Iran offers to talk – but not about its nuclear program

Sep 17, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

September 17, 2009
Number 09/09 #03

Iran has released a proposal for talks to the P5+1 group (that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) offering to discuss a variety of issues, but rejecting any talk about the Iranian nuclear program. (Examples of recent Iranian rejections of any discussion of their nuclear program are here, here and here.) The actual text of the five-page Iranian document has been leaked here. Some analysis of this document comes from author and recent visitor to Australia Emanuele Ottolenghi.

Despite earlier reports that the US was shifting its Iran policy toward sanctions, initial negative reactions to the Iranian proposal gave way to a US agreement to initiate talks that the Administration promises will include repeatedly raising the nuclear issue whatever Iran says. Talks are expected to begin on October 1.

A good analysis of how the talks are likely to proceed and what might happen after comes from the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). Their backgrounder points out that few in the Obama Administration appear to expect to achieve much via the talks, but that UN sanctions are also looking difficult to achieve at the moment, given adamant Russia and Chinese objections. The BICOM analysis argues that the most likely outcome remains stymied talks and sanctions by the US and Europe outside the UN framework by the end of the year. For this important backgrounder on the significance of the latest developments on Iran’s nuclear program, CLICK HERE. As additional background, here is a useful history of Iran’s illegal nuclear program.

Next up, veteran Israel academic analyst Barry Rubin strongly argues that the US Administration’s agreement to accept Iran’s offer of talks on issues other than the nuclear program is a serious mistake. He says it will allow the Iranians to play the gambit of standing up for the  developing world’s “right” to nuclear weapons with essentially no upside for the US in terms of increased international willingness to impose sanctions. He also criticises media mischaracterisation of the objections to the talks. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. Also critical is former Israeli Ambassador to the UN and academic  Dore Gold, who focuses especially on the fact that this decision appears to be a back down from a September deadline previously set.

Finally, Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the US Administration is going to have to expand the dialogue beyond the formal diplomatic arena if it is to avoid the negative fall-out of these talks, which, he stresses, are unlikely to succeed. He particularly points out that the talks will serve the Iranian regime’s goal of legitimising its violent crackdown on political opponents following this June’s controversial election and the US will need to counter this by visibly reaching out to the Iranian people and opposition groups. He also argues that in the longer run, reaching out to the largely pro-US Iranian people is more likely to help resolve the Iranian crisis than talking to the regime, which has a vested interest in the status quo. For Singh’s concrete ideas on how this can be accomplished,  CLICK HERE.

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BICOM ANALYSIS,  September 15, 2009

Key Points

  • The United States announced at the end of last week that it was ready to begin direct dialogue with Iran on the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme, despite Iran’s disappointing five page letter responding to the offer of engagement. 
  • There is a broad concern in Israel, and elsewhere, that the renewed international dialogue with Iran is likely to fail. Iranian officials are suspected of engaging in talks only to buy time.  
  •  If and when the period of dialogue is deemed to have failed, the prospect of renewed sanctions will come squarely onto the agenda. It is unlikely that a sufficiently tough UN Security Council resolution for increased sanctions can be passed because of a lack of support from Russia and China.
  • It is therefore likely that the US, along with other willing states, will adopt tougher sanctions outside of the UN framework. 


On October 1 officials from the US, along with the other permanent Security Council members and Germany, are scheduled to meet Iranian negotiators for the first time in over a year. The announcement by the US that it wishes to engage promptly in talks comes despite international disappointment at the nature of the Iranian response to the offer of dialogue.

There are deep US misgivings regarding ongoing Iranian obfuscation in all matters relating to its nuclear programme. Glyn Davies, US Ambassador to the IAEA, said at the meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors last week that Iran may already have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.[i] This analysis assesses the prospects for renewed dialogue, the latest evidence about the status of Iran’s nuclear programme, and the further measures likely to be taken by the international community.

Can dialogue change Iran’s nuclear policy?

There is little optimism among US officials regarding the likelihood that Iran will agree to abandon its nuclear ambitions as a result of the upcoming dialogue. Officials were dismayed by the five page letter, entitled ‘Cooperation, peace and justice,’ by which the Iranians responded to the offer of dialogue last week. The letter ignored the demand from the UN Security Council for a freeze on uranium enrichment. Instead, the Iranians tried to shift the focus of discussions to a host of largely unrelated international issues, including reform of the United Nations. The Iranians have since made clear that they do not intend to discuss their nuclear programme as part of the dialogue with the US.

Given the nature of the Iranian response to the offer of the dialogue, and more broadly the emergence of a very hard-line government in Teheran, there is deep scepticism in the international community regarding the upcoming talks. US officials quoted in the New York Times said that they had little expectation that the talks will be successful. [ii] The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the Iranian letter did not constitute a response to the offer of talks. Behind the scenes, Israeli officials characterized the Iranian response as constituting a ‘slap in the face’ from Iran to the US and the world. Rather than attempting to address concerns regarding its nuclear programme, the Iranian response simply seeks to change the subject.

The first round of dialogue is expected to last until December. Israeli officials predict much grandstanding from the new Iranian government in the talks. Tehran is expected to make use of the global attention the talks will attract in order to present itself as the voice of the developing world, and the rising power in the Middle East. Ahmedinejad struck a similar pose in his speech at the UN anti-racism conference, during which many western diplomats walked out in protest. There appears no reason to expect a major turnaround in the key area of uranium enrichment.  Instead, the Iranians are simply expected to make use of the opportunity to buy time.

Is time running out?

As reflected in Ambassador Glyn Davies’s remarks to the IAEA conference, the US believes that Iran is approaching the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. Davies told the conference that Iran has now amassed 1.4 tonnes of low enriched uranium at Natanz. Should Iran expel international inspectors and remove IAEA safeguards it would have the ‘breakout capacity’ to convert this stockpile into enough high grade uranium for one nuclear weapon.

However, this fact does not yet mean that the race to prevent a nuclear Iran has been lost.  The process of converting the stockpiled uranium into a bomb would take months, and Iran would obviously be rendered extremely vulnerable to attack in the intervening period.  Tehran is likely to want to further develop its technology and its stockpiles of fissile material before taking action that could trigger an immediate and direct confrontation. This means the international community still has some time, but the situation is pressing and urgent.

In this regard, there has been considerable frustration among Israeli, French and other western officials regarding the actions taken by IAEA Head Mohammed ElBaradei in recent weeks. The IAEA, as the international organization tasked with monitoring the Iranian nuclear programme, has a crucial agenda-setting role to play in determining the international response. France and Israel maintain that the latest IAEA reports on the Iranian nuclear programme have deliberately omitted evidence the agency was given concerning a clandestine Iranian weaponisation plan. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that French officials had attended a briefing in which this material was presented, and he was therefore surprised that it did not appear in the final report. The evidence, according to Kouchner, consisted of ‘elements which enable us to ask about the reality of an atomic bomb…There are issues of warheads, of transport.'[iii]

These allegations, coupled with Dr. ElBaradei’s much publicized remark about the Iranian nuclear threat being ‘hyped’ have served to undermine confidence in the IAEA.  Many Israeli and US officials privately fear that in parts of the international community, apathy to the threat represented by a nuclear Iran pertains, which makes an adequate international response more difficult. Nevertheless, Israel believes that a small window of opportunity remains in which determined action could prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran.

What will happen if dialogue fails?

There is a consensus in Israel that Iranian officials are engaging in dialogue only as a tactic to buy time. Former chief of Military Intelligence, Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, told Haaretz that the Iranians are ‘at such an advanced stage in their plans, all they need to do is to waste time while pushing hard for their immediate goal, which is to produce sufficient quantities of fissile material for two or three atomic bombs.'[iv]

If and when dialogue is deemed to have failed, the prospect of renewed sanctions will then come squarely onto the agenda. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that a fourth UN Security Council resolution for increased sanctions against Iran can be passed.  The two countries with veto power in the UN Security Council, Russia and China, are unlikely to support a resolution sufficiently potent to force the Iranians to think again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have made clear that they see no reason to doubt Iran’s assertion that it is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon.[v]

What is therefore likely is that the US, along with other willing states will adopt tougher sanctions outside of the UN framework. Such sanctions could extend to the energy sector including the export of refined petroleum products to Iran[vi]. Iran imports 40% of its refined petroleum, because the country has failed to develop the technology for refining its own supplies of oil.

However, some observers in Israel and elsewhere have expressed scepticism as to whether any conceivable sanctions package will now be sufficient to induce the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions. This scepticism also exists within the Administration.


Informed sources believe that President Obama and those around him have no illusions regarding the chances that dialogue will succeed. However, the US government is determined to act as far as possible within an international consensus, in contrast to the approach of the Bush administration. This explains their persistence in exploring the possibility of dialogue to the end before moving on to further sanctions.

The view is also growing in some quarters that sanctions of any type would be unlikely to force the hardliners now in charge in Iran to change direction. This would particularly be the case if Iran received help from China and Russia, who would be unlikely to participate in the sanctions regime. According to this view, the options now facing the international community are finding ways to live with and contain a nuclear Iran, or considering a military option to prevent its emergence. These voices notwithstanding, the current prospect is for renewed dialogue. If unsuccessful, this is likely to lead to increased sanctions undertaken by a ‘coalition of the willing’ towards the end of the year.    

[i] Iran ‘moving closer’ to nuclear breakout capacity: US , AFP, 10 September 2009

[ii] U.S. to Accept Iran’s Proposal to Hold Face-to-Face Talks, Mark Landler and David E. Sanger, New York Times, September 11, 2009

[iii] New Iran sanctions likely after nuclear watchdog says talks at stalemate, Julian Borger, The Guardian, 7 September 2009

[iv] Analysis / Iran is wasting time in nuclear talks with West, Amos Harel, Haaretz, 13 September 2009

[v] Putin: Russia opposes force, sanctions on Iran, by Vladimir Isachenkov, AP, 12 September 2009

[vi] See BICOM Analysis: Next steps in addressing the Iranian nuclear programme, 25 August 2009


U.S Government Jumps Voluntarily into Iran’s Trap, Pulls in Europeans, Too

By Barry Rubin

GLORIA, September 13, 2009

The great French diplomatist Talleyrand put it best: “That’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”

By accepting the Iranian proposal for negotiations, the Obama Administration has just made the most important foreign policy decision of its term so far. And it is a very bad mistake, a very bad one indeed.

True, the idea of engagement was a U.S. idea. The Iranian regime ignored it for months. And then at the very last moment, the Tehran government sent a five-page letter calling for talks. The letter didn’t even mention the nuclear program as a topic. Shouldn’t that be enough to reject it as insufficient?

Everyone should understand the timing of this letter. On one hand, it came after the most extreme government in two decades took over that country; after a stolen election; after the repression of peaceful demonstrations; after the show trials of reform-minded oppositionists, and after the appointment of a wanted terrorist as minister of defense.

Never have prospects for negotiations resolving U.S.-Iran differences, including the nuclear program, seemed poorer.

At the same time, the United States was finally on the verge of raising sanctions against Iran. True, the increase was insufficient and neither Russia nor China was on board. Yet this was going to be a major step.

Never have prospects for the Obama Administration making some real effort to confront Iran and press for ending the nuclear program seemed better.

Now this whole U.S. strategy has been swept away by no one other than the U.S. government itself.

Few people in the U.S. government think that the talks will lead anywhere. They will eat up months and months, as the Tehran regime consolidates control and surges forward in its nuclear program. The timing of sanctions will presumably be put off until “after” the talks are finished, meaning the Iranian regime will be able to string along America for as long as it wants.

Not to mention the fact that this is a repressive, extremist, anti-American, antisemitic, terrorist-sponsoring government which is going to remain so in every respect no matter how many sessions are held with U.S. delegates.

But it gets worse. After all, what does the Iranian offer, entitled “Cooperation, Peace and Justice,” say? Well, it calls for a reform of the UN to abolish the veto powers, a Middle East peace settlement without Israel’s existence, and universal nuclear disarmament, the last being another idea with which Obama saddled U.S. policy.

It isn’t hard to imagine what will be said in the talks: When the United States gives up all its nuclear arms than Iran will do so also. But if America has such weapons, Iran is perfectly entitled to them also. Tehran will play to the “non-aligned,” Third World, Muslim-majority states in the bleachers. U.S. policy is letting Iran play the role of Third World leader and champion against the hegemonist West.

The mind reels.

And since, still another Obama idea taken up by the Iranians, the talks are unconditional, Iran will just go on sponsoring terrorism (including attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq and some evidence indicates Afghanistan), sabotaging any hope of regional peace, and Lebanon’s independence.

In its inimitable way, the New York Times explains:

“The decision is bound to raise protests from conservatives who contend that unconditional talks are naïve, and from human rights groups that say the United States should not legitimize an Iranian government that appears to have manipulated its presidential election in June and crushed protests after the vote.”

So only evil conservatives or well-intentioned but naive human rights’ activists will be against this? How about protests from liberals, centrists, and experts, people who just care about U.S. national interests? What about the reaction of regional states, both Arab and Israeli, who are friends of the United States that are menaced by Iran?

What I never get is this: Who are these people and powers who oppose a tough U.S. stand now but will be convinced that sanctions should go up after they watch a few months of failed talks? Certainly not the Russian and Chinese governments, that’s for sure. Can anyone supporting administration policy answer that question? Will anyone in the mass media even ask that question?

In its engaging way of publishing opinion as fact, the Times explains it all to us:

“During [President George Bush’s] first term, talks with unfriendly countries like North Korea and Iran were usually rejected out of hand in the hope of speeding their collapse. That loosened in Mr. Bush’s second term, but even then agreements to talk were usually under highly restricted conditions.

“The result was a stalemate — one that Mr. Obama argued during last year’s presidential campaign was a huge mistake, in part because Iran was producing nuclear material while the standoff dragged on.”

Aha! But there are things worse than stalemate: defeat, losing ground, being paralyzed, facilitating your enemy’s progress. And of course there is a third option, one which the Obama Administration seemed to be planning, called raising sanctions higher.

No! One doesn’t have to ask for that much. How about this basic concept: First, raise the sanctions and only then start the talks. Make it clear that the sanctions will continue as long as Iran doesn’t change its behavior but that the United States is happy to negotiate from a position of strength rather than from one of weakness.

Even if you want to be soft-line and conciliatory there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. The Obama Administration has chosen the wrong way.

In fact, does the Administration plan to play it smart by talking and raising sanctions at the same time? Maybe, but it seems the answer is “no.” There won’t be a tougher policy while talks are going on.
You don’t need a diplomacy scientist to understand this means a free ride for the Iranian regime.

In a sense, the Obama Administration seems to be practicing anti-diplomacy and anti-strategy. Consider this statement from U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice: The administration, she explained, would not impose “artificial deadlines” on Iran.

What does that mean? It means: Take as long as you want.

She added that if not much has happened so far that was because Iran’s “elections and their aftermath have added a layer of complexity to assessing the overtures and offers of diplomatic engagement.”
A “layer of complexity”? One can only gasp. All aspects of that layer have been clear indications that diplomatic engagement wouldn’t work.

And one final point. At first, the leaks were that both the United States and the Europeans rejected the letter. Yet within two days this was all reversed and they accepted it. Why would such a thing happen?
Unless they received some secret Iranian assurances—which is possible—it means that the State Department mid-level officials scoffed at the letter but as it went up the chain of command, to Obama itself, he chose to accept it. There’s no doubt that this decision was made at the very top and there are also indications that wiser heads who understand the situation better were against it.

For those waiting for the Administration to make some dreadful mistake, they now apparently have their case.

One close Washington observer of Iran policy stated in bewilderment, “This makes no sense.”

But it can be made sense of in several ways. One is that the Administration leadership has no idea of what it’s dealing with. Another is that it has fallen prey to wishful thinking. Both are true but the real answer might also involve something else: a government desperately seeking to avoid even a lower-level confrontation and passionately desiring to do nothing about the most dangerous issue it and the world faces.

Let’s put it this way: President Barack Obama is tall, handsome, a riveting speaker (at least with a teleprompter), and educated at Harvard University. He was elected in a fair and democratic election.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is short, clown-like, a demagogue, and without impressive educational credentials. He seized power after fixing an election, repressed peaceful demonstrations, and has put his peaceful opponents on show trials.

Guess who’s winning their competition? In fact, guess who’s the only one who even knows that a battle between their countries is going on?

* Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).


Broadening the U.S. Approach on Iran

by Michael Singh

PolicyWatch #1578
September 15, 2009

With Iran’s September 14 acceptance of a meeting with the P5+1 countries on October 1, the Obama administration finally appears poised to engage in direct talks with Iran. In entering these talks, Washington faces two obstacles: first, Iran’s reputation for recalcitrance in negotiations and its stated refusal to discuss the nuclear issue, upon which American concerns center; and second, the perception that the administration is lending legitimacy to a regime fresh from violent repression of its political opponents. The former challenge is not new, and overcoming it will require increased U.S. pressure on the regime to convince its leaders that their interests are best served at the negotiating table. The challenge of avoiding legitimizing Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad’s government, however, has taken on added importance in light of the controversy over Iran’s June 12 presidential elections. If Washington is to avoid a worst-case scenario — a negotiation that fails to resolve the nuclear issue yet strengthens the Iranian regime — it should consider expanding the scope of its engagement with Iran.

The Bush administration made several attempts at dialogue with Iran, but it also promoted human rights and criticized the regime’s policies. During his U.S. presidential campaign, Barack Obama panned the Bush approach and, upon entering the White House, reversed it in hopes of creating a more conciliatory tone in the U.S.-Iran relationship. The president reportedly sent two confidential letters to Iranian leader Ali Khamenei and used messages on Nowruz and other occasions to address the Iranian leadership directly. Obama has hesitated to reach around the regime to the Iranian people, confining his actions to cautious statements in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential elections and eliminating the Iran Democracy Fund created in 2006 to promote Iranian civil society. In this regard, he has largely returned to a traditional U.S. approach to Iran, characterized by direct, narrow, and often behind-the-scenes overtures. Nevertheless, the Iranian regime, thus far, has proven no more responsive to Obama’s overtures than to previous U.S. efforts.

After Iran’s controversial June 12 presidential elections, the U.S. approach shifted from active outreach to a more passive stance; public statements from Washington neither closed the door to talks nor actively solicited them. Instead, the administration indicated the need for an Iranian response before the September 24 meeting of the G-20, and officials stepped up warnings of tough new sanctions. When it came, Iran’s proposal was long overdue and unresponsive to international demands. While conventional wisdom suggests that Iran was distracted from the nuclear issue by its domestic turmoil, the timing and nature of its response were, in fact, largely in keeping with its practice over the last several years. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the Iranian proposal and dampened hopes for new sanctions, stating that sanctions on oil and oil products “would not be supported by the UN Security Council.” Indeed, Washington’s acceptance of Iran’s offer for talks may have as much to do with securing Russian and Chinese acquiescence for sanctions or more forceful action in the future as it does with any hope that Iran will budge on its nuclear program.

A Broader Approach to Engagement
Whatever the Obama administration’s motivation for embracing the Iranian offer, talks with Iran offer little hope and pose significant risk. Although Iran has readily accepted talks with the United States in the past — whether to enhance its stature in the region or to relieve political pressure — it has not appeared interested in genuine progress in U.S.-Iran relations. Currently, Iran may be seeking international legitimacy and de facto absolution for its harsh crackdown on political opponents. To avoid such an outcome, respected Iranian rights activists, such as Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, have counseled the West against any talks with Ahmadinezhad’s government in the wake of the disputed June 12 elections.

Although the White House made clear after the crackdown that the nuclear issue remains its top priority, the unlikely prospect that talks will actually produce a breakthrough on this issue underscores the need to mitigate the negotiation’s adverse impact on Iran’s newly emboldened political opposition. The White House, therefore, needs to ensure that its representatives raise human rights issues in any meetings with Iranian officials and that these concerns are echoed in U.S. public statements. Although this approach may be perceived as distracting from U.S. strategic interests, it is based on successful precedents — the United States, for example, campaigned for human rights in the Soviet bloc while engaging Moscow in arms control talks — and would preserve U.S. credibility with the Iranian people and others in the region and beyond, which is itself a valuable strategic asset. Raising human rights issues would also underscore that violations of international norms carry consequences. Washington should stress that it is not seeking a private arrangement with the regime’s leaders at the expense of the Iranian people. If the United States appears unclear about its principles or indifferent to the suffering of Iranians, their goodwill toward America will certainly diminish.

To broaden the scope of its engagement, the United States should consider taking the following steps in parallel with any talks with Iran’s leadership:

Elevate the international profile of Iranian human rights. Washington could use major international forums such as the UN General Assembly, or meetings in bilateral or multilateral settings with Iranian opposition politicians and rights activists, to move the issue of human rights in Iran higher on the international agenda. Members of the executive branch and Congress, as well as prominent private citizens, could aid such an effort.

Boost funding for U.S.-Iran cultural exchanges and U.S. broadcasting to Iran. Although cultural exchanges and Persian-language broadcasting may directly reach only a relatively small number of the elite, their indirect impact may be far greater. Visits by sports teams, such as the Iranian national basketball team’s May 2008 visit to Salt Lake City, receive a great deal of attention in Iran. International broadcasting, likewise, provides one of the only unbiased sources of news available to the Iranian public, and the information conveyed can be passed on through multiple channels.

Publicize offers made to the Iranian regime. Although private overtures and discussions are vital in diplomacy, they can also give rise to suspicion and apprehension in Iran and the region. Given the stakes and the likelihood that the Iranian regime will be opaque, the administration should be as transparent as possible in the course of any negotiations with Iran, in part to give the Iranian people a clear picture of what the regime is refusing. In the same vein, the United States and the P5+1 group of countries should increase the publicity given to the incentives proposed to Iran.

In the short run, broadening the scope of U.S. engagement with Iran will help avoid legitimizing the dubiously elected Ahmadinezhad government and dealing a blow to Iran’s newly energized opposition. This approach aims more realistically at reducing the fallout from negotiations with the Iranian regime than at boosting the administration’s chances of success. In the longer run, better U.S.-Iran relations depend on broader engagement — one that is not exclusively focused on the regime. While Iran’s regime elite have a vested interest in the status quo and little interest in U.S.-Iran reconciliation, the evidence suggests that the Iranian people feel quite the opposite; indeed, all of Iran’s presidential challengers, even hardliner Mohsen Rezai, speak in favor of improved bilateral relations. When U.S. officials finally sit down with their Iranian counterparts to commence negotiations, they should keep in mind that those Iranians who have been denied a seat at the table may hold the key to overcoming three decades of U.S.-Iran hostility.

Michael Singh is the Boston-based Ira Weiner fellow of The Washington Institute and former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council (NSC).



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