Here is an interesting notion: The Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul were not a “failure”, but globally crippling sanctions could be.
Trigger happy Israelis and a US election campaign season that requires the illusion of immediate action effectively hijacked the talks, which opened on Saturday and concluded with a deal to meet again on 23 May in Baghdad.
Mainstream media outlets can hardly be blamed for portraying the talks as a failure. They require black and white scenarios accessible to the masses, and headline space is too short and sensationally demanding to encompass complicated notions, such as the fact that at issue is a nuclear power program of immense importance to Iran and it will require a very long and arduous negotiation process.
While we may be able to forgive the mainstream media for its lack of depth and insight, it is more difficult to extend the same courtesy to academically tethered think tanks. A piece published on the Council on Foreign Relations website is particularly unforgivable for its decidedly lazy and unprofessionally flippant synopsis of the Istanbul talks.
The New York Times reported that “the decision to meet again appeared to reflect what European and American officials saw as a serious commitment from Iran to negotiate. However the initial statements from the delegates after the talks ended did not suggest that any concrete proposals or confidence-building measures had been made or agreed to.” It remains unclear how any concrete proposals were expected after a short two-rounds of weekend talks over such a significant issue, and the New York Times demonstrates its apparent previous hopes that everything would be decided at this meeting.
The CFR piece, however, takes this skepticism further by asking: “How was it that Iran’s seriousness was tested in a meeting where no concrete proposals appear to have been made, much less agreed to?” The piece also concludes unhelpfully that “it is hard to know what the Iranians make of all this, except perhaps that diplomacy is fun.”
Paul Pillar, a former intelligence official, also takes issue with what he calls the “predictable spinning” of the progress of the Istanbul talks, which he attributes to “those anxious to declare diplomatic failure and get on with the war they really seem to want”.
Writing in The National Interest, Pillar says that the “concept of a limited window for diplomacy to yield results is fallacious when the subject is an Iranian nuclear program that dates back to the days of the shah and which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of how close Iran was to building a nuclear weapon.”
“The notion of a window is an artificiality that has mostly to do with the saber rattling of the Israeli government and its attention to the U.S. electoral calendar.”
It is difficult to ascribe definitive terms such as “success” and “failure” to the Iran nuclear talks. Arguably, just holding the talks, particularly in Turkey given the tensions in Turkish-Iranian relations, is progress on some level.
Dr. Dominic Moran, a former nuclear disarmament expert for Greenpeace, told Oilprice.com that the talks in Baghdad will likely see expanded teams from both sides, which is a “very positive move considering that what we have had in the past has just been bluster and political statements. The fact that the P5+1 has agreed to hold talks in Baghdad will be viewed very positively by Iran, as well.”
It is unhelpful, though, to attempt to paint a picture for the public of success versus failure at this juncture, says Moran. “It is important to guard against artificial expectations regarding and readings of what was the resumption of a diplomatic process rather than a full negotiating round.”
“The key for the success of the Baghdad talks will be whether Iran is ready to make any major concessions on uranium enrichment. The Russians could come in again to offer to provide fuel for an Iranian research reactor, and as such Moscow could be involved in some sort of interim negotiations that would allow the Iranians to make some movement on enrichment,” Moran told Oilprice.com.
However, he doesn’t “foresee a major concession on the part of the Iranians that would be required for the Baghdad talks to be a complete success, but any amount of movement at this point is positive and will help to ease tensions.”
“The Iranians are starting to talk about confidence-building measures. So at the very least, in Baghdad they will be expecting some sign from the EU on the diminution of sanctions, which is not likely to be forthcoming. It is important to understand that the entire process is based on the fact that the US is allowing this to go on, without blowing it up,” Moran said.
Diplomatically, Iran has little interest in publicly acknowledging that it has been backed into a corner. A Tehran Times report on 14 April cited Supreme National Security Council secretary Saeed Jalili as saying that Tehran did not intend to stop producing enriched uranium to a purity level of 20 percent. “Enrichment of uranium is one of [Iran’s] rights that every individual member state should benefit from and enjoy for peaceful purposes,” Jalili said, referring to the stipulations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Jalili also said in his statement that the Iranian Supreme Leader had issued a fatwa on the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.
Iran is a signatory of the NPT, which grants it the legal right to produce nuclear fuel for research reactors and nuclear power plants. Iran insists its nuclear activities are peaceful, while the West believes Tehran is enriching uranium with an eye to nuclear weapons development.
The war against Iranian oil renders Tehran’s civilian nuclear power ambitions even more important as it would help ensure a reduction of petroleum consumption at home. Iran is not likely to bow to the pressure of the sanctions, however fierce or crippling. In fact, the general trend would be to mobilize otherwise disillusioned Iranians to side with their government under siege.
Perhaps, however, the media does not give the American public due credit by forcing the issue of success versus failure in Istanbul. According to an early March PIPA poll, a majority of Americans understand that negotiations are a process. When asked whether they agreed with Israel conducting military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program versus waiting for the increased sanctions to take affect, 24 percent of those surveyed supported Israeli military strikes. However, 69 percent supported pursuing continued negotiations with Iran.
In the meantime, the Washington-led economic war on Iran is progressing from sanctions into a full-on financial blockade, which is more likely to end in failure, with dangerous implications for the global economy. The Obama Administration has sought to make it impossible for Iran to sell oil, its major commodity, on world markets, slapping sanctions on companies and countries that do business with Iran.
Writing for Asia Times, Juan Cole suggests that the West’s “economic war” against Iran is intended to calm Israeli trigger fingers and to appease Saudi Arabia. But the sanctions are crippling others, too. The European Union is taking a hard hit with its willingness to jump on Washington’s bandwagon, committing to a 1 July deadline to cut all oil ties with Iran. This decision “has placed special burdens on struggling countries in its southern tier like Greece and Italy,” Cole writes. “With European buyers boycotting, Iran will depend for customers on Asian countries, which jointly purchase some 64% of its petroleum, and those of the global south.”
In Greece, for instance, the sanctions could lead to even more creative smuggling efforts.
East Asian economies will suffer untold damage from the Iran sanctions. As such, Washington has had to backtrack a bit, handing out a few exemptions in return for pledges to reduce future Iranian oil imports. South Korea, Japan and Turkey are all lining up for exemptions, while China and India have outright refused to take part in the boycott.
There are doubts that Saudi Arabia has the long-term capacity to replace the 2.5 million barrels of oil that Iran puts on the market every year. As such, Washington’s sanctions efforts could engender an economic crisis on a global level, as oil prices rise, along with various domestic political crises in countries where the pressure of the sanctions could spark socio-economic unrest as governments give in to Washington’s demands.
There are also indications that the sanctions won’t work fully on a logistical level. According to a Reuters report, which has not been confirmed independently by Oilprice.com, Iran is concealing its oil sales by disabling its tankers’ tracking systems. Citing an unnamed senior oil executive who has allegedly done business with Iran, the news agency said Iran’s customers were complicit in this scheme to thwart the oil embargo. This tactic was also used to trade oil with the Gaddafi government during Libya’s civil war last year.
At a crucial time for the US - amid election campaigning that places a disproportionate focus on the price of gasoline - some experts claim that the sanctions against Iran have increased prices at the pump by 25 cents per gallon.
According to Cole, “the attempt to flood the market and use financial sanctions to enforce an embargo on Iranian petroleum holds many dangers. If it fails, soaring oil prices could set back fragile economies in the West still recovering from the mortgage and banking scandals of 2008. If it overshoots, there could be turmoil in the oil-producing states from a sudden fall in revenues.” Furthermore, Cole argues, “the long-term damage to [Iran’s] fields and pipelines could harm the world economy in the future.”
By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.