According to an October 17, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Officials Highlight the Positive After Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” negotiators from Iran and the EU, in a rare joint statement, explained that talks on Iran’s nuclear program were “substantive” and “forward looking.” They indicated that the representatives of the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council: US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran were planning to meet again in Geneva on November 7th and 8th. While optimism was expressed following the meeting, the New York Times article explained a number of thorny issues still needed to be resolved and would require considerable work from all sides.
Initially, the Russians were not very positive about the October talks in Geneva. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister who participated in the talks was more skeptical. He told the Russian news agency Interfax that the two sides were still “kilometers apart” and that the talks here had been “difficult, at times tense, at times unpredictable.” Yet, the reality is that Russia has been very supportive of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and quite willing to lend its support to finding a solution. In previous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia was also supportive. After Iran dropped a suspension agreement by enriching uranium and its negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany broke down in 2005, Russia proposed that Iran share ownership of a uranium enrichment plant in Russia and relocate its enrichment activities there. When Western negotiators proposed that Iran agree to stockpile its enriched uranium abroad as a confidence building measure, Russia had offered in 2009 to provide a storage site on its territory. However, unlike the past, in current negotiations, Russia is directly supporting the positions and demands of its ally, Iran; very likely to the detriment of both countries.
Russia’s support of Iran, particularly on the nuclear negotiations, is understandable given its considerable stake in its “positive” outcome. The Russians hope an internationally accepted agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would obviate the need for the US missile defense in Europe. With the threat of an Iranian attack eliminated by the agreement, the defense system would be dismantled. Russia hopes to benefit from the rather substantial contracts it would receive from Iran for the maintenance and construction of an internationally approved nuclear program. The lifting of economic sanctions on Iran would enable Tehran to pay the Russians for work on its nuclear program. The negotiations provide Russia with one more opportunity to demonstrate to the world what stalwart ally it can be, even against the US.
However, US Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected the idea of altering the US policy on missile defenses in Europe due to any perceived thaw in the long US-Iranian enmity. Further, although Russia has called for the removal of all economic sanctions on Iran, the US has made it clear, at least publicly, that major economic sanctions will not be lifted until all of the US demands have been met.
Russian support of Iran’s positions may be creating false hope in Tehran that they are attainable, leading Iranian negotiators to stubbornly insist on their demands, which in the end may cause the talks to fail. By all accounts, Iranian negotiators came to the Geneva negotiations eerily confident in their positions. They have rejected previous proposals to relocate uranium. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi explained on Iranian State Television, “We will negotiate regarding form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of [enriched] materials out of the country is our red line.” In turn, the Iranians stated, just as the Russians, the West should relax economic sanctions on Tehran as a goodwill gesture. Iran’s chief negotiator, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is already under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and hardline political leaders and clerics to secure an agreement that recognizes Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium.
Zarif has done his best, attempting to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions through very elegant, well-considered power-point presentations, research documents, and proposals, in what nevertheless amounts to a “Das Best oder nichts” (The best or nothing) approach to the talks. Zarif must deliver success on Tehran’s terms. In the Iranian media, Zarif has gone as far as to claim, “There are indicators that [US Secretary of State] John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” Yet, that perspective represents a suspension of reality.
White House officials and US political pundits have spoken and written considerably about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. In many capitals around the world, this signaled that the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin ostensibly observed big concessions being volunteered in US proposals in order to entreat a dramatic nuclear arms reduction agreement between the US and Russia. Putin ignored the proposal due to significant danger such huge cuts in Russia’s nuclear arsenal would pose to its national security. That in part led to Obama dropping his summit meeting with Putin in August. Most likely from Putin’s perspective, it was Obama’s uncertainty over how taking military action in Syria might affect his legacy that caused him to waver. Putin welcomed the chance to intervene as a peacemaker. Russia proposed, and brokered with the US, a solution to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Obama’s concept that US policy is “what makes America different, It’s what makes us exceptional,” presented during his televised speech on Syria on September 10, 2013, was attacked by Putin in his now infamous September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, explaining that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin. As Andrei Piontovsky, who is executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow, was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.” Piontovsky also told the New York Times that “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”
In his New York Times Op-Ed, Putin also explained “The world reacts [to US military intervention] by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you.” However, providing a rationale for nuclear proliferation publicly is counterintuitive and rather extreme. Putin’s perceptions of Obama’s motives have very likely found their way into Russia’s interactions with Iran such as the meeting between a delegation of senior Russian military officials and Iranian military leaders on October 20, 2013, and have had an impact. If a misplaced, underlying effort exists to foil Obama’s alleged legacy quest, it certainly will not lead to any positive results for Russia or Iran. Rather, such behavior in the end may make the maintenance of global peace and security far more difficult.
When dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time; they concern the country. In the US, the people’s representatives are also invested in what the country does abroad. While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval. If by some chance, Iran’s demands were met, it is somewhat unlikely an agreement with substantial concessions, particularly those sought by Iran, would ever be approved by Congress. The Congress is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions. US diplomats appeared before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.
Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama from serving a third term. If Obama decides to accept the terms and secure the removal of sanctions, his predecessor may not choose to do the same. She might find his agreement unacceptable. Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the cessation of nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president. As the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, she might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include the cessation of all its nuclear activities. The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.
Stating the US and Iran are negotiating as equals is a truly humanistic view of their dialogue. As Putin expressed in his New York Times Op-Ed, “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals. Despite US economic woes and political divisions, which are indeed real but more often hyped in the news media, the US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily. Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear program, a potential mission for US armed forces, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new defense systems and military tactics. Iran would not be able to deter a US military response by having a few rudimentary nuclear devices in its arsenal. Threatening to attack US interests internationally or domestically using conventional forces or clandestine operatives would serve as an even lesser deterrent.
While the US, itself, is not existentially threatened by Iran, the US seeks to negotiate a settlement to protect its overseas interests and interests of its allies. The Russians should be astute enough to know that if the US is driven into a bad settlement on Iran’s nuclear program, inevitably Russia’s interests would not be served through the negotiations, and US military might very well take action against Iran. Over the past decade, more surprising actions have been taken by the US on the Middle East and on anti-ballistic missile defense. If Russia truly wants to be helpful to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, it must take a more pragmatic diplomatic approach to create a sustainable agreement for its ally Iran. Russia must supplant what amounts to an unseemly underlying “vendetta” against Obama, driven by Putin’s impressions of him, with an effort to convince Iran that its current approach to the nuclear negotiations is fraught with danger.
Despite the dazzle of Zarif’s presentations, current Iranian proposals will unlikely satisfy the US government that its demands that Iran ensure its nuclear program will not become militarized. An agreement with considerable US concessions, if reached with the Obama administration, will not be sustainable. Negotiating a road map that would, at the end of the day, provide certainty that the Iranian nuclear program is entirely peaceful and place Iran’s program under the full control of international nuclear monitors, is the desired and required outcome. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, worked well together to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue and brought the strength of their relationship to bear on efforts to rekindle an international peace conference on Syria, calling the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition together in Geneva to establish a transitional government in Damascus. Perhaps before the next meetings on the Iranian nuclear issue, they could meet again to consider how to inject realism into Iran’s approach to the talks.