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New hurdle for nuclear talks: Iran’s presidential politics

Iran’s foreign minister said he was ‘optimistic’ about looming nuclear talks. But political sparring ahead of June presidential elections could stymie any deal-making now.

After an eight-month hiatus of high-level nuclear diplomacy, Iran and world powers are poised to resume talks later this month in Kazakhstan.

One hurdle has been overcome: The runup to the USpresidential election last November was seen by diplomats from both sides as limiting Washington‘s ability to offer any concessions that might pave the way for a solution with Tehran.

Yet now a new hurdle looms: Elections in Iran in June will see the departure of the divisive President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the take-no-prisoners jockeying has already begun to dominate Iran’s political scene.

“Make no mistake, the nuclear issue is intricately connected to the presidential election, because right now there are too many factions opposed to any deal under Ahmadinejad,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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“The factionalism that is paralyzing decision making in Iran is not going to go away in June, but with the next president at least he won’t initially be as divisive as Ahmadinejad,” adds Mr. Shabani, who recently returned from a visit to Tehran.

What’s at stake

At stake during the talks are demands by the so-called P5+1 group (the US, RussiaChina,BritainFrance, and Germany) that Iran accept limits on its advanced nuclear program, so that it never has the tools to make a nuclear weapon.

Iran has yet to formally confirm participation on Feb. 25-26, as suggested by European Unionforeign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads negotiations on behalf of the P5+1. Yet on Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the proposed date was “good news.”

Mr. Salehi today in Berlin confirmed that he was “optimistic” that bilateral talks with the US were possible, Reuters reported. “I feel this new [Obama] administration is really this time seeking to at least divert from its previous traditional approach vis-a-vis my country,” he said. “I think it is about time both sides really get into engagement because confrontation certainly is not the way.”

Peaceful desires?

Iran says its only desire is to peacefully produce nuclear energy, and so is demanding that its “right” to enrich uranium be recognized – and that a host of sanctions that have crippled its economy be eased. Key issues have not changed: the fate of Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium, cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog agency, sanctions relief, and a deeply buried facility south of Tehran at Fordow that is largely impervious to US and Israeli attack.

Three high-profile rounds of talks last spring failed, amid maximalist conditions first demanded by Iran, and then a maximalist offer put forward by the P5+1, which requires Iran to give up key aspects of its nuclear program before any sanctions relief would be considered.

“Washington appears perplexed about Iran’s foot-dragging on the nuclear talks,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group in Washington. “Interpretations vary; some attribute it to internal [Iranian] divisions and electoral politics, while others believe it stems from Iran’s aversion to signal weakness by appearing too eager for talks.”

Both America and Israel have stated that “all options are on the table,” including military strikes, to prevent any Iranian push for a weapon.

“The US and its allies are likely to offer targeted sanctions relief to Iran during the next round of negotiations,” says Mr. Vaez. “These measures are, however, unlikely to resolve the standoff, as the two sides remain poles apart on sequencing and mutuality.”

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The problem is compounded by a “fundamental lack of understanding about how sanctions can contribute to a positive outcome,” he says. “While Washington believes that symbolic sanctions relief will demonstrate the P5+1’s seriousness, Tehran views such an offer as a tactical move to impose an unfair bargain on it.”

Adds Vaez: “If [P5+1] demands are not disentangled into individual steps and rewarded with the lifting of sanctions of equivalent value, talks will hit a wall again and the vicious race of sanctions against centrifuges will continue.”

Mutual willingness to meet

Both sides have signaled a readiness to meet again. During a security conference this weekend inMunichVice President Joe Biden on Saturday restated Washington’s willingness to hold direct talks if Iran were “serious.”

“Iran’s leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation,” said Mr. Biden. “There is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court.”

Salehi, speaking on Sunday at the same conference, said Biden’s words were welcome.

“I think this is a step forward but … each time we have come and negotiated, it was the other side unfortunately who did not heed … its commitment,” said Salehi.

Salehi also told Iranian media that Iran had received “contradictory signals” about the possible use of force.

“This does not go along with this gesture [of talks] so we will have to wait a little bit longer and see if they are really faithful this time,” Salehi told Iran’s official PressTV channel.