Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

IRAN: Istanbul Talks Prove to Be a Non-Starter

Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Jan 25 2011 (IPS) - Prospects for a negotiated solution of the world’s nuclear quarrel with Iran are cloudier in the aftermath of talks in Istanbul that ended without even an agreement to meet again.

Though Western officials declared that the door to diplomacy remains open, Iran analysts said they were puzzled that Tehran did not seem willing to create even an illusion of momentum at the Jan. 21-22 meeting.

“I understand why they blew up Geneva because they knew they were going to Istanbul,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I can’t understand why they blew up Istanbul.”

Takeyh was referring to a round of talks in December in Geneva between Iran and the so-called P5 + 1: the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Analysts predicted that Iran would be more willing to show flexibility in Turkey, a Muslim majority nation whose government has been sympathetic to Iran, negotiated a nuclear fuel deal last year – that the U.S. rejected – and voted against new U.N. sanctions targeting Iran.

However, there appeared to be little in the Western position that enticed Iran. An Iranian source told IPS that the U.S. and its partners had revived an offer for fuel for a Tehran research reactor that produces medical isotopes. In return, however, Iran would have to send out 2.8 tonnes of low enriched uranium – nearly 90 percent of its stockpile – and all 40 kilogrammes of uranium Iran has enriched to 20 percent.

While the uranium swap implicitly recognises an Iranian right to enrichment, it was dismissed by the chief Iranian delegate, Saeed Jalili. Jalili told Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, that Iran no longer needed foreign fuel and could produce the necessary fuel rods itself – something Western experts doubt.

Jalili also appeared to set preconditions for future talks: that the P5 + 1 formally recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium and promise to lift all U.N. sanctions. U.S. officials – who under the Obama administration have dropped preconditions for talks with Iran – were surprised to see Iran adopting them. These officials have made clear to IPS that such major concessions are only conceivable as part of a comprehensive deal under which Iran would clarify past nuclear actions and accept tight curbs on future nuclear development.

In taking a tough line, Jalili may have been trying to test or split the P5 + 1, grandstand for domestic reasons, stall for more time so Iran can get closer to nuclear weapons capability, or some combination of the above.

It’s possible that Iran’s poisonous domestic politics and growing conservative opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have simply frozen national security decision- making.

But Jalili’s performance – according to a Western diplomat, Jalili interrupted Friday’s talks to attend prayers and then stalled some more, saying he had a headache – will only justify those in Washington and other capitals who argue that even more crippling sanctions should be applied to the Iranian economy and that further talks are a waste of time.

“They usually don’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Takeyh remarked of the Iranians. “This time they said ‘no’ pretty unequivocally. All this suggests that they are not interested in an agreement. They behave as though they are disinterested in the process.”

Iran’s cold shoulder in Istanbul comes in the context of other regional developments that have bolstered Tehran’s stature and given it new self-confidence.

In Lebanon, Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, has effectively chosen a new Lebanese prime minister-designate; in Iraq, a Shiite government has consolidated power; and in Palestine, leaks of internal Palestinian documents by al Jazeera revealed a Palestinian Authority willing to make significant territorial concessions – something that is likely to bolster the PA’s rival, Hamas, which is backed by Iran.

Sunni Arab governments and Israel have warned of a new “northern alliance” grouping Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Hamas against the United States and its allies.

While the concept is simplistic – it ignores tensions between these countries and groups – it reflects what Kenneth Pollack calls “an American power vacuum in the Middle East.”

Pollack, who directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the replacement of a pro- U.S. prime minister in Lebanon by one beholden to Syria and Iran “was inevitable in the absence of outside forces willing to create a viable alternative.”

In reaction to the developments, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Tuesday that U.S. aid to Lebanon might be at risk – something that would only further diminish U.S. influence.

“It’s a mess of a situation,” says Mona Yacoubian, a Lebanon expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She sees Hezbollah’s ascent as the culmination of a decade-long rise that began with Israeli withdrawal from a buffer strip in south Lebanon in 2000.

In Iran, meanwhile, local media was triumphant.

Kayhan newspaper crowed Monday that “Iran did not bow to the G5+1’s blackmailing in the Istanbul talks two days ago and proved its strength and firmness. The West is afraid of institutions like Hezbollah which was created with inspiration from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

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