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Stakes High in Upcoming Geneva Talks

01 Dec 2010 20:095 Comments

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief; Saeed Jalili, lead Iranian nuclear negotiator

[ Q&A ] with Ellen Laipson

Why are the upcoming talks between Iran and the world's six major powers important?

The talks are the most important opportunity in more than one year for the international community to vet differences with Iran over its nuclear activities. The mere resumption of talks -- which include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, Russia, China, and France) plus Germany -- is significant. The long diplomatic standoff had created tensions and uncertainty. It had also strengthened the hand of parties who believe that only tough action, including the military option, will force Iran to curtail its nuclear program. The standoff was caused by Iran's unwillingness to accept a package of incentives and limitations proposed by the international community in October 2009.

What does Iran want to achieve? And what leverage does it have?

Iran wants to relieve the pressure from an array of new sanctions over the past year and demonstrate that it is willing to engage with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its refusal to fully cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has produced new U.N., U.S., and European Union sanctions as well as international financial restrictions on doing business with Iran.

But the talks are unlikely to reveal much about Iran's nuclear weapons intentions and activities, and Iran will certainly deny that its nuclear work has a military purpose. Tehran will also take a narrower and more legalistic view of the scope of the talks than the major powers. Iran is already insisting that it will not discuss its uranium enrichment activities, which it claims as a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The talks could falter over this basic agenda item. Iran's leverage is its ability to walk away.

The last package offered in October 2009 involved confidence-building measures centered around the Tehran research reactor, which produces radioisotopes for medical purposes. The U.S.-backed plan called for Iran to ship a large quantity of enriched fuel from its Natanz facility out of the country to ensure it was not used for a weapons program. In turn, one or more international partners (most likely Russia) would provide the fuel needed for the separate research reactor -- under strict international supervision. This process was designed to build trust and to allow both sides to clarify what Iran will and will not do as it builds its nuclear energy program.

Iran originally accepted the deal, then rejected it a few days later. In May 2010, Tehran accepted a variation of the package mediated by Turkey and Brazil. But the deal fell short of the major powers' goals.

What do the United States and the European Union want to achieve? And what leverage do they have?

For the United States, the talks are part of a larger diplomatic strategy to engage Iran on a wider range of issues. The nuclear controversy is the most compelling from a security point of view, but terrorism, human rights, maritime security, and other regional topics are also important for U.S.-Iran relations over time.

The major powers generally want to see what is achievable with Iran. In varying degrees, they want to reduce tensions and gain more understanding about Iran's nuclear activities. The long-term goal is to persuade Tehran to prove convincingly that its intentions are peaceful and to accept more robust international monitoring.

The major powers' leverage derives from financial and trade sanctions that are causing increasing economic and banking dislocations for Iran. Also looming in the background of the talks will be the distinct possibility that pressure for military action will rise if they fail.

Will the WikiLeaks cables affect the diplomacy?

The release of the documents does not make the diplomats' task any easier. They could cause some ill-will in relations between allies over the U.S. ability to protect sensitive information. The impact of the leaks, in the short run, will help analysts track the debate over Iran in the Middle East. But in the long run, they are likely to have a chilling effect on information-sharing that will almost certainly hurt the U.S. ability to "read" Iran.

Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and at the Congressional Research Service. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

Related reading by Ellen Laipson | Reading Iran

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Honestly, I don't know why Tehran Buraeu continues to publish these skewed perspectives from Iran Primer. These views are certainly not realistic from Iran's perspective. One could actually make the case that the that Iran Primer is anti-Iran.

And, many of Laipson's views on the US perspective on so-called engagement with Iran are contradicted by the US diplomatic references contained in cables recently released by Wikileaks. Both the Leveretts and Juan Cole have highlighted the false engagement offered by the Obama administration toward the Islamic Republic of Iran contained in these leaked US diplomatic cables. The Leveretts in particular are worth of reading over at the RFI blog.

Pirouz / December 2, 2010 2:11 AM

I have to say - I agree with Pirouz completely.

I thought Tehran Bureau was great because it gave the unheard side of the story in Middle Eastern and Iranian relations - Now I am beginning to turn away because what I get here in the Iran Primers is well - among the good information about a wide range of subjects - frankly I've heard everything here before - regurgitated up on American news networks and governmental websites.

I think if Tehran Bureau started to provide the unheard side of the story - like WHY Iran doesn't want to do a deal with the USA (because of the American government's hopeless record on keeping agreements and lying to Iran and oppressing its people) - then maybe it would get more views..
All I know is that diversifying to the mainstream viewpoints is neither helpful for the world or going to get Tehran Bureau any more popular.

Kamran / December 2, 2010 5:17 PM

Want to see what a more accurate picture of the Iranian perspective on the upcoming talks?


See the difference? See the actual contacts inside Iran? See the whole picture?

Pirouz / December 2, 2010 6:20 PM

I agree with Pirouz too - even though I disagree with him on many issues. Why is Tehran Bureau sounding more and more just like any other American MSM outlet and their panel of (non)"experts"? We don't have to like the Iranian government to see why American policy towards Iran is counterproductive and destructive.

"For the United States, the talks are part of a larger diplomatic strategy to engage Iran on a wider range of issues" From all that we've heard and seen we KNOW that "engagement" has been the last thing that the U.S. government has done. Why make this valuable site into another platform for American propaganda?

Houshang / December 2, 2010 10:49 PM

Houshang -- darn good question: "Why is Tehran Bureau sounding more and more just like any other American MSM outlet and their panel of (non)"experts"?

Same could be said of the terribly skewed "Iran Primer." The contributions of many fine experts were marred by hawkish and one-sided essays on key issues.... It seems RW has "gone over to the dark side."

Anyway, it seems the answer to your question may be in funding. Tehran Bureau is now funded/controlled by PBS. Iran Primer funded by USIP. Both historically reputable organizations are increasingly worried about domestic US (congress) political pressures, and they have been moving accordingly increasingly to the right... (reasonable and true "independent" voices get "wrapped" by neocon or liberal hawks) Worse, serious and well known Iran foreign policy observers are not even consulted, much less quoted.

very sad trend, Tehran Bureau appears headed the same direction as the once venerable CSMonitor

havai / December 5, 2010 5:56 PM