diplomacy — uranium enrichment. The Iranians are likely to remain vigilant in their desire to continue enriching their own nuclear material. How the United States and their allies react to that permanent demand will determine how long the negotiations last.

Flexibility is a prerequisite. In the past, this is what was lacking. The Bush Administration was adamant about rejecting Tehran’s offer of dialogue unless they suspended their nuclear program altogether. President Barack Obama and his national-security team have been a little more willing to engage the Iranians in a give and take, although last year’s failed diplomatic efforts have hardened the administration’s approach to the entire affair.

The New York Times reports that the P5+1 will ask Tehran for a number of major concessions during the opening day, including the dismantling of the nuclear facilities north of the city of Qom. The foreign powers also expect Iran to ship its quantity of 20 percent enriched uranium out of the country.

While these demands make sense from the perspective of the Security Council members, they are a nonstarter for the Iranians. They spent millions building the complex at Fordow over the past few years. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Tehran agreed to simply forgo its most well protected facility when it has just completing it after years of construction.

Standing ground on an illogical position, as far as the Iranians are concerned, is a perfect excuse to blame the Security Council as an intolerant body not serious about the diplomatic effort.

Can the Iranians risk surrendering one of their most prized investments? And if they are indeed willing to take this gamble, what will the Iranians receive in return?

Unfortunately, both of these questions are irrelevant. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not agree to these positions, particularly when they have the potential of souring his popular standing at home. Unless and until the P5+1 proceed in such a way that will give Iranian negotiators a reason to stay in the talks, the diplomatic track will simply be a short step toward further confrontation.