The Baghdad talks finished at best on a hopeful note. While details are scarce, and there is no evidence of a substantial breakthrough, further discussions are contemplated.
Both sides need an agreement. But do they have the capacity to achieve this given their inherent suspicions, different objectives and failure to reach any significant outcome over many years that satisfied both sides?
A substantial breakthrough, whereby Iran made a major compromise in return for the lifting or delaying of sanctions, was never a serious consideration. Both sides have too much at stake, both politically and in perceived security terms, to the extent that there is little margin for compromise. The West sees Iran as insincere and duplicitous; Iran sees the West as divided, lacking in conviction, accepting of short-term compromises and unable to understand Iranian concerns.
A nuclear-armed Iran is anathema to many Western governments and to much of the region. In part, this belief is summed up by the publicly aired opinion of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that urged the US Congress and government to prevent ‘the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.’ Separately, the US passed a resolution by a vote of 401 to 11 to confirm that Iran should not acquire such a capability.
To a certain extent, these attitudes have been fuelled by the threat of Israeli pre-emptive action and by the consideration that a nuclear-armed Iran might trigger other regional countries to adopt similar capabilities.
Whether Israel has the capacity to destroy Iran’s perceived or potential nuclear capabilities is open to question. But such a strike would undoubtedly send world oil prices soaring, could further destabilise an already fragile Middle East and may draw the US and certain allies into yet another war. The Israeli threat is also conditioned by timing; there is a window of opportunity after which Iran’s nuclear development may be too dispersed and developed too far underground to be destroyed by military action.
From a Western perception, a military strike is not an option beyond being a threat. Indeed, it is even possible that the consideration of an Israeli strike was designed simply to encourage the only viable threat that could be levered against Iran – the imposition of debilitating sanctions and financial pressures that would destroy the Iranian economy and create widespread public discomfort and unrest.
Complying with Western demands is also difficult from an Iranian leadership perspective. Independence from the West is not negotiable. The Islamic Republic’s ideology is based on this concept. Agreeing to dismantle nuclear facilities, or allowing ever more compromising inspections, will not come easily, certainly when such actions exceed the agreements of the non-proliferation treaty. Iran’s leadership is committed to this ideal and has frequently made public statements to this effect.
Nor should the West underestimate Iranian perceptions towards its own security. The concerns over a nuclear-armed Israel, supported by the US, must be a major consideration. Unfortunately, the actions of both sides have done little to remove these perceptions.
Iranian leaders also face another dilemma. Sanctions are a major concern, with prospects of this worsening when a European embargo on oil exports takes effect from 1 July. In the meantime, the value of the Iranian rial has plummeted, inflation is well into double digits, living costs have soared and unemployment is set to escalate. Iran’s leadership cannot ignore these outcomes and the increasing plight of its citizens.
The challenge faced by the Iranian leadership, therefore, is how does it comply with Western demands while retaining its ideological commitments and maintaining its authority and popular support.
Clearly, there will need to be compromises on both sides. Iran will need to convince the world that it genuinely does not seek a nuclear capability, and the West will need to respect Iranian sovereignty and consider the plight of its people. This will not be easy given the distrust the West has for Iran and the need of the Iranian leadership to remain in power.
Time is of the essence. Long drawn out negotiations, a failure by the P5+1 to show a common resolve, the historical record of secrecy and duplicity and sanctions that traumatise the Iranian people, will not lead to an outcome that is desired by both sides.
No one should underestimate the challenges faced by the negotiators. But it is in neither side’s interest to prolong the resolution of a settlement that is comprehensive and will stand the test of time.
Major General John Hartley AO (Retd)
Institute Director and CEO
Future Directions International