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Little Optimism for Iran Talks, But Lots of Advice

WASHINGTON, Jun 17 2012 (IPS) - On the eve of a third round of critical talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – on Tehran’s nuclear programme, optimism about a breakthrough is hard to come by.

Failure to make tangible progress in the talks, which are set to take place in Moscow Monday and Tuesday, will increase pressure from Israel and its supporters in Congress on President Barack Obama here to give up diplomacy and make the threat of a U.S. military attack more credible.

“If negotiations collapse now, it is hard to know what comes next,” noted Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), which Friday warned that a halt to the negotiation process would likely result in “reciprocal escalatory steps” and possibly even an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the U.S. elections in November.

While hope for major progress in the talks seems in short supply, there is no shortage of advice for the administration.

Most outspoken, as usual, are the hawks, particularly neo-conservatives who led the drumbeat for war against Iraq after 9/11. Their view mirrors that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: that Iran is using the diplomatic process to string the P5+1 along while it rushes to build a bomb.

Thus, the latest issue of the Weekly Standard led with an exhortation by Bill Kristol, the magazine’s editor and co-founder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), and Jamie Fly, the director of PNAC’s successor, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), for Congress to formally authorise the use of military force against Iran.

Their editorial followed Thursday’s release by the Emergency Committee for Israel, another well-endowed Kristol initiative, of a 30-second TV ad set to air during major-league baseball games this weekend, on Sunday talk shows, and in key state markets next week. Its message: “Talking isn’t working. It’s time to act – before it’s too late.”

While, according to recent polling, proposing a new war is hardly a popular position at the moment, the intent appears to be to prepare the ground for failure in Moscow and move the public debate in an ever more hawkish direction.

Certainly, less overtly hawkish forces are already moving along that trajectory.

On Friday, for example, a bipartisan group of 44 senators sent a letter – no doubt drafted in consultation with the leading Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – to Obama demanding an end to the negotiations if Iran fails to agree to “immediately” shut down its Fordo uranium facility, freeze all uranium enrichment above five percent, and ship all uranium enriched above five percent out of the country.

If the Moscow meeting does not produce such an accord, they wrote, “…we urge you to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists.”

But virtually all Iran experts here believe that Iran will not agree to those demands – a variation of which it already rejected during the second round of talks in Baghdad last month – unless it gets key concessions from the other side.

These include formal recognition by the P5+1 of Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the easing or delay of far-reaching Western financial and oil-related sanctions designed to cripple its economy.

Instead, the six powers in Baghdad offered only a pledge not to seek additional sanctions, help with security aspects of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and lifting a U.S. embargo on spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft.

Some analysts – both within the administration and outside it – believe the current step-by-step approach of seeking reciprocal confidence-building measures is wrong-headed and are instead calling for a “go big” approach.

One variation of the latter was put forward in The New Republic Friday by Dennis Ross, who oversaw Iran policy at the White House until late last year and remains influential from his new perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an AIPAC spin-off.

Insisting that the “current step-by-step approach …lends itself too much to a dilatory process” that will make an Israeli attack increasingly likely, Ross’s essay, entitled “Calling Iran’s Bluff”, argued that Washington should instead put a “comprehensive proposal to the Iranians” – one designed to address the “ultimate goal” of the negotiations: “determining whether Iran is willing to accept that its nuclear program must be credibly limited in a way that precludes it from being able to turn civil nuclear power into nuclear weapons.”

Such a proposal – to be worked out by Washington and its P5+1 partners – would “offer Iran a civil nuclear power capability” which, if rejected by Tehran, would better enable the U.S. to marshal international backing for a military strike.

Such a capability could presumably include very limited enrichment overseen by the strictest possible inspection regime, although Ross did not explicitly address that issue.

But this approach is likely to prove a non-starter, according to Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst, because the “ultimate goal” of the negotiations must also satisfy Iran’s minimum requirements, “which include not only a civilian nuclear program but also not being the target of open-ended economic punishment”.

“In trying to reach this true ultimate goal, the uncertainties about willingness right now have at least as much to do with the P5+1 as with the Iranians,” he told IPS.

“The essence of Ross’s argument,” according to Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association (ACA) and who worked for many years as a non-proliferation expert at the State Department, “is that Iran will only respond to an ultimatum – take our offer or we will attack you – and that the U.S. negotiating strategy has to be constructed around Israel’s timetable, even though an Israeli attack on Iran would be a diplomatic, economic, and military disaster for the United States without removing Iran’s capability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons.

“Surely a veteran diplomat like Ross knows who is bluffing in this scenario,” Thielmann told IPS in an email exchange.

Another variation of “going big” harks back to a May 2003 proposal by Tehran that was ignored by the George W. Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

Sometimes referred to as a “grand bargain”, it called not only for an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme that would address the concerns of both sides, but also for cooperation on a range of regional issues, including Israel’s security.

As the latest round of talks have stalled, a growing number of influential voices are calling for “enlarging the frame” of the negotiations, as two Democratic foreign policy eminences, former Sen. Gary Hart and former Rep. Lee Hamilton put it last week, to include a bilateral track that would address regional security issues, as well as the nuclear imbroglio.

The importance of opening a bilateral track – comparable to the rapprochement between the U.S. and China undertaken by the Richard Nixon administration – has also been stressed by two top-ranking former U.S. diplomats, Thomas Pickering and William Luers, who have been deeply engaged in unofficial talks with Iranian interlocutors for several years.

While he stressed that domestic politics in an election year will make it very difficult for Obama to “go big”, Pickering told a recent ACA briefing that an agreement in Moscow by Iran to address some Western concerns about the 20-percent enriched uranium in exchange for delaying implementation of some already-approved European Union (EU) sanctions could be sufficient to keep that track alive while offering an opportunity for opening the bilateral track.

“If these two tracks could proceed as a result of Moscow and beyond,” noted Pickering, currently chair of the ICG, “I think … that we could thread the needle …into a position where perhaps after the American elections, bigger and more useful things from the Iranian perspective can be done. And my own view is that we have to get there.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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narasimha karumanchi