The Iranian Crisis: Sanctions and Negotiations

Abdel Wahab Badrakhan:The Iranian Crisis: Sanctions and Negotiations

  • 30 May 2010

The big powers may not abandon the idea of imposing new sanctions on Iran but they can also not overlook the Iran–Turkish–Brazil agreement on the exchange of low-enriched uranium, as if it never happened. This agreement is the latest development in the unfolding crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.

The entry of Turkey and Brazil into resolving the crisis is not limited to these two countries only, but is a reflection of international trend related to so-called developing countries and emerging powers that are increasingly unhappy with the state of international politics. What is remarkable about these countries is that they have no open animosity with the big powers, particularly with the United States (like Venezuela), but are trying to pave a third way to extinguish the fires, whenever they can and whenever it is necessary. Even if this is not happening through secret understandings, it presents another understanding into the politics of the ‘big powers’ club.

For this reason, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strived to promote the tripartite agreement as an “opportunity” and not as a “solution,” although Tehran is reiterating almost daily that it would review its commitment to the agreement in case sanctions are imposed. Brazil has also continued to question the logic of sanctions and has called for looking into the Iranian position, as is also stated in the agreement. For this reason, the US has moved from the policy of applying relentless pressure to “studying” the agreement and this approach has also been taken by France, Britain and Germany, who have found loopholes in it that cannot justify its acceptance.

For one, Iran is itself aware of the loopholes existing in the agreement. This is because the first proposal presented to it in October 2009 was drawn from the information known about its nuclear program at that point in time and Iran was required to respond to the proposal within a week. However, seven months elapsed before Iran could respond to the demands, which allowed it to make further progress on its program and consequently there is a need to amend and update the conditions set in the proposal.

The tripartite agreement came as a surprise to the P5 + 1 Group because it rivaled their deliberations and decisions to impose fresh sanctions. Then it was needed to have the US to at least maintain the pressure because through this agreement Iran wanted to change some of the conditions of crisis, the most important being the condition to permanently stop the enrichment process. Although the big powers seemed to be unanimous in their agreement on imposing sanctions as they refuse to accept the end of decision making to slip away from the hands of the “big powers.” Nevertheless, it also states that there is a firm understanding among them in not allowing Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. This means that these countries agree in general that Iran has not been able to prove the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. This is simply because there are some secrets in Iranian economy that keep unraveling from time to time as had happened when Tehran was forced to report about a nuclear site near Qom.

On the other hand, assuming there is a true desire for formulating a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the crisis, the lack of trust between the two sides would always prevent achieving any progress. Perhaps, this was evident in the demand made by Iran for “guarantees” over the exchange of enriched uranium with nuclear fuel, and it seems none of the big powers—including Russia and China—were able to provide the guarantees. It was for this reason that Turkey and Brazil jumped in to solve the problem. It is true that the international response did not object to actions of these two countries, but they did not share the same basic understanding with the big powers in stopping the enrichment. In principle, they are concerned with the “right of enrichment” of any country that has signed and is part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They also do not support the Western position toward Iran as a country that cannot be trusted; as they believe constant supervision of Iranian activities could lead to the fulfillment of conditions needed for achieving “peaceful use” of any nuclear program.

There has always been a game of hide-and-seek not only between Iran and the big powers only but also among the P5 due to their own differences and conflict of interests. China and Russia look at the Iranian nuclear program as one that does not pose the kind of threat the West keeps talking about and they have been trying to convince the West of their point of view. However, when Beijing and Moscow understood that Western states are sticking to their point of view, the two decided to follow their interests. On the one hand, they have decided to make deals with the West in return for pressuring Iran, and on the other they plan to make deals with Iran for softening Western positions in its favor. This is because China and Russia do not have a history of animosity with Iran, as is the case with the United States. They also do not have the ‘Israeli complex’ as is the case with the four other Western partners. So we find that Russians and Chinese have supported the proposal presented by the International Atomic Energy Agency for the exchange of uranium. They then supported the proposal of sanctions but they ensured that they would water down some of them so as to safeguard their interests with Iran. However, this tactic could not continue especially when the situation reaches a point of making clear decisions.

What is expected at the end of this current tug-of-war? Undoubtedly, Washington wants to assert its authority and its ability to impose sanctions in order to make Tehran understand that its position is serious and it has not altered its stance. Meanwhile and in accordance with the Chinese formula the path of sanctions and diplomacy must continue. This would be practically translated into having the next phase of negotiation, based on Iran’s readiness to respond positively to the demand of a uranium swap and then the tripartite agreement would need emendations. Of course, Tehran would consider this agreement invalid since it was not accepted in return for an end to sanctions. Then, Turkey and Brazil would be encouraged to convince Iran to develop its position.

Iranians underestimated the danger of sanctions because the targeting of its Revolutionary Guards and their activities as well as financial situation would affect its work in the long term. It could also negatively reflect upon its internal situation or on the reaction of foreign parties affiliated to it—among them being Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups in Iraq and Palestine. This means that the pressures that sanctions would entail would escalate tensions and revive the possibilities of war. However, observers agree that big powers are holding on to their current tack in dealing with the nuclear crisis, and they think that if the idea of striking Iranian facilities militarily would be proposed again, it would have to come at a later stage after the option of negotiations has been fully exhausted and after firm sanctions have been taken. Consequently, this would lead to exploring all available options in the Security Council. This is the current US position after learning the lessons in Iraq.

It must be noted that there has been a slight change in Western positions on this matter. Fresh signals point to a diplomatic solution only after a radical change in Tehran. It is well known that the West does not approve of the nature of the Iranian regime, but governments have to accept it as a fact. However, the setback to a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis has revived calls for a change in regime. It cannot be said that official policies have accepted the idea of “regime change,” but it is gradually returning to that point after talks about bringing “change in the regime behavior” have been exhausted, particularly in light of the way that it has been dealing with reformists inside Iran. This direction is not considered real or even practical, but its danger lies in that the planning circles has reached a belief that the peaceful diplomatic solution might have reached a dead end.