Guardian: Talks have provided no end of metaphors for negotiations that have got nowhere, but which neither side wants to declare dead.
The end of two days of talks in Moscow on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme provided no end of metaphors for negotiations that have got nowhere, but which neither side as yet wants to declare dead. So we are now assured talks are on a respirator, or have all the life of zombies in a horror film. Before all the opprobrium falls on the Iranian side, it is worth examining just how flexible western negotiators were in Moscow.
After all, there appears to be a consensus that a military strike on Iran would be a disaster (Israel’s Iranian-born deputy prime minister Shaul Mofaz was the latest senior figure to put distance between himself and the prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu by putting a higher priority on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than on dealing with Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme). So one would assume that negotiators would be thrown wholeheartedly into talks in Moscow with a brief wide enough to crack the problem. Not so. Two of the carrots Iran was offered for giving up its entire stock of 20%-enriched fuel – help with nuclear safety and spare parts for its ageing fleet of planes – were of little interest to the Iranians.
True, the six powers – Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany – no longer demanded a halt to all enrichment on Iranian soil. The latest offer would allow centrifuges to enrich to low levels – possibly up to 5%. But if Iran gave up all its stock of 20%-enriched uranium, without a reciprocal offer to lift or at least ease the oil and banking sanctions, what lever would it then have to stop these sanctions from crippling its economy? For sanctions to work they not only have to be credible but also stoppable. At the moment they are neither. The easing or delaying of sanctions does not have to happen in one go. A concession on one side can be sequenced by a concession from the other. There is so much ground to cover, and so much mutual distrust, that it would be nigh on impossible to construct a grand bargain, a take-it-or-leave-it offer that would have any possibility of success.
But stopping the sanctions was not on the menu in Moscow. The two incentives for the closure of Iran’s second enrichment facility at Fordo were token ones and there would be no deferral of the EU’s suspension of oil imports from Iran. Iran also played hardball, by insisting on international recognition not just of its enrichment programme, but of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. With so many unanswered questions about whether those purposes are purely peaceful, a fatwa from the supreme leader was never going to be enough. The IAEA needs hard answers to hard questions. Both sides need to return to the table not just with a list of demands but a list of positive incentives for the other side to agree to them.