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U.S.-IRAN: Unrealistic Agenda Undermined Nuke Talks

Ali Gharib

NEW YORK, Feb 10 2011 (IPS) - No observers of U.S. relations with Iran over the past three decades were surprised when late-January talks in Istanbul failed to hint at, let alone deliver, a breakthrough that would ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West.

The U.S. was negotiating as part of the P5+1, which includes the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany, with Iran over its nuclear programme. While many in the West believe Iran is aiming at a nuclear weapon, Iran says its programme is only for peaceful medical and energy purposes.

The lack of movement in talks, though overshadowed of late by the crisis in Egypt, has left many analysts in the U.S. struggling with just what to do about the wily and stubborn Islamic Republic.

Many experts think that the U.S. view of the talks has been fraught with unrealistic assessments about everything from Iran’s capabilities to U.S. offers and expectations.

“We’re not going to get closure. We’re not going to get the kind of certainty that we think we can. Many of the options out there hold up this false hope,” said Marc Lynch of George Washington University. “None of the options that claim they’re going to solve this problem really will. They just try recast it in different strategic terms.”

The slow progress in talks leads some to believe that Tehran may indeed be bent on developing a nuclear weapon. If that is the case, experts say, there is little the international community will be able to do to stop it.

“If Tehran is determined to develop and deploy nuclear weapons no matter what, it will do so,” said Greg Thielmann, a non-proliferation expert with the Arms Control Association, at a recent forum in Washington.

The U.S., with the help of allies and international bodies, is pursuing a so-called “dual-track” policy to dissuade Iran from developing a weapon. The pillars of the strategy are engagement to provide Iran benefits should it forgo weapons production, and sanctions as punitive measures to demonstrate the high international costs of Iran working toward such a goal.

But Thielmann noted that, while these options could persuade Iran, if its leadership is determined, they will pass over inducements and eat the costs, making the sanctions moot.

Thielmann added that even a military strike – an option put forward by rightists and hotly debated in policy circles – would not be able to completely end an Iranian nuclear programme.

“Even the air strikes advocated by some would only slow, and not end progress,” he said. “Nothing short of an invasion and occupation could permanently force an end to the attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by Iran.”

Thielmann added that, instead of focusing its efforts on “zero enrichment” for Tehran – an unrealistic goal considering how far the Iranian nuclear programme has come – more emphasis should be put on closely watching Iran’s nuclear activity.

“We have to maintain strategic focus on the transparency needed to (monitor Iran’s nuclear programme),” he said.

At the same conference, hosted by the National Security Network and the Center for American Progress, Barry Blechman of the Stimson Center argued that the U.S.’s dual track policy had not gotten a fair shake.

“The U.S. needs to rebalance its policy,” he said. “It’s done quite well on coercive elements in the past two years, but now we need to put emphasis on inducement.”

Blechman co-authored a Stimson report on the topic, which he said called for the U.S. to broaden the focus of engagement with Iran beyond the nuclear issue, which he admitted was “most urgent”.

He said it was “silly” that U.S. diplomats around the globe are not permitted to have “normal interactions” with Iranian diplomats, and called for a “bilateral track on issues where we have a common interest – drug trafficking, for example.”

“There is time to give diplomacy a chance through a more realistic approach, a more generous approach,” he said.

Indeed, Iran has been somewhat hobbled by sanctions, and its ascendancy in the region has slowed.

“Iran right now does not resemble this rising hegemony of 2005 and 2006,” said Lynch at the same forum.

Lynch noted that while Iran seeks to exploit recent unrest in the Arab world, the Islamic Republic had little to do with it.

“The Al Jazeera audience is deeply attuned with protest movements against authoritarian regimes,” he said. “For the Arab public, (the 2009 Iranian crackdown on the Green opposition movement) diminished Iran’s soft power in the region.”

With Iran’s regional clout on the wane, inducements offered to Iran could have more potential appeal for its leaders. But Lynch added that the U.S. needed to do more to ensure its offers were credible.

Lynch pointed to U.S. laws that tie sanctions against Iran to the country’s stances on issues like Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those laws might hinder any sanctions relief offered to Iran in talks.

“If you’re trying to get negotiating leverage, you have to be able to credibly signal that you will actually be able to deliver on your end,” he said.

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