After months of increasingly ominous war talk by the United States, Israel and Iran, there are intriguing signs of potential diplomatic progress over Iran’s nuclear program.
A series of events – both internal and external – have improved the odds for fruitful negotiations when the United States and its U.N. Security Council partners plus Germany – the so-called P5+1 -- sit down with Iran sometime next month after the Iranian New Year.
US President Barack Obama appears to have contained the threat of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations, admonishing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give diplomacy more time. Obama – while vowing to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- made clear his preference for negotiations and decried “loose talk of war.”
Netanyahu, in turn, bowed to the reality that Obama is increasingly favored to win another presidential term -- and that the last thing Obama wants is to be dragged into another Middle East war. In his comments to the powerful Israel lobby, Netanyahu declared that “Israel has exactly the same policy,” as the United States when it comes to Iran.
In Iran, meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated a 1995 fatwa that building nuclear weapons would be a “great sin.” He also offered rare praise for the US president, complimenting Obama for tamping down threats of war. “Such remarks are good and indicate a step out of delusions,” Khamenei said March 8, even while claiming that economic sanctions would have no impact on Iranian decision-making.
In fact, sanctions are having a disastrous effect on the Iranian economy. The Iranian currency has lost nearly half its value on informal markets and inflation and unemployment are in double digits. Iranian banks are barely able to conduct international transactions, meaning that Iran cannot get paid in hard currency for its oil exports. The European Union has decided to stop buying Iranian oil by July, which would deprive Iran of nearly a fifth of its export markets.
The International Energy Agency reported Wednesday that Iran’s oil exports could drop then by as much as 50 percent.
Thus, there is a four-month window for negotiations to cap Iran’s nuclear program and buy time for a longer term solution. One possibility: Iran stops enriching uranium beyond 5 percent U-235, gives up its stockpiles of 20 percent uranium and provides greater access to international inspectors in return for fuel for a reactor that makes medical isotopes for cancer patients.
This would resurrect a 2009 confidence building measure by the United States to provide fuel for the reactor in return for Iran sending out its stockpiles of enriched uranium.
Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Feb. 14 agreeing to new talks without preconditions. Ashton replied March 6 calling for “a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress in resolving the international community's long-standing concerns on its nuclear program.”
Hints of progress come after months of escalating threats by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz and by Israel and the U.S. to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons by force if necessary.
In an interview with Al-Monitor last week, Chuck Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska who co-chairs Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board and heads the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, hinted that back-channel talks between the United States and Iran are already occurring.
“I know more than I can tell you; there may be [back-channel talks],” Hagel said. “I hope. I don’t see any other way around this. Because you can’t deal with something … as explosive as this is out in the public.”
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of a new book on U.S. diplomacy with Iran, “A Single Role of the Dice,” said that both Iran and the United States “walked up to the edge of the abyss, looked down and realized that they don’t want to go there.”
Parsi said that in his recent conversations with Obama administration officials, they made it “quite clear that they are not lacking any ability to communicate with the Iranians right now.”
Vali Nasr, a former administration official and professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said messages were likely being passed to Iran through Turkish and Brazilian officials and there are also “a lot of conversations happening in Vienna at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] about technical issues.
There have been other subtle signs in recent days of reduced tensions between the United States and Iran, which have had no diplomatic relations since Iran held U.S. hostages in 1980 and which have clashed over the past three decades – sometimes directly, sometimes through proxies.
- On March 5, Iran’s Supreme Court ordered the retrial of a former US Marine, an Iranian-American named Amir Hekmati, who had been sentenced to death after being convicted of working for the CIA.
- On March 13, the US deported back to Iran an Iranian arms dealer, Amir Hossein Ardebili, who had been arrested in 2007 in a sting operation in the Republic of Georgia.
- The US Treasury Department has begun an investigation into a former governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, on charges that he took money from the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that is on the US State Department list of terrorist organizations. Rendell is among a number of high profile former US officials who have spoken in favor of taking the MEK off the terrorist list. That the Obama administration has not yet done so is another signal to Tehran, which despises the group and blames it for assassinations and other attacks in Iran.
Within Iran, meanwhile, the regime conducted March 2 parliamentary elections without incident. It was the first nationwide voting since disputed 2009 presidential elections which touched off massive protests and a draconian government crackdown.
The Iranian Interior Ministry declared that 64 percent of Iranians participated in the March 2 vote, a figure that was almost surely inflated but that allowed the Islamic Republic to reassert its legitimacy.
In the aftermath of this “victory,” which also strengthened Khamenei loyalists at the expense of supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader on Wednesday reappointed a long-time rival, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, to another five-year term as head of the Expediency Council, a body that is supposed to mediate disputes between government branches.
There are also rumors that Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – reformist candidates who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Ahmadinejad in 2009 – will be released from more than a year of house arrest on the occasion of the Iranian New Year, March 21.
“There are some signs that after purging them, Khamenei is now bringing these forces back into the political spectrum,” Parsi said.
He said this could be because Khamenei “feels that he can’t govern the country without them or feels that he is in a position of strength or some combination of both.”
Nasr said that when taken together, all these elements “are quite significant.” Negotiations with Iran, he said, are certain to be “tough, but at least we are creating the right environment.”
Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, specializing on Iran.