Monday, November 21, 2005

Time Holds the Key to Change

The Guardian UK:
As negotiators, Iranians have a reputation for being both skilful and infuriating. They have certainly lived up to that in the three years since their nuclear ambitions became the focus of intense diplomatic attention, drawing in, beside the International Atomic Energy Authority, the EU troika of Britain, France and Germany, with the US warning and fulminating and trying to set terms from a distance.

One tactic that has reduced the best of Europe's diplomats almost to tears is the habit of suddenly discounting concessions which Iran had sought long and hard by announcing, once they have been reluctantly granted, that these concern minor issues of no particular importance to them either way. It is as if you can never build up any bank balance of obligation on the Iranian side.

Another has been to violate the conditions under which talks are taking place, and then, when the other side not surprisingly breaks off discussions, to proclaim readiness, even eagerness, to start them again, but without mentioning the original agreed conditions.

Yet another has been to obscure the difference between Iran's obligations under the IAEA regime and the agreements under which it is conducting talks with the EU.

And yet another has been to produce apparent evidence that nuclear "sovereignty" is an issue of such popular importance in Iran as to limit the Iranian government's room for manoeuvre in international negotiations.

It seems this last card was the Iranian choice yesterday, when the parliament in Tehran voted by an overwhelming majority for a bill which would ban intrusive inspections by the IAEA if Iran is referred to the UN security council for its alleged nuclear misbehaviour. The vote was presumably not unrelated to the fact that the board of the IAEA is meeting in Vienna later this week to consider just such a referral, although many already expected it to postpone the decision, perhaps in the context of commending new Russian proposals as a basis for discussion. The Majlis tends to do what it is told or expected to do in foreign affairs, especially since the recent consolidation of the right within Iranian political institutions. In truth the vote does not mean much anyway, since Iran has never passed a law agreeing to such inspections, preferring to proceed on a more ambiguous basis, and no doubt there are ways, if it wishes, to preserve that ambiguity whatever the Majlis has supposedly decided.

Those trying to influence Iran on nuclear matters probably have to accept three basic points. First, that Iran has every right to pursue civil nuclear power, and will strive mightily to make sure that includes technologies that are legal but about which the west, particularly the Americans, are now very uneasy. Second, that the Iranian regime is almost certainly set on preserving a nuclear weapons option for the future, not necessarily to the point of full weaponisation and deployment, but to a point of readiness they have not yet determined. And finally, third, that negotiations are likely to be long and difficult. Success is likely to be measured not in finding and applying to Iran a scheme which locks up its nuclear development and throws away the key but in gaining time by slowing down that development.

Time's advantage is that it could bring change. Change at the popular level, because the attachment of ordinary Iranians to nuclear totems is probably not very strong. Change at the intellectual level, because Iran has yet to have any public debate on nuclear matters and in the past, at least, surprisingly open debate on important issues has taken place. Change at the political level, not "regime change" imposed from the outside but arising from some internal realignment or the passing on of key personalities. If it is unwise for Iran to go down the nuclear weapons path, and it is, then that thought may eventually have its day in Tehran - and make a difference. READ MORE
An interest analysis of Iranian negotiating tactics.