Bilateral US-Iran talks still the best bet

Patrick Seale

Saturday, February 16, 2013 - Negotiations with Iran are once more on the international agenda. After an eight-month break, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 — are due to hold a meeting with Iran on February 25 in Kazakhstan. What are the prospects of success? In a nutshell, that would seem to depend more on the climate in Washington than in Tehran. Iran is gesturing that it wants to negotiate, but Washington has not yet signalled any greater flexibility than in the past.

In a major speech in Tehran last Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the US: “Take your guns out of the face of the Iranian nation and I myself will negotiate with you.” Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Paris told French officials that, provided a work plan was agreed upon, Iran was ready to allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit Parchin, a military facility where Iran is suspected of having done work on atomic weapons. Ahmadinejad himself has said repeatedly that Iran was ready to stop enriching uranium to 20 per cent if the international community agreed to supply it instead to the Tehran research reactor for the production of isotopes needed to treat cancer patients. The only recent encouraging word from the US was a hint by Vice-President Joe Biden at last week’s Munich security conference that the time may have come for bilateral US-Iran talks. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, responded positively to Biden’s offer, although he added that Iran would look for evidence that Biden’s offer was “authentic” and not “devious”.

The road to a US-Iranian agreement is littered with obstacles — grave mutual distrust being one of them. There is little optimism among experts that a breakthrough is imminent. For one thing, Iran is almost certain to want to defer any major strategic decision until a new president is elected next June to replace the sharp-tongued Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To strike a deal with Iran, the US will also need to assure its Arab allies in the Gulf that they will not fall under Iranian hegemony or lose American protection. Guarantees will no doubt have to be given.

Israel, America’s close ally, poses a more substantial obstacle. It is totally opposed to any deal which will allow Iran to enrich uranium, even at the low level of 3.5 per cent. Wanting no challenge to its own formidable nuclear arsenal, Israel’s long-standing aim has been to halt Iran’s nuclear programme altogether. To this end, it has assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists and joined the US in waging cyber warfare against Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel’s belligerent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has for years been pressing Barack Obama to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme and — better still — bring down the Islamic regime altogether.

Faced with these obstacles, it is clear that any US deal with Iran will require careful preparation. Obama will need to mobilise strong domestic support if he is to confront America’s vast array of pro-Israeli forces. They include Congressmen eager to defend Israeli interests at all costs (as was vividly illustrated by the recent Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings), powerful lobbies such as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), media barons, high-profile Jewish financiers like Sheldon Adelson, a phalanx of neo-con strategists in right-wing think tanks, influential pro-Israelis within the administration, and many, many others. The cost in political capital of challenging them could be very substantial. Nevertheless, elected for a second term, he now has greater freedom and authority than before.

Obama is due to visit Israel on March 20-21, something he did not do in his first term. This visit will be the first foreign trip of his second term — in itself a sign of its importance. Although the White House is anxious to play down suggestions that he will announce a major initiative, either on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on Iran, there are issues he cannot avoid. He may, however, choose to raise them in private talks with Israeli leaders rather than in public. His message is expected to be twofold: Israel should not delay in granting statehood to the Palestinians, however painful that choice may be, and it should be careful not to make an eternal enemy of Iran. Both conflicts have the potential to isolate Israel internationally and threaten its long-term interests, if not its actual existence.

In his first term of office, Obama resisted Netanyahu’s pressure to wage war on Iran. This was no more than a semi-success, however, since he managed to blunt Netanyahu’s belligerence only by imposing on Iran a raft of sanctions of unprecedented severity. —Gulf News

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