The Guardian: The diplomacy in Turkey brought no breakthroughs but it will keep the bombs at bay for another month and offers the best chance yet to avoid a new war altogether.
The Guardian (blog)
By Julian Borger
The diplomacy in Turkey brought no breakthroughs but it will keep the bombs at bay for another month and offers the best chance yet to avoid a new war altogether.
After ten hours of intensive talks in Istanbul, diplomats from Iran and six global powers agreed to meet again, in Baghdad on May 23. Not an enormous achievement on the face of it, but it looks better when you consider the context. The parties had not met since January last year, and on that occasion in Istanbul, it was a dialogue of the deaf. They made speeches at each other and then left with no agreement on further dialogue.
Fifteen months on, an oil embargo is imminent, Iran is shut out of much of the international banking system, and the constantly rising threat Israeli military strikes makes a new Middle East war a real possibility. So when Iran and the six-power group emerged from a day of talks, all singing from the same song sheet, talking about constructive talks and concrete steps, it is a significant development.
In fact, there will be more detailed negotiations before May 23. Experts from all sides are supposed to be in constant touch from now on, with a meeting in the next few weeks planned between Helga Schmid, a senior European diplomat, and Ali Bagheri, the deputy Iranian negotiator. These two did all the spade work for the Istanbul meeting and will now draw up an agenda for Baghdad which will explore the various concrete compromises that could be made, trading limits on Iran’s nuclear programme for moderating western sanctions.
In real terms, the ten hours of Saturday’s talks boiled down to a lot less than five hours. The chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is not an English speaker, so everything had to be translated, slowing down proceedings. There was a break for lunch, and in the afternoon there were three bilateral meetings: Iran and Russia, Iran and China and Iran with Cathy Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief.
There was a flurry of excitement in the course of the afternoon when when the Iranian Student News Agency wrongly reported that Jalili had agreed to meet his American counterpart, Wendy Sherman. That was quickly denied and presumably someone from the ISNA is in some trouble as meetings with Americans are seen as politically toxic within the Tehran hierarchy.Well aware of this, Sherman apparently did not stress her interest in meeting Jalili alone, announcing only that she was available to talk to any interested party.
The Jalili-Ashton meeting lasted much longer than expected, nearly 90 minutes, because the Iranian negotiator made a last-minute bid to secure an agreement to put off the EU oil embargo due to take effect on July 1. Ashton replied that she was not in a position to make any such deals without the full participation of the six nations, and that the time for such concrete bargaining would come in Baghdad.
At the end of the meeting, diplomats on all sides, Jalili included, praised Ashton for the way she had managed the event. European diplomats, some from countries that have not always been complimentary, went out of their way to say that she has proven adept at keeping the six-nation group together. From the Iranian point of view, it helps that Ashton used to be a senior official in the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) pressure group. She has the record to demonstrate she is not using double standards in discussing the Iranian programme.
The Iranians had come on this occasion with a team that had more true diplomats than commissars of Tehran orthodoxy. It included the deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, an urbane and fluent English speaker who went to university in Britain and Mustafa Doulatyar, the head of the foreign ministry’s political research institute.
Another encouraging sign for the Baghdad talks was the way that Jalili framed the move towards compromise as if it had been the idea of Iran’s Supreme Leader all along. Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons, Jalili claimed, had “created an opportunity for concrete steps towards disarmament and non-proliferation”.
On the other hand, the parties managed to reach agreement about setting up a permanent negotiating process principally by studiously avoiding discussion of any concrete issues. The only time the vexed issue of Iran’s manufacture of 20%-enriched uranium came up was when Ashton briskly mentioned the aspects of the Iranian programme that cause most western concern. None of the national delegations took up the theme. No one wanted to risk disagreement over specifics that would spoil the feel-good atmosphere and jeopardise the next meeting, the shared short-term objective.
It was like two football teams carefully playing for a no-score draw so they can both advance to the next round of the tournament. Boring to watch perhaps, but very effective. The only losers are those not in the game. In this case, the six nations and Iran have bonded themselves together in a joint process that reduces Israel’s freedom of action. There can be no military strikes while this process is underway.
However, to be sustained the process will constantly have to increase its momentum, producing concrete outcomes soon, starting most likely with a deal on 20% uranium, and the estimated Iranian stockpile of 120kg of the material. That is the most delicate issue on the table as it could quickly be converted into weapons grade uranium, but there is time. About 185kg would be needed to make a bomb, much more for a first bomb.
In return for limits on 20% enrichment, the six nations would have to take the first step to roll back sanctions. Implementation of the EU oil embargo could be delayed, for example.
The six nation group risk entering a process which it might be hard to control or leave. Its members might disagree on when to call time on Iranian delays, threatening the group’s much prized unity. But that is balanced by the risks Iran is taking, knowing that if the negotiations were to collapse it would represent a green light to possible Israeli action.
As one diplomat at the talks noted: ‘My patience is great but the world is a dangerous place.’
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli who is shrewd analyst of both countries had this take on the Israeli view of proceedings:
Israel has always seen negotiations by Iran as delaying tactics, but times have changed. Iran can delay all its wants. But the Europeans and Americans have put Iran on a huge parking meter by which they are using oil income to punish Iran. So that has calmed nerves in Israel.
Quite apart from the putative Israeli military threat and the looming oil embargo, the March move to exclude Iranian banks from the SWIFT international clearing system has been devastating, and means that time is no longer on Iran’s side.
Istanbul was in the end, talks about talks. But there is at least some reason to hope that the political process that has been established here is actually going somewhere.